Luke Stamps reviews Forsaken (and I pick on him)

Luke Stamps, a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently reviewed Tom McCall’s Forsaken, the Trinity, the Cross, and Why it Matters at The Gospel Coalition website. It’s a pretty fair review, but I had to just pick on one of his objections. He writes:

McCall claims that “divine determinism” (perhaps not the most helpful term) necessarily entails the conclusion that “God made it impossible for [those involved in the crucifixion] to respond appropriately” (101) and that “they were cooperating with the Holy Spirit in committing these heinous sins” (102). But this is a non sequitur. Reformed theologians have always been careful to distinguish between primary and secondary causation, the asymmetry between God’s relationship to good and his relationship to evil, and the compatibility between God’s sovereign decree and human responsibility. McCall seems to think that divine determinism would make God the only cause in the equation and that human responsibility would therefore be diminished. But Reformed theologians would obviously demur. God’s predetermination of the cross does not eliminate meaningful human freedom (compatibilitistically construed, to be sure) and genuine human responsibility. Indeed, Peter teaches precisely this point in Acts 2:23: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The apostolic church affirms the same point in Acts 4:28, when they confess to God that the Jewish and Roman leaders did “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Divine predestination and human responsibility stand side-by-side in these texts and in many other places in Scripture. To affirm that the events of the cross were, in the plan of God, “inevitable and unavoidable” does not diminish the responsibility of those involved in the horror of Christ’s crucifixion.

Let’s suppose he’s right: McCall deploys a non sequitur, and divine determinism does not entail the conclusion that God made it impossible for Jesus’ crucifiers to do other than what they did, i.e. to respond appropriately and not crucify him. What sort of determinism is it that allows for agents to do other than what they have been determined to do? None that I can see. The very idea is a contradiction in terms, and therefore, McCall does not state a non sequitur.

Nonetheless, Stamps suggests that the sort of control that God exercises over his creatures might not be best described in terms of determinism. I agree, but then what sort of control is it? To be sure, Reformed theologians have “been careful to distinguish between primary and secondary causation, the asymmetry between God’s relationship to good and his relationship to evil, and the compatibility between God’s sovereign decree and human responsibility.” But the distinctions between primary and secondary causation makes no difference as both constitute causal relations between two events, which therefore adequately pairs them together. If Peter shoots Paul and Paul dies, it will not make Peter any less guilty to point to the fact that it was the speeding bullet that stopped Paul’s heart, not Peter himself.

Pointing to an asymmetry in God’s relationship with good and evil fares no better. Remember, McCall’s argument (following van Inwagen, 1983) is that we are not responsible for events that occur before our birth, events that are such that they causally determine the outcome of our actions. What difference does it make to the argument to assert that God has a different stance towards the good and bad events that determine the outcome? None that I can see. God’s relationship to evil and whether we are responsible for it are two different issues. If this asymmetry is true of God’s stance towards good and evil, then we could say that Jesus’ torturers are not “cooperating” with the Holy Spirit in the sense of giving approval to their actions, but it is still the case that they are “cooperating” in the sense of carrying out the actions they have been determined by the Holy Spirit to carry out.

Of course it’s true that Reformed theologians have affirmed that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible. But so what? That is precisely the issue that is at hand, and it is precisely what McCall’s van Inwagen-esque argument is meant to undermine. The dialectic, at this point, goes like this: McCall argues for p; Reformed theologians state ~p. Right. It is unfair to expect Stamps to spell out arguments for compatibilism in greater detail in the space of a review. That doesn’t count against anything McCall has argued, however.

McCall does acknowledge that by virtue of God’s foreknowledge, Jesus was delivered up to be crucified by wicked men, and that this was God’s plan from the beginning. He just denies that God determined these states of affairs beyond the exercise of the providential control he has through his foreknowledge (whether he is Molinist or a simple foreknowledge advocate is unclear). Thus, God need not be the sole agent who determines the outcome, and Jesus’ torturers were free to do other than what they in fact did.