Friday, July 6, 2012

Classical Determinism

Over at Roger Olson's blog, and in his most recent post where he is interacting with our recently released book, one of the issues that has come up or that is not being appreciated 'yet' is the Evangelical Calvinist eschewing of logical-causal-deductive determinism. This is somewhat of a fundamental key toward appreciating the distinct offering that we are, under the 'Evangelical Calvinist' nomenclature. True, not all, even of the authors in our book, would necessarily go this far in offering critique of classic determinism (or they might, but just might to it differently); but the following (which is a repost of mine), will illustrate how I, at least, want to proceed in relation to the usual epistemological methods employed by the 'classical' tradition. So the following is in response to what I am perceiving, thus far, as somewhat of a lacuna in the reading of Olson and those commenting vis-à-vis an Evangelical Calvinist approach.

Here T. F. explains and undoes the usual understanding of how events in history and causation relate one to the other. He defeats the idea of causation, appropriated by Classical Theists, in general; and Classical Calvinists & Arminians, in particular, that there is a necessary relation between the event that happened, and the events that led to the happening. He makes a disjunction between Factual event and Necessary event; the former being that which we understand as an actual happen-stance of the past, and the latter having to do with the idea that because that happen-stance happened, that the events that led to its happening also were necessarily organised in a certain way in order for the the conditions of that event to be so — as if we, as historians (or scientists, theologians, etc), can absolutize causes based upon an idea of uniformitarian conception of Event. Obviously this is a little complicated, and not for the faint of heart, but I think it important to be grasped in order to understand what Evangelical Calvinists mean when we say that we eschew the logico-causal-determinism of ‘classic’ thought.

 Here’s T. F. Torrance (this whole discussion takes place in the context of TFT talking about resurrection):

(a) Interpreting ordinary historical events
(i) Freedom and necessity in historical events
Let us try to understand this from a merely natural point of view. Think of a historical happening: in taking place it appears as a free happening. Once it takes place, it cannot be undone. Throw a stone through that window and you are engaging in a free act, but once it has taken place, the act cannot be recalled — we cannot turn it backwards as we can a film of the event. Thus once an event has taken place, it becomes ‘necessary’ — in the sense that it cannot now be other than it is. At this point, however, we are liable to suffer from an illusion, for we tend to think that because it is now necessary fact, it had to happen. This is the kind of optical illusion we suffer from on the golf course when our opponent putts a ball from the other end of the green and it goes right down into the hole — immediately that happens we somehow think it had to happen from the start, but what we have done in a flash is to read the final result back all along the line of the ball’s course into the free act behind it. It is through this kind of illusion or indeed delusion that some historians think that historical events are to be interpreted in the same way in which they interpret the events of natural processes as concatenated or linked together through causal necessity.

The distinction between causal necessity and factual necessity
But it is important to distinguish in historical happening between causal necessity and factual necessity, between causal determination of events and the fact that once they happen they cannot be otherwise. An historical event, once it has taken place, is factually necessary for it cannot now be other than it is, but an historical event comes into being through a free happening, by means of spontaneous human agencies. Certainly all historical events are interactions between human agents and nature, as well as interactions between agents and other agents — so that there are elements of causal determination in historical happening that we have to take into account, physical factors relating to the kind of patterns of space and time in which we live and work. But historical events are not by any means merely natural physical processes, for as happenings initiated and bound up with purposeful agents they embody intention which often conflicts with and triumphs over the course of events that nature would take on its own.

(ii) History is the interweaving of natural processes with human intention
It is this interweaving of natural processes and human agencies, of nature and rational intention, that gives history its complicated patterns. The course of events has often quite unforeseen results, for human acts may fail to achieve what would have been expected or may achieve far more than would or could have been anticipated. But in our interpretation of history we must never forget that in the heart of historical events there is free happening which bears the intention in which the true significance of history is to be discerned. Thus while we must appreciate fully the physical factors involved, we must penetrate into the movement of time in the actual happening in order to understand the event in the light of the intentionality and spontaneity embedded in it. The handling of temporal relation has proved very difficult and elusive in the history of thought, for it has so often been assimilated to logical relation and so transposed into something very different. The confusion of temporal with logical connection corresponds here to that between spontaneity and causal determinism in natural science. We can see this error recurring, for example, in notions of predestination where the free prius of the divine grace is converted by the scholastic mind into logico-causal relation, while the kind of time-relation with which we operate between natural events is imported into the movements of divine love and activity. It is a form of the same mistake that people make in regard to the resurrection, when they think of its happening only within the logico-causal nexus with which they operate in classical physics. (Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009, 249-50)

In keeping with Torrance’s usual mode of thinking from the Incarnation & Atonement (here the resurrection being the focus), he seeks to excoriate any ideas of logico-causal determinism as the lens through which profane historians would attempt to interpret the ‘historicity’ and ‘facticity’ of the resurrection itself — Torrance’s discussion here, is all taking shape within his line of thought associated with Kata Physin (or according to the nature of the thing, or his more popular method Theological Science). As he deconstructs the post hoc ways of what might be called ‘natural theology’ (meaning all modes of intellectual inquiry which make inferences from supposed stable events, works, physical nature, etc. to their “necessary causes”), by implication, he also gets at theological constructs (like classic Calvinism-Arminianism, Neo-Orthodoxy like Brunner’s) that operate with this same modus operandi.

The moral: There are unseen, unknown contingencies built into the nature of things themselves that make it impossible to accurately infer a stable causal chain of events from the event back to the cause itself. The answer to this, in relation to knowledge of God, is to see the event and cause conjoined together in the person-act of Jesus himself. It is from this vantage point that we then are set up to know God, in Christ, but no longer as some sort of deterministic causal agent; but instead, as personal, triune Divine agent who apocalyptically breaks into the contingencies of history re-creating them towards their telos or created purpose in Christ (cf. Col. 1:13ff) — the resurrection, then, being the instantiation of this within time-space history.

I doubt this has cleared much up, but if nothing else it helped me to write this out for my own process. I also would surmise that it is because of the nuance of this kind of thought, evinced by TFT, that Evangelical Calvinism will continue to have problems with making headway with the typical American Christian. It is easy to understand causal-determinism, because that’s what “we see” in “nature” all the time (there is an “apparent” coordination between how things appear to the naked mind’s eye, and how we then assume things in themselves “must” be — so it is natural to operate with a docetic understanding of things — but this is not Christian (and when I write 'Christian', I mean by way of what we perceive as 'principled' Trinitarian theological methodology — I am not even coming close to questioning anyone's 'salvation'), nor Evangelical Calvinism — it is the mode of Classical Calvinism & Arminianism [and I realize this is hard teaching, who can hear it?]).


  1. So, I'm still lost every time I read Torrance. Is this what I'm seeing:

    Historical events are not so clear-cut. You can't look back and see all the reasons something occurred to the point where you say 'It had to happen' (like dropping a ball and it falls). There are an infinite number of variables.

    When it comes to Providence, there is no necessary cause for any history. The only reason we can determine by the full revelation of God: Christ Jesus (birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension/reign).

    Therefore: the subtle point is that since the axis is Jesus and that is the "decree before creation", understanding providence should orbit around this as it is the full disclosure.

    So essentially nothing changes, but everything changes. The surface is the same but the foundation is different. Instead of sandy logic, we have Christ the Rock. Therefore the Arminian and Pelagian objections are hollow because the foundation is different.

    Am I getting it?

    1. Cal,

      That sounds good to me :-). TFT appeals to Einstein's theory of relativity, which forms a fundamental aspect of TFT's own theological method. Torrance wants to undo the damage that something like a Newtonian logic and universe had done to theology (and back further the Ptolemaic Universe). So the stability of things, even though phenomenologically apparent, are really only that relative to God's antecedent life in Christ. The reality that holds all of mundane reality together is God's Triune and creative Word, who is the One for whom all of creation holds together as well (Col 1).

      That's the way I see all of this in TFT, anyway.

    2. So a logical causal mechanical world isn't the stable one that we simply can read off of the phenomenon of observation, and then further read that back into the relations that coinhere in God's own life (this is where the aversion to natural theology in TFT come from!). And yet, this is the kind of logic that is used, I would argue, in the thinking of classical theism in general---and in its outworking in classical Calvinist and ARminian theology. And so when someone like Roger Olson tries to squeeze what we are articulating in our book into the very mold that we are trying to undercut; then this will pose for a serious misreading of what in fact we are trying to say. I actually see this as more of the fundamental issue that we are trying to forward (e.g. prolegomena issues) V. simply providing a 'material' alternative to classic Calv/Arm. If folk like Olson don't catch what we are trying to do by way of offering an alternative theological methodology, then all we will be left with is a theological "proof-texting" conversation. And that kind of conversation is really working in the second order weeds (so to speak), when we need to be understanding each other better at the first order level of root.

  2. Ok, some more thoughts/observations/questions:

    So the problem, in terms of Reformed or Calvinism, is that the infusion of scholasticism made Calvin a system via Beza. When Newton came along and gave his metaphysical mechanical universe, the scholastics jumped up and said, "See! We were right!" which only entrenched them further. Einstein flipped the tables on them when he overturned Newton.

    Even the classical Calvin-Arminius debate should be better named Beza-Arminius.

    Is the problem of "classical theism" reside in the failure to start with the Triune and state the Trinity merely as a piece of doctrine tagged on? A forced affirmation rather than something obviously required?

    Maybe even the problem is even attempting to deduct as some do who try to prove "god" and then prove the Christian version of "god", which ends up in some bland christianized theism that is usually a-ok with Pagans and the neo-deists (I'm thinking of the Moral Therapeutic Deists as the Neo).

    Clearly the bedrock is Revelation, a mediated event, but most fully in Christ Jesus. We induct, we can only talk about God in terms of Christ. So regardless of starting from Trinity or not, explicitly, it will always end up there. We can't talk about Jesus without the Father or the Spirit breaking through almost immediately.

    It's a little sad for me. I get a twinge when overcoming a label like "classic" or "traditional" because I want to make the error, like many, that just because it's old means it's right. Tossing much of Newton overboard is still difficult but necessary to understand things as they are.

    Perhaps why the Scriptures speak so dialectically over so much is they hang the borders of the frame, and we experience the reality of that picture as time passes on in the history of ideas. Even now, we don't see it all for what it is. Being men of our own times as it were.

    1. Cal,

      I think in a quick way what you have summarized it pretty close to dead on. Except that Newton isn't really wholly to blame, for the scholastics Reformed it goes back to using Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and Agricolan logic and method for explaining where they went theologically.

      As far as losing "classic" or something. Oh no, while Thomas Torrance retrieves from a particular situation in theological history (as we all do); his approach is rooted in the Patristic (and thus ancient/traditional/classic period of the church) period. Anyway, I actually think his version is just as classic (but Modern) too as any so called classic approach today. So when I say classic Calvinism I am trying to attach them to the classical theism that informs their theological approach.

      Yes, I think we must be dialectic given our vantage point and the way God has Self-revealed himself, no less, to us, in Christ.

    2. I wasn't blaming Newton for them. They were merely reaffirmed by his theories and systems of Newtonian physics. Newton was an Arian, so I know he wasn't looking to affirm the Reformed.

      Haha, I know what you're saying. I would probably be feeling the same thing if I lived in 1550 and read Calvin's Institutes or heard the preaching of the Anabaptists. I would be attracted to it and then get gridlocked with a thought of "novelty" or think "How could Rome be wrong? The Pope's have been at this a long time!". While I don't expect to find anything new that hasn't been said before, I've got to go back to the Scriptures, regardless of the main current of the day.

    3. Amen to your last sentence, Cal. We need to always be going back to Scripture, and not be taken captive by particular theologians or exegetes per se. But test all things.


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