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Predestination or Free Will? (Post 11)

One of the best ways to learn something is listening to others with different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. We often gain insights in our quest for truth only after their “outside” input. This is because we need one another to fill out our understanding and correct our errors. This is certainly the case as we wrestle with the question of predestination or free will.

We all tend to see things from our limited vantage point, so by listening to others our perspectives are broadened, and we often see things more clearly. This is the underlying assumption leading to the formation of universities. Because the various academic disciplines look through different “windows” in the search for truth, what is discovered in one discipline is relevant to the questions being asked in another discipline. So universities were designed to be places where scholars in the various academic disciplines talk to one another, and through this dialogue discover answers to their questions.

Though this is no longer the way most universities work, this interdisciplinary model is still correct–a problem in one field can be solved by knowledge from one or more other fields of knowledge.

This tried-and-true methodology gives us a second question to ask in determining if the Calvinist or Arminian understanding of our salvation is correct. 

External Conceptual Problems


When a truth known in one field of knowledge counts against a hypothesis in another field, this is known as an external conceptual problem for the hypothesis in question. As is the case with internal conceptual problems (which I discussed in Post #7), other facts known to be true are at odds with a given hypothesis, and so count against that hypothesis. However, in this case, the conceptual problem comes from another field of study. So it is an external conceptual problem.

Applied to the question of predestination or free will, in Posts #8 and #9 I discussed theological problems with the Calvinist hypothesis. Note these were other concepts within the discipline of theology, and so were internal conceptual problems for Calvinism. 

External conceptual problems will be data outside theology which are more consistent with one hypothesis or the other and therefore help tip the scales in favor of that hypothesis. To surface external conceptual problems we must ask the question:

Has anything been discovered in other fields of study which counts against either the Calvinist or Arminian view of predestination and free will?

Before answering this question concerning Calvinism and Arminianism, it will be helpful first to consider a few other cases of how external conceptual problems helped solve a conundrum. I’ll do so in my post this week.

Example One: Deciding Between Two Hypothesis Explaining the “Cambrian Explosion” 

Paleontologists (those who study the fossil record) discovered that during the Cambrian period of geological history most major groups of animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record. This is known as the “Cambrian Explosion.” 

The specific fossils discovered are the data to be explained. Broadly speaking, two explanations (hypotheses) have been offered to explain this data. One hypothesis is that purely natural forces explain this data (perhaps via Punctuated Equilibrium, the view promoted by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould). The other hypothesis is that only Supernatural Agency (the actions of a Creator) can explain this sudden explosion of life. 

The data cannot solve this disagreement, for both hypotheses appeal to the same data set–the Cambrian fossils. While internal conceptual problems are helpful in adjudicating between these two hypotheses, external conceptual problems are also central to determining which hypothesis is preferable. The question is whether there is anything known in other fields of study that can “tip the scales” in favor of one explanation of the data or the other. It seems there is. (Note this assumes Scientism is wrong, and thus truths from other fields, such as theology, philosophy, and history can count against a scientific theory. For more on Scientism and its problems see here.)

Data from Philosophy of Religion

There are sound arguments that God exists. (I surveyed some of these arguments here.) If God exists, it is reasonable to believe he is involved in the creation of all things, including life. This is an external conceptual problem for any theory that explains the Cambrian Explosion in purely naturalistic terms.

Data from General Ontology and the Philosophy of Mind

There are strong arguments that show we share a common human nature (an immaterial reality that makes us “human” in a fixed and absolute way). I’ve offered some of these arguments here

However, if natures exist, even biologists who are atheists agree that this makes naturalistic evolutionary theory nearly impossible:

The concepts of unchanging essences and of complete discontinuities between every eidos (type) . . . make genuine evolutionary thinking well-nigh impossible. (Ernst Mayer, Populations, Species, and Evolution, p. 4)

If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. (David Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, p. 75) 

So the evidence from philosophy of mind in support of us having natures poses an external conceptual problem for the naturalistic explanation of the Cambrian Explosion. (For more see my “In Defense of Biological Essentialism: A Response to Sober et al.” in Philosophia Christi, vol. IV, no. 1: 29-44, 2002.)

Related is the data from various fields (such as psychology and philosophy) that we have a soul. See here for some of these arguments. If so, we are more than just material beings, which is an external conceptual problem for any view which says we, and other living things, are fully and merely material.

Data from History and Biblical Studies

There is data showing the Bible makes claims that are true (not only in spiritual matters, but in all other areas as well–I discussed this data here). Related to the Cambrian Explosion, Genesis 1 clearly indicates God was involved in the creation of living things:

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” (Genesis 1:20)

Furthermore, he created life according to “kinds” (or with “natures,” related to the discussion above concerning philosophy of mind):

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. (Genesis 1:21)

There is much debate concerning how God was involved. I will soon address this question in another series. But the data from Genesis 1 clearly states God was the active agent in this creation. This is another external conceptual problem for any theory that seeks to make sense of the Cambrian Explosion in purely naturalistic terms. 

Therefore, given these external conceptual problems for naturalistic accounts of the Cambrian Explosion, it is much less plausible than the alternative hypothesis–Supernatural Agency.

Example Two: Deciding Between Two Interpretations of Biblical Texts

Historically, appealing to external conceptual problems has also helped believers decide between two interpretations of biblical texts. In these cases, a biblical/theological conundrum has been solved by knowledge gained from other fields. In this way these examples are strikingly parallel to adjudicating between Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of biblical texts. 

The Earth: Flat or Spherical?

For example, in the past many assumed the Bible taught the earth was flat. This belief was based on a “plain reading” of certain biblical texts. For instance:

And He will lift up a standard for the nations. And assemble the banished ones of Israel, And will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:12, italics added)

The argument was made that the earth cannot have corners if it is a sphere. And the text clearly states it has corners (four, to be exact). Therefore, it follows the earth is not a sphere, but is flat. The data (the biblical text) clearly supports this hypothesis.

However, a rival hypothesis is also supported by the text. The “four corners” can also be interpreted as not a quantitative (spatial) reference, but rather a qualitative reference. In this case the text is saying even those of Judah who are most distant will be gathered together by God.  

Determining which understanding is correct cannot be solved by either side arguing more strongly for their interpretation of the text. Nor is it solved by agreeing that both are true, and how they are both true is simply a mystery we must embrace (“The earth is flat and not flat, which is a mystery we must be at peace with because God’s ways are above our understanding”). 

It is here external conceptual problems came to the rescue. As the field of astronomy developed we have accumulated much data indicating the earth is a sphere. This external data (from a field outside biblical studies) became an increasingly strong external conceptual problem for the view that the earth was flat.

Eventually, the external data was sufficient to prove the “earth is flat” interpretation of Isaiah 11:12 was the wrong interpretation (the wrong hypothesis).  All finally agreed passages like Isaiah 11:12 should be interpreted qualitatively (angels going to the furthest reaches) rather than quantitatively (angels going to specific geographical points).

Does the Sun Revolve Around the Earth?

Another example is the debate (also now long over) about whether the earth or sun is at the center of our solar system. Many argued that the “plain teaching” of the biblical text indicated the earth is at the center. For instance, 

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. (Ecclesiastes 1:5 NLT)

This, and passages like it, were taken as strong support that the sun revolves around the earth. Furthermore, the Scriptures also teaches that humans, the image-bearers of God, are the culmination of His creation. This is further reason to suppose everything, including the sun, revolves around the earth–the habitation of God’s crown of creation. This is certainly a legitimate interpretation of these passages, given what the text says. 

However, an alternative interpretation of these texts is that they are not making claims about astronomy at all. Rather, they are making theological claims about God’s sovereignty over all creation. 

This interpretation is also consistent with the text. So once again, it is impossible to adjudicate between these two readings (interpretations or hypotheses) on the basis of the text (data) alone. It doesn’t help to just argue more strongly for one view or the other by appealing only to the data (the text) or agreeing that somehow, mysteriously, both must be true.

Again, external conceptual problems helped solve this conundrum. As knowledge from other fields developed (specifically astronomy), external conceptual problems mounted for the view that the sun revolved around the earth (the geocentric model of Ptolemy). Eventually, there were enough external conceptual problems that most came to choose the heliocentric model of Copernicus and interpret the disputed biblical passages accordingly.  


In the same way, data from other fields seem to pose additional external conceptual problems for the Calvinist understanding of our salvation. I’ll begin discussing these next week. 

Until then, grace and peace.

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