Home > Philosophy of Religion, Theology > From the Pulpit: The Stacked Deck

From the Pulpit: The Stacked Deck

Even casual readers of my blog will have picked up on my skepticism of religion. To be sure, I have not arrived at my atheism lightly; I was raised in a Christian household and for much of my childhood my father was a Presbyterian pastor. I grew up sitting in the pews, those of my father’s church and others. I made the decision to stop going to church and strike out on my own spiritual path around the age of 15, much to the dismay of some members of my family. Though they have always been supportive of who I am and [moderately] respectful of my decision to leave the church, I often entertain criticism for my atheism. But I have the great fortune of having a loving and supportive family, and despite our differing beliefs they have never made me feel like an outcast or, perhaps more appropriately, a goat among sheep. For this and other reasons, whenever I visit family and am invited to church I make an effort to attend. I do so out of love for my family, and am respectful regarding my differing convictions. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about them here…

This past Sunday I sat in on a Bible study and morning service at a Presbyterian church in the tip of the Bible Belt. I found the sermon to be interesting, but only because it was so typically problematic for Christian authority and ideology. I’d like to first present the pastor’s main point from the Christian perspective and then discuss the unaddressed issues in the passages and doctrines he underscored during the service.

The primary scripture reading for the sermon was Luke 11:37-54, wherein Jesus responds to the Pharisees and Lawyers who invite him to dine at their table. Refusing to partake in outward purifications, Jesus casts “woes” upon the Pharisees first and the Lawyers second. I won’t discuss the scripture passage in detail, as you can read it yourself in the link above. However, the pastor wanted to highlight the message in this passage that too often Christians neglect inner spiritual purity and believe that outward actions and ablutions make up for or hide inner sins. This is certainly an aspect of the passage. But I believe the larger, and more problematic aspects of this passage deal with problems of authority, sin, and punishment.

The pastor opened his sermon by saying that this passage troubled him greatly, and made him very nervous. While he did not say so, I assumed he was referring to the harsher judgement God will pass on leaders of the faith due to their elevated status in the Christian community as religious authorities (James 1:3). But he did not mention this passage. Nor did he mention the issue of authority presented in Luke. Which issue? Oh, just that the Pharisees pollute believers without their knowledge, and the Lawyers hamper believers in achieving salvation, all without their knowledge:

In chastising the Pharisees in Luke 11:44, Jesus says “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” At the time, the pastor said, Jews considered contact with the dead and with graves to be a polluting influence, and one that required cleansing to be seen as pure in the eyes of the Lord. By comparing the Pharisees to these unmarked graves, Jesus is apparently saying that the Pharisees are corrupting and misleading true believers.

As for the Lawyers, scholars of the Jewish laws, Jesus says in Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Not only does Jesus rebuke the lawyers earlier in the passage for adding to the (presumably spiritual) burdens of the people and taking none for themselves, but in this passage he underscores how the actions of the lawyers have a very real and hindering effect on the spiritual progression of believers.

But the pastor did not mention James 1:3. He did not harken back to the Protestant roots of the Presbyterian tradition and encourage the congregation to question spiritual authority, to drink deep the words in the Bible over the words from the pulpit. Rather, he simply counseled that God requires us to tithe from our heart and soul, not just from our coffers. Further, feft unaddressed and lurking is the inherent tension in Presbyterianism between God’s utter sovereignty (affirmed in the service’s prayer), the influence of spiritual leaders, and the damning weight of sin. Growing up in a Presbyterian household, I often heard Romans 9:14-23 paraphrased:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion,  but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…

God’s sovereignty is such that he can at once harden Pharaoh’s heart and then put to death the first born of every Egyptian family as punishment for Pharaoh’s actions. He can close the eyes of some and cast them into eternal damnation, while opening the eyes of others at his whim. And the those stewards of his inerrant word, the modern day Pharisees and Lawyers, can mislead those in the pews without their knowledge either knowingly or unknowingly.

So how shall we be damned? By God’s will, or by the error of those in authority? The former is simply the latter one step removed. I think it a piteous consolation prize that false teachers would be judged more harshly than others; for what harsher judgement exists than to be damned to eternal punishment without trial, to be held accountable for that which is inescapable? John M. Frame defines apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, as giving “reason for our hope.” But what hope do those who are not in God’s favor have?

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  1. July 26, 2012 at 6:56 AM

    Paul replies to his detractors in that passage in Romans 9 in the same way God replies to Job when Job questions the justice and fairness of God for bringing calamity on him and his family. Basically God says, “sit down and shut up”! “Who are you to question what I do, you are powerful enough or knowledgable enough”. Paul’s reply adds, “I can do whatever I please with you”. Not only do you not have any right to question, as you are my creation and simply clay at that, but to question is a sin. “What if…” indeed! So what, if God actually makes you in order to destroy you, so what, that is his prerogative says Paul.

    It’s clear that the God of the New Testament is not so much unlike the God of the Old. In fact, Paul identifies the two and indicates that God’s modus operandi has not changed. He deals with people “under grace” in the same way he deal with people “under law”. He deals with them the same before Jesus and after Jesus. Jus like Pharoah, if you are going to Hell it is because God “made” you a vessel of destruction so he can show everyone how merciful he is to the one he made “vessels of mercy”. So, God is in it for his own glory and orchestrates everything according to his will and determination. If you ask where is the personal responsibility, the justice, the fairness, you are told to “sit down and shut up”. Those are not categories God deals in.

    This is one of the conundrums of Christian theology. How do you retain the absolute aseity and power of God and at the same time press upon people their responsibility and culpability for sin. Mind you, if you are righteous, you are not responsible for that, that is God working in you, only if you sin, are you responsible. If you are judged, it’s your own damn fault, if you are bless it is all of God. Great work if you can get it. Lauded for all the good stuff, exonerated for all the bad. However, the conundrum is ever-present. To insist on human responsibility and “free will” you must impugn the total sovereignty of God without which he would not be God. To emphasize his sovereignty and complete control absolves people of responsibility and culpability.

    Being unable to really answer the questions there are two responses. Christian theology play the “mystery card” or you are told you can’t ask the question. In some way the question is an invalid one and makes no sense, logical and rational, in the Christian world and life view. In this way Christian theology seeks to inoculate again reason, logic and most of all, against criticism that might bring one to question it’s so-called truth. By so doing it seeks to keep believer enthralled, trapped in the Christian “box”. They even identify questioning with Eve’s sin and tantamount to “seeking to be God”. The mystery card is just a simplistic ruse to sound profound and skirt the question. Does this appear illogical, irrational, paradoxical, well, not to worry, it’s a MYSTERY. Somehow it makes it all sound so “holy” and profound.

    It’s a shell game, plain and simple.

    Jared’s former pastor father, now atheist

  2. July 26, 2012 at 7:12 PM

    I have no substantial comment on the body of the post besides this: I commend your analysis. My comment is inetended, however, to commend your transparency concerning your history with religion and your tolerance of folks who remain believers. I find that such intellectual honesty, composure, and charity a rare set of traits among professed skeptics.

    Everytime I meet or learn about a skeptic who is so admirable in their demeanor, my sense of hope for critical thinking and cooperation grows. And since this hope is just about always withering in the environment of sustained culture wars, these moments are dear to me. It seems far too many are concerned with taking aim at opponents and coming up with excuses to call each other idiots, terrorists, moral failures, or worse.

  3. Robert Allen
    October 30, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    ‘Mind you, if you are righteous, you are not responsible for that, that is God working in you, only if you sin, are you responsible.’

    Who facilitated the entry of Grace? You did; of your own free will you allowed God to come into your life. Do you deserve any credit here? No, to suggest as much as is Pelagianism. You deserve as much credit as St. Peter, desperately clinging to our Lord in the drink, or the lady who finds the precious stone in the field- and doesn’t throw it away. Who rejects Grace but the unrepentant sinner?. Is he responsible, blameworthy? Of course he is: of his own free will he pushed God away, preferring his own pride. What else should God do with such a creature but respect his free choice and give him his way, distancing Himself forever?

  4. October 30, 2012 at 9:09 PM

    Hi Robert,

    It seems to me that your comment highlights the exact issue at which Dennis and I take umbrage. You write, on the one hand, that individuals ‘facilitate’ an acceptance of Grace, yet they deserve no credit for this, and on the other that individuals are blameworthy if they reject this Grace. Such an asymmetrical treatment of praise and blame exemplifies the failings of this approach to theology.

    • Robert Allen
      October 30, 2012 at 10:50 PM

      No, Jared, there is a definite asymmetry here. Look at my examples: something drowning deserves no credit for snatching a life preserver; the fool who pushes it away deserves to drown. Grace is so beautiful that one can be hardly credited with welcoming it into one’s heart. Think of someone accepting a Christmas gift that is ‘just what they wanted’. Do we praise them for their enthusiasm? Of course we don’t. What would we think of someone who spurned the perfect gift, thinking it beneath them, then suffered as a result? We would think them foolish for spurning it out of inordinate pride; we would blame them for their foolishness.

  5. October 30, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    Hi Robert,

    I’m glad we agree on the asymmetry, at least. If you’ll recall, at issue is the incompatibility of divine election (or just about any notion of God’s preordination) with any meaningful conception of moral praise and blame. The idea that I was created such that I would sin and be destroyed, or sin and be ‘saved’ from destruction, admits of no meaningful responsibility on my part. If God has preordained that I receive grace then I am surely not praiseworthy for accepting that which is inevitable. But then what sense does it make that I should be blamed, let alone punished, for sins that were equally preordained? As Romans 9 tells us, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

    In a word, I do not consider it grace to be tossed a life preserver if I was thrown into the water by my would-be rescuer; this is especially the case if my fellow ‘sailors’ are left to drown by the very same.

    • October 31, 2012 at 6:31 AM

      Well said, Jared! Touche!

  6. Robert Allen
    October 31, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    According to the doctrine of Original Sin, Death is the just punishment for our parent’s trangression in the garden. If God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, later takes pity on sinful men and offers them the means of salvation, He is bestowing upon them grace. If you will recall the story, Peter deserved to drown, having lost faith in Christ, yet our Lord offered him His hand. We are all like St. Peter, “drowning,” having freely rejected God. God had no choice but to banish mankind from Paradise, (throw them into the water) respecting their free choice to separate themselves from Him. Christ is His life preserver. There is nothing but mercy and justice in His plan of salvation.

  7. October 31, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Hi Robert,

    A few points:

    (1) Again, though, nothing you’ve said resolves the problem that God’s preordination obviates any sensible use of the words ‘free’, ‘responsible’, etc. If God elects some to be glorified and some to be cast into Hell, then notions of desert go right out the window, and justice is right behind. What sense does it make that God punishes me for making a decision when I could not have done otherwise and He knows it?

    Your example of the life preserve fails to account for God’s election. For, on that reading, it is God’s will that some drown and some be saved. But God’s willing is precisely why blame and praise are meaningless in such cases.

    (2) The problem persists when we consider Original Sin. For, it was Adam’s actions and not my own that gave me a sinful nature. I did not eat the fruit, my progenitor did – so why should I start from a place of sin? Continuing with our nautical theme, whether it was God or Adam who tossed me into the drink, I lack responsibility for my predicament, so any blame associated with it is misplaced.

    (3) God cannot be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. If, on a very simple reading of justice, we say that it is giving each person what she deserves, and mercy is the mitigation of deserved punishment, then it cannot be that God possesses each quality to perfection. This is because it would mean God gives everyone what they deserve, yet always metes out less than what is deserved.

  8. Robert Allen
    October 31, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    Gods knows who will choose grace and who will reject Him- that doesn’t mean he causes our choices. I know plenty of things that I do not cause.

    I am a Roman Catholic, not a Calvinist. God causes no one to go to Hell, nor enter Paradise- Grace is irrestible but only in the sense that once (freely) accepted it will necessarily effect salvation.

    You could have done otherwise, because you have a free will. YOU haven’t proven that our choices are necessary.

    God wills that all those who freely accept Christ into their hearts will be saved; those who reject Him he permits to “drown,” respecting their freedom.

    You share a nature with Adam, thus it’s sinfulness. Even if you are not personally responsible for your predicament, you have been given the means of extricating yourself and are, thus, responsible for whatever awaits you.

    It all depends on what we deserve: damnation simpliciter or damnation with a chance of redemption. Mercy is consistent with the latter.

  9. October 31, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    All of my preceding arguments were predicated on the assumption that we are discussing theologies that espouse divine election, preordination, or that affirm equivalent characteristics of God. If that is not the case then I don’t have much to say about the bits of theology you’ve mentioned.

    I cannot speak directly to Roman Catholic doctrine except to reiterate my position as a conditional: If any given theology holds a view equivalent to divine election or God’s preordination as creator, that theology seemingly cannot simultaneously hold individuals morally responsible for their behavior.

    Asserting that ‘God’s knowledge of our choice does not mean such choices are determined by him’ does not allow one to escape from the problem. You may know plenty of things that you do not cause, but you are not touted as the creator of all things, etc. God’s perfect knowledge, paired with his role as creator (first cause), is what leads invariably to this view. The question, then, becomes whether or not (and to what extent) differing theologies commit themselves to this problem by invoking certain characteristics of God.

    • Robert Allen
      October 31, 2012 at 5:32 PM

      Aquinas states the Roman Catholic position on preordination in ST Part 1 Question 23. Here is a very helpful reading of that passage: http://readingthesumma.blogspot.com/2010/08/question-23-predestination.html.

      Instead of continuing in your unbelief, I strongly and charitably suggest you take instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. Protestantism is a heresy. You were seriously misled, Jared, regarding our Lord and Divine Savior’s teachings. I want to see you succeed as a philosopher, so allow me to cite my own experience: I became a much better thinker after, by the grace of God, I abandoned atheism and returned to the Church.

      Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Boethius, Molinas, and Ockham all worked out solutions to the Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Free Will. I highly recommend Linda Zagzebski’s magisterial The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge.

      Please tell Professor Sommers that I said hello. He is an old friend of mine.

  10. October 31, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    Hey Robert,

    With regard to your urging, it is not just protestantism or other sectarian specifics that I find problematic, but rather the entire project of Christianity itself. My upbringing was certainly not the end of my interaction with Christianity – I also attended an undergraduate program that had a very strong Philosophy of Religion focus.

    With all due respect, Robert, I do not think it possible for Christianity to make one a better philosopher. Even the most generic treatments are epistemologically, metaphysically, and morally problematic. I wonder if you’d entertain the questions of why it is that you think Christianity has made you a better philosopher, and on what grounds you re-engaged with Christianity from a place of atheism?

  11. October 31, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    Also, Robert, here is a passage from the blog post you suggested:

    “The third objection to this question is based on the argument from injustice: if God arbitrarily chooses some for predestination to glory (not based on any feature of those chosen or not chosen), then this is fundamentally unjust and so cannot be said of God. Aquinas’s reply to this objection is a long reflection on God’s goodness, which essentially concedes that we have reached the point where rational explanation gives way to mystery. God’s predestination is based on God’s goodness and Aquinas argues that the fact that some are chosen for glory whereas others are reprobated for punishment simply reflects that we have to consider the common good of creation as a whole: “God permits certain evils to be effected lest many goods should be impeded”. It appears that it has to be so for the greatest good of creation as a whole. However, when we turn to the question of why any particular individuals are predestined or reprobated, explanation runs out. Aquinas makes an interesting parallel concerning the composition of natural objects: why does God choose this particular bit of prime matter rather than any other bit of prime matter to be informed to become this particular rock? The reason lies in God’s will and is not open to our view. As to whether this is unjust, Aquinas points out that the gift of grace is exactly that: a gift that is owed to no-one. It cannot be considered unjust that God chooses to give a gift to some but not to others.

    On these grounds, I believe my original argument still holds.

    With regard to the final sentence, if the gift of grace is that which allows for the possibility of salvation, and God only offers it to some and not others based on mysterious criteria not pertaining to the responsibility of the agent, then it certainly is unjust if the alternative to grace is damnation.

  12. Robert Allen
    October 31, 2012 at 9:14 PM

    It is not Christianity that has made me a better philosopher- I reject that label, for a number of historical reasons- but Roman Catholicism in the form of the Holy Mother Church. As St. Anselm said, “I believe to understand.” I’ll let you in on a little secret: philosophy is Plato/Aristotle, Plato/Aristotle is philosophy. I have studied them all, from the Existentialists, to Wittgenstein, to the British Empiricists, to Descartes and the other early moderns. Their work is drivel compared to the intellectual richness found in the Ancients and their medieval expositors. You’ll just have to take my word for that. (Nietzsche, of whom today’s atheists are enamored, NEVER EVEN STUDIED PHILOSOPHY. Sartre said that he was no philosopher; heck, Nietzsche himself said that he got impatient with long arguments.) I re-entered the Church in part to mine these riches.

    Part of what I am trying to say is that you have not rejected the true “Christian project” for not understanding that enterprise. You need to avail yourself of the Church Fathers and the rest of the Magisterium.

    The philosophy of grace that I am developing is based on the asymmetry you noticed: the reprobate deserve damnation either for having rejected grace or being such that they would have rejected it had it been offered. The blessed do not deserve to enter Paradise, despite having freely allowed Christ into their hearts- the acceptance of such a precious gift cannot be to anyone’s credit.

    Even on St. Thomas’ Mystery Account, there is no reason for you not to heed God’s call. I for one am certainly not going to let my ignorance of Divine Providence stand in the way of my own salvation and that of my loved ones. You simply cannot be “certain” that it is unjust for God to give a gift to some and not others. The most you can say is that it APPEARS unjust to you, i.e., that grace is somewhat of a mystery. It’s not like those who do not receive this gift had it coming; they were helpless sinners like everyone else. If they had deserved grace, but not received it- now that would be an injustice, denying them their due. I submit that your concerns are misplaced: work out your OWN salvation diligently, praying for the rest of mankind, but leaving their place in eternity where it belongs- in God’s hands.

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