A Response to Jerry Walls on Christian Compatibilism

In Philosophia Christi Vol. 13, No. 1 (Summer 2011), Christian philosopher Jerry Walls published “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist.” The abstract (article available here):

I argue that no classical theist, and even more no orthodox Christian, should affirm compatibilism in our world. However plausible compatibilism may be on atheistic assumptions, bringing God into the equation should radically alter our judgment on this ongoing controversy. In particular, if freedom and determinism are compatible, then God could have created a world in which all persons freely did only the good at all times. Given this implication of compatibilism, three issues that are already challenging become extraordinarily more difficult, if not insuperable, namely: moral responsibility, the problem of evil, and the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation.

Pedagogically, I was struck by the utter awesomeness of Walls’s metaphor for the libertarian/compatibilist debate (which metaphor he attributes to Michael Rea):

This debate has gone through several rounds, with neither side appearing to convince the other. I am very much in sympathy with arguments that defend libertarian freedom, but I feel the force of objections by critics who think the whole notion is mysterious, and at times even seems to be incoherent. Compatibilists, moreover, like Pharaoh’s magicians, seem capable of duplicating in their own terms every power and ability that libertarians claim their view distinctively grants to agents. (Walls 2011, 77, emphasis mine)

The comparison is ingenious, elegantly capturing what has been so characteristic of the free will debate in recent years. In any event, the gauntlet being thrown down – compatibilists are like pagan magicians! – Steven Cowan and I donned our Egyptian robes, authored a reply, and presented it at the November 2013 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Baltimore, MD. We finally got around to submitting it this past winter, and it’s now been published in Philosophia Christi Vol. 17, No. 1 (Summer 2015) as “Pharaoh’s Magicians Redivivus: A Response to Jerry Walls on Christian Compatibilism.” You can read it here (with permission from the publisher). The abstract:

Jerry Walls has recently argued that no Christian theist should be a compatibilist because, on compatibilism, it is “all but impossible to maintain . . . the perfect goodness of God.” More specifically, he contends (1) that Christian compatibilism involves God in manipulation that undermines human moral responsibility, (2) that such manipulation makes God morally culpable for evil human actions, (3) that Christian compatibilism exacerbates the problem of evil in a way that Christian libertarianism does not, and (4) that Christian compatibilism entails universalism. In this paper, we argue that Walls is mistaken on all counts.

There is also an addendum to the article, entitled “More Rebuttals of Walls from Pharaoh’s Magicians’ “Bag of Tricks”!” which you can find here. In it, we develop fourteen additional arguments that rebut the case Walls made against compatibilism in his original article.

One potential criticism of our approach has already been passed on to me. The idea is that our arguments – in both the print article and in the addendum – presuppose that non-Molinist freewill theism is false. That is, we assume that, when contemplating his decree, God has knowledge of how his creatures would choose if God decided this or that (for compatibilists, this is natural knowledge; for Molinists this is middle knowledge). But maybe God doesn’t have this kind of knowledge, and if not, then our arguments beg the question against any non-Molinist freewill theist conceptions of divine providence.

I think this objection is quite interesting, and it illuminates what is at stake in this debate. Consider two non-Molinist freewill theist conceptions of divine providence: open theism, and (incremental) simple foreknowledge. I agree with William Hasker and Dean Zimmerman that these involve risky providence. As Hasker puts it, “God takes risks if he makes decisions that depend for their outcomes on the responses of free creatures in which the decisions themselves are not informed by knowledge of the outcomes” (Hasker and Helm 2003, 219). On this view, God’s risk-taking just is God’s providential decision-making in the absence of such knowledge. Since our arguments presuppose that God has such knowledge, they beg the question against these alternative conceptions of divine providence.

On one level, this is exactly right: both open theism and (incremental) simple foreknowledge involve risky providence, whereas Calvinism and Molinism do not. But no questions have been begged, because the question at issue throughout the article was are Walls’s original arguments cogent? rather than is non-Molinist freewill theism true? The task at hand was to assess Walls’s arguments, not to adjudicate non-Molinist freewill theism.

Beyond this, we took it for granted that being a “classical theist” and “orthodox Christian” – two terms from the title of Walls’s article – plausibly involved rejecting both diminished divine foreknowledge* and risky providence. One can hardly find these commitments in classical theism, after all (though noting this is not an argument for classical theism, of course.) If in fact Walls would like to defend his arguments by embracing diminished divine foreknowledge or risky providence, that is certainly a move he could make, but we are not begging any questions by not making that move for him. At best what the criticism offers us is a perspective on these matters that Walls could indeed try out. If Walls had done so in print, we certainly would have written a different article. The upshot is that this criticism raises the stakes for any defense of Walls, and that’s very helpful for anyone interested in this debate.

For what it’s worth, I think that shifting to a risky view of divine providence does little to get around the ethical conundrums raised in the article and addendum, since even on open theism God has ‘knowledge enough’ to generate reasonable facsimiles of these dilemmas. I try to develop and defend such an argument in “Open theism, risk-taking, and the problem of evil,” which will hopefully see print by the end of the year. To be sure, on a risky view of providence, the particular way things will go cannot be known by God at the moment of creation. This point is often stressed by its advocates. But the way things will go will be known by God (or believed with a high likelihood of truth) just prior to the choices themselves, at precisely a time when God is in a position to prevent the choices. Knowing this, God doesn’t prevent the choice, thus ensuring all the suffering that does occur. This kind of fallible divine knowledge is functionally equivalent to the kind of infallible divine knowledge we presuppose in the text of the Phil Christi article and addendum, and it seems to be ‘knowledge enough’ to generate ethical dilemmas for risky providence that are analogous to the ethical dilemmas we raise for risk-free providence.

*Is it a straw man for me to characterize open theism as involving “diminished divine foreknowledge”? I don’t think so. It’s a view of divine foreknowledge that considerably diminishes it from what classical theists and orthodox Christians have always held. As Zimmerman puts it (p. 36 of “Yet Another Anti-Molinist Argument”):

The Open Theists’ picture of foreknowledge and providence includes two theses that conflict with Catholic teaching and most Protestant theological traditions. Open Theism may save the letter of the traditional doctrine of God’s omniscience—God can know all truths, and yet not know what will happen, so long as there is now no fact of the matter about what will happen. Still, most Christians have affirmed something the Open Theist denies: that God has knowledge, at all times (or perhaps from a timeless perspective), of everything that will ever occur. (Zimmerman 2009, 36)

This last sentence strikes me as utterly obvious, and so open theism offers a conception of divine foreknowledge that is considerably diminished from that offered by the standard Roman Catholic and Protestant conceptions – that is, the classical theist and orthodox Christian conception of God referred to in the title of Walls’s article.

Hasker, William, and Paul Helm. 2003. “Does God Take Risks in Governing the World?” In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, edited by Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. Vanarragon, 218-41. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Walls, Jerry L. 2011. “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist.” Philosophia Christi 13: 75-104.

Zimmerman, Dean. 2009. “Yet Another Anti-Molinist Argument.” In Metaphysics and the Good: Themes from the Philosophy of Robert Merrihew Adams, edited by Samuel Newlands and Larry M. Jorgensen, 33-94. New York: Oxford University Press.

[Blog posted edited on 10/29/2015 to include the link to Walls’s original article.]