Saturday, September 18, 2010

Clearer criticism of 'The Inescapable Love of God'

My commentator, cousin, dear friend and in this case theological sparring partner, Alex referred my blog post to Mr Thomas Talbott himself and in the insuring exchange I've realized my criticisms of the Inescapable Love of God weren't clear enough. (Thanks for sharpening me up Alex!) So I've laid out my argument more clearly below in both a summary and more detailed form.  The outcome is still unfortunately the same, Talbott is laying the 'emotional' foundation against traditional theology, in other words saying: "Boy, those traditional theologians are nasty," before making, in the next section, his own theological case for universalism.  "In the following chapters, therefore, I shall try to create a context - biblical, theological, and philosophical - in which the grounds for hope and the groundlessness of our fears might be more evident to us" (Talbott, 39).

Talbott argues
Predestination is a loveless theology that leads to a demonic picture of God. Augustine and Calvin are representatives of this theology and also theological villains whose theology of fear lead to their deadly persecution of heretics which makes their theology unbiblical and so it follows that predestination is wrong.  

But ...

#1 Talbott hasn't proved Predestination is a loveless theology and only states without argument that it leads to a demonic picture of God.
#2 Talbott misrepresents history by casting Augustine and Calvin as theological villains.
#3 The theological systems of Augustine and Calvin do not necessarily lead to their more unfavorable actions.

Talbott's argument and my criticisms in lots of detail

Predestination is a loveless theology that leads to a demonic picture of God. ["Clark's view was no aberration at all; he had simply made explicit, and with greater consistency, a demonic picture of God that pervades Western Theology."(Talbott, 8)] Augustine ["Augustine's defense of the use of terror" (Talbott, 28)] and Calvin ["Calvin's willingness to have his adversary put to death" (Talbott, 26)] are representatives of this theology ["Wherever I turned ..." (Talbott, 7)] and also theological villains whose theology of fear ["Against the many religious doctrines that appeal to and cultivate fear" (Talbott, 1)] lead to their deadly persecution of heretics ["the use of the sword in coercing heretics back into the State Church is justified"(Talbott, 28)] which makes their theology unbiblical ["a symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error" (Talbott, 24)].

#1  Talbott hasn't proved Predestination is a loveless theology and only states without argument that it leads to a demonic picture of God.

Talbott argues that traditional theology is loveless by using pejorative language, describing predestination as "narrow", "exclusive" where "God restricts his mercy to a chosen few" (Talbott, 6).  After quoting from an author in favor of predestination he writes "I was utterly dumfounded when I read such passages as these and searched in vain for at least an echo of the love of God" (Talbott, 7). Talbott labels the author a "hyper-Calvinist" who believes in "double-predestination" eschewing the more accurate label of 'election and reprobation' (Talbott, 6).

Talbott completely fails to explain why God only extending his mercy "to a chosen few" (Talbott, 7) isn't an expression of love.  While I don't agree with Clark's comment implying God is the author of evil, his presentation of election and reprobation is unremarkable, simply a reflection of the type of theology expressed in Romans 9 or Ephesians 1:5.  Talbott offers no logical argument for why predestination is loveless, relying instead on his pejorative description of Clark. Talbott also has no logical or even emotional argument for why predestination makes God demonic, he simply entitles that part of the chapter "a demonic picture of God" (Talbott, 5), leaving the emotional inference to the reader.

#2 Talbott misrepresents history by casting Augustine and Calvin as theological villains. 

Talbott seeks to cast Calvin in a villainous light by highlighting his role in the capture, trial and execution of Servetus.  Talbott says Calvin had desired the death of Servetus for many years (Talbott, 25) and then gives a bloodthirsty quote from Calvin about Servetus "I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority" (Talbott, 26).  Talbott then interestingly finishes by highlighting Calvin's defense of Servetus' execution (Talbott, 26) and leaves the story at that, adding later only one comment about his motivation.

I don't condone the death penalty for heresy and agree that while cultures and circumstances differ from place to place and time to time, our biblical idea of not killing most people should of held sway over Calvin.  But Talbott seeking to show the villainy of Calvin doesn't give this episode any more historical context ["Calvin's precise role in the Servetus affair is not my present concern." (Talbott, 25)].  Servetus, was a smart man (he discovered the circulation of blood) and the author of anti-Trinitarian literature, who also argued with Calvin by correspondence.  "Protestant and Catholic theologians alike joined in condemning Servetus attack on the Trinity" (The European Reformations, Lindberg, 267).  Roman Catholic crowds even burned an effigy of Servetus.  Calvin eventually passed on his correspondence to a friend in Lyon who alerted the Roman Catholic Inquisition, who then captured Servetus (Lindberg, 268). Servetus escaped and then in strange move travelled to Geneva, where he was recognized and arrested.  "Servetus' fate was sealed by the Genevan magistracy even before the unanimous denunciations of him poured in from Basle, Bern, Schaffhausen and Zuich. ... Bucer had demanded the death penalty already in 1531 after the appearance of Servetus' first tract on the trinity" (Lindberg, 268-269). Lindberg then goes on to comment that Servetus' execution was widely approved of and that in our modern world of philosophical relativism "the sixteenth-century concern for truth appears strange" (Lindberg, 269).  At the time Servetus died, Anabaptists were being executed by Calvinists and Calvinists were being executed by Roman Catholics.  "The modern toleration of religious pluralism is anachronistic for the sixteenth century." (Lindberg, 270)  Interestingly Calvin, at the time of Servetus' execution, had less power and sway over Geneva than after the Servetus incident (Lindberg, 270).

But Talbott doesn't mention any of this; to show that Servetus was persecuted by the Roman Catholics, point out that Calvin only played a part in the whole incident and remark on the general blood-thirsty cultural climate would put a dampener on his villainous portrait of Calvin.  How do we judge the crew of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Carefully and in-context, they don't become the villains of the evil imperialism of the American war machine, though they had important part in that horrible event.

Augustine is next.  Here Talbott is able to draw a closer (but still misguided) link between theology, persecution and eternal judgement.  "In another place he [Augustine] again asks: 'Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction [i.e., to eternal death]?" (Talbott, 28) Talbott goes on to write "But Augstine's defense of the use of terror against them remains one of the most appalling aspects of his thinking, and it is important to see that this defense was not an isolated quirk in his thinking" (Talbott, 28).  Talbott's central contention is that Augustine regarded heresy as worse than murder (Talbott, 28-29) and this makes him a brutal torturer (Talbott, 28).

Again while I don't believe torture and death are morally sound ways of dealing with heresy, Augustine's rhetoric should be seen in historical context.  Based on Talbott's presentation you'd be forgiven for thinking of Augustine as an arch villain bent on finding ways to kill and torture Donatists.  Again this suits the direction of  Talbott's argument which seeks to cast these central figures of traditional theology as villains.  The actual historical circumstances is little more complex than Talbott's portrait and doesn't support the idea of Augustine being a brutal villain of church history.

Prior to 410, the Donatists (a sect demanding purity in heritage) in were the ascendancy in Numidia.  They were an organized church of their own, having their own bishops and congregations, being the popular denomination of the North African peasants.  The Catholics on the other hand were in the minority, limited to the coastal cities and some of the land-owners.  Interestingly the Donatists had their own schisms and at one point used Imperial edicts to force their schismatic brethren back into the fold.  Tensions with the Catholics were high and sometimes roving bands of armed Donatists called "circumcellions" would either attack Catholic majority towns or defend Donatist towns against Catholic gangs. At one point even Augustine himself was targeted and ambushed by some circumcellions.  Prior to the sixth century the place of the Catholicism was by no means entirely settled. Even in North Africa, Donatists were only one threat among several, paganism was still strong and other heresies such as Pelagianism or Arianism ran amuck across the Christian world.  As bishop of Hippo Augustine sort to establish an orthodoxy that could meet the challenges of Paganism while also resist heresies such as Pelaginism let alone deal with the conservative Donatists.  Augustine was first and foremast a scholar, skilled in rhetoric and polemical argument, he'd often write stridently only to nuance it in a later publication. His development of the doctrine of original sin is an example of this.  Brown in his biography of Augustine shows how Augustine focused on using written propaganda to discredit the Donatists.  But Augstine was only one player in a larger conflict.  The dissident Donatists drawing on a inland peasant power-base were ultimately on the losing side. Catholic landowners and bishops used imperial edicts to dis-enfranchise Donatist bishops and churches.  Eventually the ever-present background of violence increased as the Donatists were forcibly amalgamated into the Catholic church, some resting violently others more peaceably but still reluctantly. Unfortunately at this time (400's) Augustine wrote in favor of state suppression of the Donatists. (Historical summary drawn from Augustine of Hippo: A biography by Peter Brown)

This was the post-Constantine era of growing church and state cooperation but that does not excuse Augustine from supporting the persecution of the Donatists.  To Augustine's credit he worked hard both before and after the Imperial edicts against the Donastists to bring them into line through non-violent means. "Despite Augustine's conscientious behavior, violence could not be avoided" (Brown, 237).  Talbott wants to cast Augustine as pro-violence but Brown reads the evidence differently stating "Augustine opposed the death-penalty in principle, for it excluded the possibility of repentance" (Brown, 238).  A more likely scenario is that Augustine misused his authority as a bishop in advocating state suppression of the Donatists.  To read his actions as some sort of cruel outworking of his theology overlooks both the wider historical context and Augustine's own personal context.  But to place Augustine's actions in more context would detract from Talbott's simplistic portrayal of Augustine as a theological villain. 

#3 The theological systems of Augustine and Calvin do not necessarily lead to their more unfavorable actions.

I said in my earlier post that Talbott commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy which basically means correlation does not equal causation.  Does Calvin's role in Servetus' execution really spring from his theological intolerance is it more probably the result of human sinfulness, living in the sixteenth century, dealing with that particular situation and being fiercely zealous for truth? Talbott concedes he was the product of an intolerant age but hastily adds that "it does not explain the theological roots of the intolerance" (Talbott, 26)

Talbott somewhat tenuously wants us to connect his interpretation of Matthew 7:18-20 (he somewhat interestingly omits any reference to verse 19!) connecting trees that do not bear good fruit with traditional western theology. "Part of the suggestion here seems to be that a sound doctrine, soundly interpreted, will not bear evil fruit in the lives of those who sincerely embrace it, it will, to the contrary, bear good fruit" (Talbott, 24).  He goes to state  "So if a sound doctrine, soundly interpreted, does not produce evil fruit in the lives of those who sincerely embrace it, then we are entitled, I believe, to regard acts of persecution with the Christian Church as a symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error." ( Talbott, 24)

This line of argument taken to its logical conclusion would support sinless perfectionism, that true Christians are perfect and without sin, because a single shard of bad fruit would go against Talbott's interpretation of Matthew 7:18-20.  Is Talbott's own bad fruit seen in his pejorative and judgmental language, a "symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error" perhaps?  Talbott ignores the complexity of humans and their historical circumstances, his line of argument would ban fatherhood because of the actions of some fathers in the name of fatherhood.  It's overly simplistic to draw line between someone's more negative actions and their theology or ideology.  This doesn't mean those connections don't exist in some form but it's fraught with far more complexity then Talbott's argument allows for.

Finally and importantly Talbott doesn't clearly show the connection between the negative actions of Calvin and Augustine and their wider systems of theological thought. Calvin may have been wrong to support the death penalty but why must that be lumped with his views on predestination.  Talbott of course has no explanation for this preferring to lump  his thinking together, avoiding making these type of distinctions in Calvin's wide ranging theological system.  Talbott does attempt a connection between Augustine's support of Donatist persecution and his wider theological system.  "But Augustine's defense of the use of terror against them remains one of the most appalling aspects of his thinking, and it is important to see that this defense was not an isolated quirk in his thinking. Indeed, within the context of his own assumptions, his argument is perfectly reasonable. If you suppose, as Augustine did, that heresy leads to eternal damnation and that like a deadly germ, the heretic tends to infect others with heresy, then you have every reason to terrorize and even murder heretics. " (Talbott, 28).  Talbott claims that Augstuine's approval of the Donatists persecution wasn't an "an isolated quirk in his thinking" but doesn't show how his punishment of heretics is connected to other parts of his theology.  In fact all Talbott does is label it as "brutal" (Talbott, 28) and let the reader assume Augustine's theology must be flawed, somehow.  This is quite ironic because Talbott only a few pages later makes the very same argument I'm making against him against Bertrand Russell! "He fails to distinguish carefully enough, in other words between different dogmatic beliefs" (p31)


Talbott's goal is to condemn the traditional Biblical understanding of scripture: "In the end, I decided [after reading Romans 9] I could no longer be a Christian in any orthodox sense. If Paul really taught, as Augustine and many of the Protestant Reformers insist he did, that God restricts his mercy to a chosen few, than Paul was, if not an outright fraud, just another confused and small-minded religious zealot" (Talbott, 9).  And hold up universalism by false contrast as somehow purer and more loving. "Here at last, was a religious writer [George MacDonald] who seemed to appeal not to fear or guilt or mean-spiritedness" (Talbott, 12).  On second thoughts this section of the Insescaple Love of God is more flawed than I first assumed.