July 12, 2006

Infallible vs. Irresistable Grace

Gerald at Iustificare has written several posts on grace and free will in recent weeks. The latest post, a discussion of Augustine's treatment of the issue, introduces an interesting distinction I had not heard before: the distinction of infallible vs. irresistable grace. Gerald describes the distinction as follows:

Infallible grace is �grace that always accomplishes it purpose� �nothing more or less. Infallible grace can be resisted, but is not. Infallible grace can fail, but does not. There is no ontological/metaphysical necessity associated with infallible grace. Irresistible grace, on the other hand, is �grace that accomplishes it purpose through metaphysical necessity.� With irresistible grace, the will is overrun by the force of grace. It cannot be resisted. The difference between the two is that of necessity and certainty. Infallible grace is certain, but not necessary. Irresistible grace on the other hand, is certain because it is necessary.

Those of you who read this blog regularly or talk philosophy with me often will know that I like to make these sorts of distinctions, and so am delighted to find this thought out there (which, alas, I failed to come up with myself). For instance:
  • I suspect that God can but doesn't do evil or act contrary to his nature. That is, I suspect that no metaphysical necessity constrains God to act in this way, he simply can be relied upon to do what is good in all cases, because he always so chooses. (The reason I'm so reserved about this statement is that it may be logically necessary that God is omnibenevolent, in which case it is certainly metaphysically necessary that he do what is good.)

  • I would use a distinction like this to solve the infamous Grandfather Paradox: you can (from the perspective of your subjective timeline) kill your grandfather before he met your grandmother (since you have a time machine and a gun and know where he was at such and such a date), but we know (from our subjective timeline - the normal flow of history) that you didn't. It's not that you can but you can't (as David Lewis argued with his "contextualist sense of 'can'"), nor even that you can but you won't: you can but you didn't.

Now, let's apply this to grace and free will. Gerald says that Augustine argues that the elect have the capacity to resist God's grace but simply don't. Furthermore, everyone whom God wills is wooed in such way that they will not resist. Gerald quotes Augustine: "Whomever [God] has mercy on He calls in such a way as He knows suitable for him that he not spurn the caller." This seems to be a skillfull synthesis of Exodus 33:19 (quoted at Romans 9:15) with Matthew 22:14 - it is Augustine's view that God calls everyone, but knows precisely what call will cause a particular person to repent, and calls some people in this efficacious way, but others in such a way that they will spurn him (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). Now, this could be perfectly compatible with libertarian free will (the freedom to do otherwise) if you believe in middle knowledge, but there is reason to believe (from Gerald's post - I confess I still haven't read Augustine myself) that Augustine accepts a Socratic theory of the will on which we always will what we believe (rightly or wrongly) to be for our benefit.

Although middle knowledge is an extremely problematic idea, I don't believe in the Socratic account of the will, so I can't take the alternate view. (By the way, would someone like to fill me in about how Augustine explains incontinence/weakness of will?) As an Arminian, I doubt if God's 'prevenient' grace is infallible, and I certainly don't believe it to be irresistable. If it was infallible, what that would mean to me is that God effectively calls only those he knows will choose him if called, and refrains from calling those who would never choose him no matter what (because I take 2 Peter 3:9 quite seriously). However, if, as I suspect, God calls every human being in the way that will be most efficacious for that particular person, consistent with God's character and respect for human freedom, then His prevenient Grace is not infallible.

Thus in the end I must reject even bare infallibility. Infallibility plus libertarian free will could, however, be nearly as good as a more rigorous Arminianism where theodicy is concerned. The biggest concern I would say I still have is that there is good reason to believe that God desires to DEMONSTRATE his justice by means of a sort of trial at the end. Although God doesn't need to hold a trial to determine who is guilty, he still feels the need to judge from the Great White Throne in order to demonstrate that his judgment is just (Rev. 20:11-15). For this reason, I would expect God also to DEMONSTRATE that the people who are condemned would choose against him under the best circumstances, and thus I would expect him to put them in the best circumstances for this purpose, even if he has middle knowledge of their choice without bringing the circumstance about.

Posted by Kenny at July 12, 2006 6:45 PM
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Thanks for the link. I'd be interested to hear why you reject the "Socratic theory" of the will. If you post on it later, send me an email and let me know.



Posted by: Gerald Hiestand at July 13, 2006 9:06 AM

1) If regeneration is the redirecting of the human heart toward repentance and God, then this whole discussion makes sense. I do not believe scripture bears out such a low view of regeneration, though.

2) If regeneration is the making alive of a human heart, then this discussion makes sense. Still too low, though.

3) Regeneration is the birth in a human heart of divine life. We become partakers of the divine nature. We love with the same love that saved us.

Hence, grace must be irresistible. Our old man cannot desire to be put to final death, and surely that is what happens when the new life is given to us. The old man can never believe in the power of God to save, because he is not saved by the power of God - he is killed by it. Only the new man can believe unto salvation - but once the new man is there, regeneration has already happened.

Every work of salvation, including repenting and believing, is a work exclusively of the new man. There very much are works of salvation, but every single one follows regeneration - not just logically, but really.

Posted by: codepoke at July 13, 2006 11:20 AM

Codepoke, I don't think this follows. There was an interesting article in Faith and Philosophy recently (I don't remember the exact issue and don't have it handy) on how Arminians can avoid semi-Pelagianism, I highly recommend it, but am sorry that I don't have a more complete citation.

I would tend to agree that the beginning of regeneration must be a work of God alone and not of man, because the spirit of the unregenerate man is dead, so he is unable to desire God. So far, so good. However, I would deny that the first step of regeneration ('prevenient' grace) necessitates the completion of regeneration. Rather, I would argue that the completely unregenerate man is incapable of making a free choice between God and sin: he must sin. God's prevenient grace raises man (whether the likes it or not) to the point of ability to make a truly free (in the libertarian sense) choice. I believe that everyone has this experience at least once in his life, but most people nevertheless choose sin. I can write a new post with a more detailed account if there is interest.

Posted by: Kenny at July 13, 2006 9:01 PM

I don't think there is any pattern in creation to match the thing you are describing. There is no half-living zygote that chooses to abort itself. I don't see anywhere in scripture, either, that says in any way that God makes people half-alive in Christ for any reason or length of time.

I see this as a binary thing. One is dead then made alive, either by one's choice or by God's work.

Of course, I also don't see the issue with free will at all, but that's just me. Every dead person freely chooses death, and every living person freely chooses life.

Posted by: codepoke at July 14, 2006 4:13 PM

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