Friday, April 10, 2009

The Peter Event - An Open View Analysis

Recently, I was asked by a friend who is a classical theist of the Calvinistic variety, how Jesus was able to so accurately predict Peter's denial through the lens of the Open view. He grants that even in the Open view Jesus could know Peter's heart perfectly. But he asks further: How Jesus could have known the number of times Peter would be confronted and thus deny Him?

What follows is my response:

Re: The Peter Event

Without God's infinite intelligence, unlimited wisdom, and omni-resoucefulness in mind, I can see how it could be difficult to imagine how God could orchestrate the circumstances surrounding Peter's denial. But when one considers all that is at God's disposal, it becomes clear that the future needn't be exhaustively settled nor known as exhaustively definite for Jesus to have made such an accurate prediction about the future.

Recall the context in which the Peter event takes place. Jesus and the disciples have been ministering in Judea for 3 years and have caused more than a small commotion. Jesus is what everyone is talking about! He has performed amazing miracles: healed the sick, raised the dead, etc. If you'll permit me a tiny bit of creative license, I'd like to use a somewhat uncomfortable analogy.

Do you remember what it was like in 1994 shortly after the 'low-speed chase' of O. J.'s infamous white bronco? No one talked about anything else! Imagine now that instead of O. J. being the singular person at the center of all the attention, he had a well-know entourage with him during it all. Now, let's stretch the analogy a little further. Imagine members of O. J.'s entourage were outside the courthouse in L. A. during his history-making trial. Would I need omniscience to predict that bystanders would recognize a member of O. J.'s entourage, one like Peter? If O. J. had been accompanied by an entourage throughout his exploits the probability that someone would NOT have recognized those guys during O. J.'s trial would have been on par with Lotto odds--astronomical.

And to make the odds even more astronomical, Galileans had a distinguishable accent, much like different regions of England (which btw people from other regions of England can identify easily after only a few words. I've witnessed this first-hand.) This seems to be precisely what is indicated by verse 73 of Mt. 26.

Now, given that the disciples were famous members of Jesus' entourage, and the talk of Israel (especially Jerusalem), the aspect of Jesus' prediction that Peter would be confronted is not all that remarkable. You are correct, however, to note the remarkable nature of the precise number of times Peter is asked about his relationship to Jesus. This may on the surface appear to be a difficulty for the Open view, but I can easily demonstrate that it isn't.

First, Open theists hold the same view of free will as all other Christians in the Arminian theological family/tradition (the majority of Christians world-wide) including: all Wesleyans (Methodists, Nazarenes, etc.), all Pentecostals, Charismatics (such as the Vineyard), many Baptists, most Roman Catholics, and all Eastern Orthodox traditions. (I'd also like to add, just as a jab at Calvinists, the theological tradition of the Black church in America has always accepted the Libertarian understanding of free will and rejected the deterministic view). The way all these Christian traditions understand free will from Scripture is commonly known as the 'Libertarian' view. This view holds that a person's decisions are free because they have the capacity to choose between options---to choose 'otherwise.'

This view is in contrast to the deterministic theory of free will called 'Compatibilism' that is held by a minority of Christian traditions which includes: "Reformed" traditions, most Presbyterians, some Baptists, and the deliberately Calvinist churches such as 'Sovereign Grace' and Calvary Chapels. The Compatibilist theory holds that a person's decisions are "free" because they want to do what they decide---even if their "wants" are pre-programmed by God and they cannot choose otherwise. (As an aside: Compatibilism does not resolve the contradiction between God being responsible for people's desires, but not for their sin, even though Compatibilism claims we can only choose what we desire and that we are born desiring only sin and can choose nothing else. This is a tremendous flaw in Calvinist theology that is irreconcilable with Scripture: e.g. James 1.13)

Since, with the majority of Christians world-wide and throughout church history, I hold the Libertarian understanding of human freedom, I believe each person who spoke to Peter that day could have chosen not to. Moreover, I also believe that more than three individuals and/or groups of individuals could have chosen to confront Peter. This does not, however, put in jeopardy the accuracy of Jesus' prediction beyond the contingency present in every prophecy of future events God Himself will not be preforming. Therefore, I will now argue that there is at least two ways Jesus (and the Father and Spirit) could have orchestrated the circumstances surrounding Peter's denial without removing the participants freedom. Following that, I will argue that the deterministic understanding Calvinists propose (including an exhaustively settled future) is actually quite damaging to an Evangelical understanding of Scripture's authority and trustworthiness.

Since the future is not exhaustively settled, but is composed instead of many contingencies or possibilities, a Christian who believes in God's omniscience must believe that God knows the future perfectly as it is. Since I am a Christian who believes in God's omniscience, I believe God knows the future perfectly as composed of partly settled events and partly indeterminate (open) events. God's infinite intelligence, unlimited wisdom, and possession of all the resources in the universe gives God the most exalted and transcendent view of the future possible. God alone is able to see every possible outcome that may result from every possible decision that every single person may make. God knows exhaustively every possible future and is prepared for every possible outcome. This does not mean, however, that anything is possible. Some things are not possible or contingent. Put another way, some things are determined either by God or causally by previous decisions made by free agents (human and angelic beings). Where I was born, when I was born, to what family I was born (and as a result my genetic make-up, characteristics) are all examples of parameters for which God is at least partly responsible along with the decisions of other free agents (such as my parents, and their parents, and so on.) We are not free to do or be anything of which we can conceive. Even genuine freedom (Libertarian) is constrained in large part by innumerable parameters at any given point in our lives. Parameters outside of which our freedom does not allow us to venture does not negate the existence of freedom.

Here's an analogy that I think will clear up some confusion about Libertarian free will. Imagine that I am accustomed to shopping for soda at a Super Walmart that has 126 different varieties of soda from which to choose. Unfortunately, for some reason, I am unable to get to the Super Walmart on a particular day and must instead shop for soda at the 7-11 on the corner near my house, which only has 26 different varieties of soda. Have I lost my capacity to freely choose which variety of soda I want to purchase simply because my options are now fewer?

No, the quality of my freedom has not been diminished, only the quantity of my options.

Therefore, one possible scenario in which God could have easily orchestrated the circumstances around Peter's denial is one in which God constrained the options of those with whom Peter had contact. Everyone was well aware of the Galileans who were with Jesus. They were rock stars. God did not have to determine that the bystanders confront Peter---that much was a given. The precise number of times Peter is asked, and thus has to respond negatively, is something that God could have constrained while not removing anyone's genuine freedom (e.g. via Compatibilism). Limiting the number of options from which a genuinely free being has to choose does not remove that being's freedom.

A second possible scenerio in which would have resulted in the circumstances that surrounded Peter's denial is in God's omniscient foreknowledge of all possible future contingencies, no possible future existed in which neither more nor less people/groups would confront Peter rendering Jesus' prediction inaccurate. Open theists do not believe simply because God knows every possible future, that every CONCEIVABLE future actually does exist. Here's another example: It is conceivable that one day I may have the opportunity to speak with President Obama in person. However, only God knows if there are any possible futures in which this is an actual possibility. There very well may not be. Simply because I can conceive of a future in which this is possible, does not mean that a future with this possibility actually exists. Furthermore, it is conceivable to me that one day I may have the opportunity to speak with the Dali Lama in person. Only God knows if a future with this possibility actually exists. And if one did actually exist, only God knows how likely or improbable is that possibility. A future might actually exist in which an in person meeting with the Dali Lama is possible, but it might depend on an astronomical number of choices lining up to produce this event. Perhaps the number of improbable choices that would have to occur for this possible future to become realistic are so astronomical that it is virtually impossible.

To be clear, I am not claiming that either one of these scenarios NECESSARILY HAS to have been THE scenario that allowed for the circumstances surrounding Peter's denial. There may be several additional scenarios that I have not thought of. I am only arguing that these two constitute at least two feasible scenarios that do not require the removal of freedom via determination.

Now, I will argue that if we take the Calvinistic approach to biblical prophecy (that includes the assumption of an exhaustively settled future), we will forced to at least adjust our view of the Bible's trustworthiness and authority, if not replace it altogether.

In Ezekiel 26, God speaks through the prophet and prophesied against Tyre saying He would raise up Nebuchadnezzar against them. Tyre would be made "a bare rock" and will "never be rebuilt." (v.14) First, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre for 13 years and failed to conquer it. But it was Alexander the Great (nearly 300 years later) who eventually conquered the island city, but even he did not utterly destroy it as was prophesied. Tyre never became a "bare rock," has been "rebuilt" after every conquering, and STILL EXISTS TODAY!!!

This fact is unfortunate for the Calvinistic view. Since history has proven that some biblical prophecies have utterly failed, we will either have to deny history (the same history that confirms the accuracy of other biblical prophecies), making us hypocrites who only seek to affirm history that supports our view. Or, we will have to change our view of the Bible's inspiration, authority, truthfulness. Or, we will have to change our view of the future, and therefore the nature of prophecy itself. As I see it, there is only one honest and reasonable option between these three. We cannot discount only the history that does not support the Bible, while affirming the history that does, making us hypocrites on part with any cult (i.e. Mormonism). And we cannot compromise our view of the Bible's inspiration, authority, or truthfulness. Therefore, we must reconsider our view of the nature of the future and biblical prophecy.

The only way to prevent academic dishonesty/hypocrisy due to the historical evidence, or compromise our shared view of the Bible's divine origin, is to adopt an view of the future (and therefore of biblical prophecy) that includes genuine contingency.


Rod said...

You said in your post that we are on the side of the majority of Christian tradition that affirms libertarian free-will. What evidence is there? Even though we may be in the minority, I am still going to hold to LFW.

T. C. said...

@Rodney: I agree. I would hold to LFW whether it is or has been the majority view. I base my belief that it is the majority view on the fact that more more denominations/traditions hold it.

- Reformed churches
- Most Presbyterians
- Some Baptists
- Some Catholics
- Intentionally Calvinist groups like 'Sovereign Grace' and Calvary Chapel

- Wesleyans (Methodists, Nazarenes)
- 'Holiness' Churches
- Pentecostals
- Charismatics (including many "nondenominational" churches)
- Some Baptists
- Eastern Orthodox traditions
- Some Roman Catholics

I'm basing my statement on my belief that most of the world's churches are either Catholic, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Orthodox, or some type of Wesleyan. What do you think?

Rod said...

It sounds like you have thought this through. And I have not caught up on my Eastern Orthodox theology as much as I would like, but how would they see free will? I have a pretty good idea about their view of atonement and theosis, but outside that, I do not.