Blake Ostler, Original Sin, and the Atonement.

September 3, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 9:32 am   Category: Ostler Reading

Well, I finally am moving on with a little bit more of Ostler, and I’ve stumbled into a problem.

You see, Ostler notes that original sin isn’t really as the rest of the world has conceived it. However, he does note that entrance into the world does submit us to genetic pre-conditions and the traditions of our fathers. This means we all do sin, based on these propensities built into us.

He also references the Book of Mormon and that the atonement makes us free to choose despite these conditions.

The question and problem comes up then as to why so many people are trapped and enslaved by their pre-conditions, whether from the traditions of their parents or from their genetic makeup. I am going to assume we all know someone who is not free of some problem such as this. Someone who was raised in a home of rage is likely to be full of rage. Someone who is genetically prone to make poor choices will make a poor choice. Some combination of the two can not just choose to be happy because of massive depression resulting from their pre-conditions.

So I ask you all:

Is Blake Wrong?

Is the atonement not working?

Do we need to do something to make it work?

If so, what?

40 Comments »

  1. Matt W.,

    I understand Blake’s position to be that the Atonement includes a gift of prevenient grace that makes choosing between right and wrong possible in the first place.

    This is similar to the Arminian position of “total inability” – namely man has fallen to the degree that without divine assistance it is impossible for anyone to do good.

    I would say rather that the marginal capacity to do good is an inherent property of eternal intelligences, and that prevenient grace is rather a preparing of the way to make the effective exercise of free will possible, by removing obstacles such as bondage and despotism for example. Compare D&C 101:78-80.

    In any case, I do not think removing all the impediments of mortality is necessary for the Atonement to work in the long run. It is necessary for them to be taken into account in the process of judgment, of course.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 3, 2007 @ 10:56 am

  2. I should mention that the term “total inability” is more closely associated with Calvinism than with Arminianism. The positions are similar in terms of requiring grace for any good to be accomplished, but in Calvinism it is God who does the choosing, not the individual.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 3, 2007 @ 11:04 am

  3. My understanding is that prvenient grace, as I understand it, is largely the “free” part of the Atonement that takes care of sins for which we aren’t really accountable. (i.e. the resurrection) The second part is the ability to not immediately be punished. (A Book of Mormon part that admittedly didn’t make a whole lot of sense unless one considers it in a certain way)

    But the very question of what even constitutes a free choice is an interesting one. OF course Geoff’s position there seems most defensible.

    Comment by Clark — September 3, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  4. Matt: what I actually assert is that being born into the world makes us subject to “genetic pre-dispositions” and not universally “genetic pre-conditions.” There is a vast difference because the fact that I am predisposed to be heterosexual and a precondition. My genetic inheritance doesn’t guarantee that I will be heterosexual; nor does it guarantee that I won’t keep my pants on. However, I do have some genetic pre-conditions. There is a genetic precondition for me to be 5’11″ and there is nothing I can about that. So a precondition is a necessary condition where a predisposition merely makes something more likely but still leaves it to choice.

    With respect to the atonement: one of the conditions of moral accountability is consciousness of right and wrong and which choices are open to us. Without the atonement, we could not be conscious in the mortal sphere of existence. Our very consciousness requires the concurring light of Christ and the power of atonement to change the inputs from the past.

    Comment by Blake — September 3, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  5. Matt,

    I covered this section of Blake’s book in this post. I think the problem with this post is that you are not doing justice to the arguments Blake actually made.

    As I mentioned in that post, he does refer to nature and nurture influencing us all in ways that lead all of us to sin in this life. (And he defines sin as failing to adequately love God or our neighbors.) The atonement is defined as the process by which God helps all of us become one with him (literally at-one). So based on those definitions most of your post doesn’t even make sense to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 3, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  6. It makes a lot of sense to me. (Sorry Matt, I wish I were more credible company)

    If sin is defined as “failing to adequately love God or our neighbors” then how does one resolve the greater dilemma for he/she who loves less because of predisposition? Is to “adequately love God” to learn to love him sufficiently based upon one’s relative position to him? Or is there one threshold that all must attain–as the scriptures seem to suggest? Without charity you’re nothing–that sort of thing?

    If it is the latter than some are more deeply entrenched in sin than others because they have more to learn about love–and this for many (according to Matt–and I agree with him) because of predisposition, whether by nature or nurture.

    Comment by Jack — September 3, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  7. Jack: then how does one resolve the greater dilemma for he/she who loves less because of predisposition

    Loves less than what?

    Yes, I’d say that adequately loving God and our neighbors is a relative thing in this world. (See the parable of the talents.)

    Also, see my post on relative vs. absolute sin/righteousness.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 3, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  8. Geoff: “Loves less than what?”

    Loves less than those who don’t share the same predisposition.

    What we’re talking about (I think) is a question of *sin* because of predisposition — that is, if the degree of sin is determined by the degree of failure to love. If so, then it seems that predisposition–theoretically–is accounting for sin to some degree. That’s where the problem lies for me, anyway.

    Comment by Jack — September 3, 2007 @ 3:40 pm

  9. Jack,

    That would be true on an absolute sin scale. But not necessarily so on a relative scale (taking things like predispositions, nurture, and nature in to account). That is the topic of the post I just linked to.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 3, 2007 @ 4:03 pm

  10. First, I need to get Blake’s books. I kick myself everytime I see these discussions.

    Secondly, in a counseling session just recently, I discussed how I sin by both nurture and nature. But from a new spiritual position now in Christ, I must believe that the shackles are broken. I shared with my counselee the power at the end of Romans 5 and through Romans 6.

    Comment by Todd Wood — September 3, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  11. Blake and Geoff: The pre-disposition vs pre-condition point is a good one. THe confusion comes in not in a predisposition, which doesn’t seem deterministic in the absolute sense, but in a pre-condition. What if I am put in a malformed brain which can not tell right from wrong. What If I am a sociopath or psychotic(or both)?

    The Scriptures say these extreme examples are covered in the atonement, but they are not covered in the sense that in this life they have agency, at least not like you and I have agency. They can not choose to love their neighbor and their God like we can. In this life, the chance of them breaking through their natural chemical and mental disorders to fell “at one” is seemingly impossible. Do we fall back to “have more faith and we’ll make it through”? In these situations?

    Moving away from the genetic and toward the whole of nature and nurture and all the deterministic elements working on me at any given moment, how do I make sure that I am utilizing the atonement effectively in that given moment to be sure I am free to choose? (ie- I want to believe in this, but I still see myself being self-deceived and losing control of my actions. Help me.)

    Finally, if the freedom given by the atonement is prevenient grace, three things seem clear.

    1. Either the Gethsemane/Golgatha event is a small part of the atonement or effects of the atonement can occur before the Gethsemane/Golgotha event. I’ve talked about this before.

    2. This grace is not givn out equally to everyone (at least in mortal life). Looking at people who are born with disabilities, etc, we can see that some people are less free than others to choose to love and to choose to come and be “at one”.

    3. This is my opinion only, but it seems to me that the more we are aware that we are being determined by the forces around us, the more we are able to seperate ourselves from those forces and to choose for ourselves. The point being I don’t know where the atonement fits in.

    To sum up though, The scriptures say the atonement makes us free to choose, and that this applies to all of us. Blake says this cancels out our pre-dispositions and that is how we are free. Yet we still have pre-dispositions and we are not all equally free. Why is that? I will go read more, but it just doesn’t seem like this is addressed.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 3, 2007 @ 8:19 pm

  12. Todd,

    I’ve wrestled with that idea for some time and I’m not convinced that all shackles will be broken before the resurrection. Just as some will only overcome a physical deficiency in the resurrection, so too–in my unprofessional opinion–will some psychological deficiencies be righted a ways down the road.

    Geoff,

    I believe that God will judge each one of us in the most relative sense possible. But in terms of theory: if sin is the result of not loving God adequately, then predisposition may be viewed as a cause of sin, no? Now maybe this is where Clark’s thoughts on the subject come in–where he talks about the “free” part of the atonement taking care of sins for which we are not accountable. But nonetheless, we are talking about sin.

    Comment by Jack — September 3, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  13. Matt,

    I don’t understand what you mean in the first paragraph. You say “the Scriptures say these extreme examples are covered in the atonement” but then you go on to imply… what? That you don’t believe that? I don’t understand your question… If you are wondering how people who have damaged physical brains or bodies in this life can be exalted I would ask how a damaged “chassis” here would make exaltation more difficult than, say, dying as child. Clearly God has plans for people who don’t have the full probation in this life that those who have healthy bodies and minds get.

    how do I make sure that I am utilizing the atonement effectively in that given moment to be sure I am free to choose?

    I am confused by this question. If you are wondering if you are becoming at one with God well enough why ask us? Why not just ask him how you are doing?

    2. This grace is not givn out equally to everyone (at least in mortal life).

    I think you are misunderstanding prevenient grace as Blake presented it (and as we have discussed here at the Thang). It is basically the standing invitation God has extended to us to become one with him. As I said earlier, it is clear that not every soul will get the same test in this mortal life. Some die young, some are born into malfunctioning brains/bodies etc. We have faith that God works around these administrative details just fine. (I have suggested theories at this blog how he might do that too…)

    Also, it should be noted that the word “atonement” does indeed become nearly synonymous with God’s grace in the theory Blake proposes as well as in the exemplar-empathy atonement theory I prefer. (If you remember, I prefer to separate out the “Christ Event” or Passion from the overall atonement for clarity in these discussions.)

    The scriptures say the atonement makes us free to choose

    Yes, but free to choose what? Blake persuasively argues that it makes us free to choose to become at one with God. And why does it do that? Because he is offering that kind of relationship to us. If he chose not to offer that relationship we would not be “free to choose” to accept it. I have argued here that free will itself is free and independent of the type of freedom the atonement gives us.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 3, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  14. All,
    I have found in Blake’s book what I think is there and something that makes a lot of sense to me concerning the fall.
    As I read through his discussions I was left with the following thoughts.
    We are born into a separated / perceived separated state. We are self-centered by the nature of our infant incarnation. As we grow we become increasingly aware of those around us. At some point in time if our development is close to ideal, we recognize that we have behaved in ways that are not loving to our fellow men AND that such is not appropriate. Our first inclination is to justify our actions so that we do not have to fully confront the ugliness inside ourselves. This self-justification continues to one extent or another in one area of our lives or another as we grow. It is only Christ’s unconditional love and comprehensive knowledge of who and what we are, that enables us to be freed from our need to self-justify. If we can recognize that God loves us AND knows us, we are freed to honestly deal with those things about us that we need to change. Until this recognition of God’s love, we hold onto our self-justification.

    Hopefully the above approaches what Blake was saying? There are certainly examples of development that are less close to idea. There are certainly humans who offer divine like love that can aid in our overcoming this self-justification (of course one could suggest such love is in fact divine love). And I suspect there are other issues that could be addressed.

    One of the things that I found interesting is that this concept of the infant moving from total self-centered existence through various “stages” to a more selfless love aligns very well with work of Kolberg and Selman as translated by James Fowler in Stage of Faith. (I tried to link directly to Kolberg, but he was too Freudian for me so I prefer the treatment from Fowler starting on page 72. This book is on Google books. Also a “perspective taking” discussion of Selman is here: Perspecitve Taking without too much trouble this can be revisioned to show how young children lack the intellectual sophistication to be unselfish).

    Anyway, these were my thoughts on “the fall,” Christ’s role in providing for our freedom to overcome our fallen nature, and some human developmental ideas that seem to support this.

    Charity, TOm

    Comment by TOmNossor — September 3, 2007 @ 9:04 pm

  15. Geoff: I apologize. I must have been very unclear.

    I don’t understand what you mean in the first paragraph. You say “the Scriptures say these extreme examples are covered in the atonement” but then you go on to imply… what? That you don’t believe that? I don’t understand your question… If you are wondering how people who have damaged physical brains or bodies in this life can be exalted I would ask how a damaged “chassis” here would make exaltation more difficult than, say, dying as child. Clearly God has plans for people who don’t have the full probation in this life that those who have healthy bodies and minds get.

    The scriptures do obviously teach that those who are not accountable are covered by the atonement, however, it seems to me that they are not covered in the sense that they are free to choose, otherwise, they would be accountable for their choices. Does that make more sense to you? It seems a paradox to me, that one of the major effects of the atonement is to make us free to choose, and another is to give us a free pass if we are not free to choose.

    While it is clear that God has plans for these people, the question is not whther I believe he has plans, but the questions is what then is the freedom the atonement gives to everyone, if it is not the freedom we have discussed.

    I am confused by this question. If you are wondering if you are becoming at one with God well enough why ask us? Why not just ask him how you are doing?

    It is not a question of my being at one, it is a question of my being in control and free. Blake says that this aspect of the atonement enables the man who is being determined by his addictions and past to still choose a different course. Yet I am familiar with those who feel like they can not choose a different course. Is this lack of belief, lack of desire, or what? I hope you know I am asking him how I am doing. I am actually thinking about this in relation to what some call the hostage mentality within the culture of poverty. Person X is in an abusive relationship with person Y, but they feel like they are completely helpless to leave or end the relationship. The relationship is the source of all their troubles, but it is also, “better than nothing”. I have a friend in this situation right now. How does the freedom from the atonement reach her?

    I think you are misunderstanding prevenient grace as Blake presented it (and as we have discussed here at the Thang). It is basically the standing invitation God has extended to us to become one with him.

    If a Child is covered by the atonement, and doesn’t need baptism etc, is the child free to choose to accept Christ and become one with him as you and I are? I completely agree that it is obvious we do not all get the same test in this life (which brings up a completely different set of issues as to whether or not the tests in our lives our tailored or not to the needs of our spirits) but the issue which is not obvious to me is whether those who do not have this “mortal probation” to work out their happiness will have another opportunity to do so. (I am pretty sure, you, believing in MMP, have this one capably in hand.)

    Yes, but free to choose what? Blake persuasively argues that it makes us free to choose to become at one with God. And why does it do that? Because he is offering that kind of relationship to us. If he chose not to offer that relationship we would not be “free to choose” to accept it. I have argued here that free will itself is free and independent of the type of freedom the atonement gives us.

    You actually argue this very well. This is not what I felt like I was reading in Blake’s book however. It’s not in front of me at the moment, but he puts forward the idea that we sin based on our pre-dispositions, and that we become free to choose against thoe pre-dispositions. As Blake says above: one of the conditions of moral accountability is consciousness of right and wrong and which choices are open to us. Without the atonement, we could not be conscious in the mortal sphere of existence. Our very consciousness requires the concurring light of Christ and the power of atonement to change the inputs from the past. I agree with this, but I also see people around me who are not conscious of “which choices are open to us.” and have not changed “the inputs from the past” Is the preveninet grace of the atonement then only the availablity of the light of christ and the power of the atonement (which would be one thing and not two, per Jacob) and not the actuality of our freedom. Ie- we must choose the atonement in order for it to be effective for us in this way. This leads us full circle to the begining of this comment, where I am aware the atonement covers those who can not choose the atonement.

    So How does it cover them?

    (epilogue: I could also ask again “How do we choose the atonement?”, but it seems the more I think on it, the more the answers are sunday school simple. I was looking to see if there was more depth, but I am beginning to believe that there is not.)

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 7:23 am

  16. Matt,

    Two quick things:

    1. You may be right that I am giving my own variation on the idea of what the atonement makes us free to do and attributing it to Blake. I think Blake agrees with what I said in the last part of #13 but that may not be clear in the original book.

    2. I think the simplest way to answer your question is to change the wording from “How do we choose the atonement?” to “How do we choose to be at one with God?” The latter brings more clarity to the issue and as you said, has pretty simple Sunday School answers to it.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 4, 2007 @ 8:35 am

  17. Geoff: I’ll try to grab some page numbers or a quote from the book tonight when I get home for reference sake. I have to admit Blake’s works are not quite a “read straght through” experience for me, and I may be losing a lot due to the extended process I am taking of reading it.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 8:44 am

  18. Matt,

    It seems a paradox to me, that one of the major effects of the atonement is to make us free to choose, and another is to give us a free pass if we are not free to choose.

    You make a good point. I would answer this problem by questioning what we mean when we say that the atonement gives a “free pass” to people who are not free to choose. Remember that the atonement gives a free pass to people who don’t have the gospel preached to them, which turns out to mean that they are given a chance to accept the gospel in the spirit world and live according to God in the spirit so that they can be judged according to men in the flesh. If you look at it that way, it is not such a paradox.

    Yet I am familiar with those who feel like they can not choose a different course.

    This is a very different issue than the one above. The question here is whether they are truly unable to choose or just feel that way. People often make the comment in SS that by becoming addicted to things we voluntarily enslave ourselves. This makes it more difficult to choose a different course, but it doesn’t usually cut off choice completely. If you think about it, all habit does this to an extent. If we develope good habits we make it harder for ourselves to choose evil.

    To the extent that we are predisposed in certain ways through no choice of our own, we expect that God will take this into account, and even if he has not freed us from all affliction here on earth, he has more chances in the world to come.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 4, 2007 @ 10:53 am

  19. Jacob J:
    excellent points. Sometimes I feel like I am the token “dumb guy” here at NCT.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 11:17 am

  20. Jacob: I do want to add that that I think we as saints do believe that God can intervene for us and help us with addictions in the here and now. I think we do have to rely on the sunday school answers though as to how that goes about.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 11:19 am

  21. Matt (#20),

    Yea, I agree with you on that. Most addictions/predilictions which make us feel powerless are things that we actually can overcome given sufficient time, effort, and sometimes help. That help can come through other people and also from the God himself. Of course, you already know my view that conscience, which is the driving force behind almost all self-improvement is a gift from God because of the atonement, so we are all daily receivers of grace.

    By the way, I think sorting out how the plan of salvation ends up working despite the dramatic differences people face in terms of circumstances (including genetic circumstances) is an interesting question and a hard one. My comment shouldn’t make you feel like a token dumb guy.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 4, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  22. Geoff Book 2, pages 149-157

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  23. What about those pages?

    Comment by Geoff J — September 4, 2007 @ 7:34 pm

  24. er. sorry, that’s where Blake is talking about freedom and the traditions of man. That’s what I was reading that brought me into this post. Maybe it’s irrelevent now. Just keeping my committment from #17.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 4, 2007 @ 9:47 pm

  25. In his book, The Problems of Theism (hereafter, POT), Ostler set forth an argument against the doctrine of original sin (DOS). However, it seems to me that Ostler misrepresents the doctrine of original sin and, thus, his argument against it is a straw man.

    Ostler explains DOS as follows:

    We all (including infants) . . . are guilty of Adam’s sin because we were ‘in’ him as ‘seeds’ at the time he sinned and/or because he acted as our ‘federal head’ or representative in his sinful acts (123).

    With this definition of DOS in hand, Ostler then goes on to offer the following argument:

    The doctrine of original sin is untenable because it violates a principle of personal moral responsibility:

    (MP) Moral culpability is personal in the sense that one person cannot be culpable for the acts of another, but only for one’s own acts. . . .

    We cannot give our guilt to another. It is ours and ours alone. . . . For example, if I steal your car, it is manifestly unjust for you to punish someone else for what I did. . . .

    Implicit in this view is a corollary to the Moral Principle:

    (MPC) A person cannot be justly punished for the acts of another, but only for one’s own acts. . . .

    Calvinism violates both (MP) and (MPC). Not only are we guilty of Adam’s sin, but we all deserve eternal damnation from birth as a result (124-6).

    The problem with this argument is that Calvinism does not define DOS as Ostler has defined it. In fact, Calvinists and, indeed, Calvin himself, would agree with Ostler’s principles. Furthermore, according to Calvinism and Calvin, no one is guilty or punished for the acts of another. Rather, we are guilty only for our own faults. As Calvin explains,

    Original sin . . . seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’. . . .

    We must, therefore, distinctly note these two things. First, we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God . . . this is not liability for another’s transgression . . . . we are to understand it not as if we . . . bore the guilty of his offense but in the sense that . . . he is said to have made us guilty. . . .

    For that reason, even infants themselves, while they carry their condemnation along with them from the mother’s womb, are guilty not of another’s fault but of their own (Institutes 2.1.8, Italics added for emphasis)

    So, as we can see, Calvinism does not claim that some person is guilty for the acts of another. Rather, we are guilty only for our own acts. Consequently, Calvinism does not violate either (MP) or (MPC). And, thus, Ostler’s argument against original sin fails.

    I think in order to better understand DOS, we need to make a distinction b/t moral culpability and natural culpability. Moral culpability is the blameworthiness that we deserve from the immoral acts that we perform. Natural culpability is the blameworthiness that we deserve from the type of person that we are, i.e., from our character.

    With this distinction in hand, DOS does not say that we are morally culpable for the immoral act that Adam performed nor does it say that we are naturally culpable for Adam’s own non-virtuous (i.e., sinful) character. Rather, what DOS states is that we are naturally culpable for our own non-virtuous character that we inherited from Adam (i.e., we are naturally culpable for the inherited [genetic or otherwise] patterns of behavior from Adam [and others] that produce or tend to produce the “fruits of sin”).

    Now, the concept of natural culpability may be objected to by claiming that character’s are not the types of things that can be blameworthy; only persons that commit immoral acts can be blameworthy. But, I think this is far too narrow of a position. It seems perfectly sensible to blame and condemn various natural evils (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, viruses, etc.) for the destruction that they reek. And if it makes sense to do so, then, it also seems to make sense to blame and condemn characters and not just persons that commit immoral acts.

    But as Dennis Miller states, “This is only my opinion, and I could be wrong.” Thanks for listing.

    Aurelius

    Comment by Aurelius — March 20, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  26. We are to understand it not as if we . . . bore the guilty of his offense but in the sense that . . . he is said to have made us guilty. . . .

    For that reason, even infants themselves, while they carry their condemnation along with them from the mother’s womb, are guilty not of another’s fault but of their own (Institutes 2.1.8, Italics added for emphasis)

    Pray tell how a baby could be guilty of having a bad character? How could a baby have a character at all? What is a 3 day old culpable for? And explain how we have “been made culpable” according to Calvin — culpable for what? We can be culpable in the sense of character if our character is the result of the choices we have made. We cannot be culpable just for being what God made of us. On this view, the sense of culpability is simply unintelligible or condemns us for matters that we know we are not possibly culpable. At worst, it makes God the real culpable party it seems to me.

    Comment by Blake — March 20, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  27. Aurelius,

    It seems perfectly sensible to blame and condemn various natural evils (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, viruses, etc.) for the destruction that they reek.

    I don’t think that seems sensible at all, actually. It seems to me that we use the word “blame” to mean distinctly different things and you are conflating them based on the fact that we use the same word. It is true that we use the word “blame” in the sense that we say something was the cause of something else. So, I can “blame” a tornado for the destruction it reeks in that sense. I can can say that the a rock was to blame for crushing my car when it falls off a cliff onto my parking spot.

    However, it is quite a different thing we mean when we “blame” someone in the sense of holding them morally culpable for their actions. The distinction gets talked about a lot here, so I won’t belabor, but I think your comment conflates the two in a way that fundamentally undermines your argument.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 20, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  28. Jacob:

    I don’t think I am conflating the two senses. In fact, I think my first post makes this very clear by making the distinction between moral culpability and natural culpability.

    By saying that natural evils are blameworthy for the havoc that they wreak, I am not merely saying that they cause destruction as in “the rock is to blame for my broken window”. Rather, I am saying that natural evils (e.g., cancer) deserve our disapproval because of their inherently destructive nature. And our disapproval of cancer certainly seems sensible.

    Blake:

    You asked me tell you how an infant can be guilty of having bad character. Now, by guilty, I suppose you mean morally culpable. The answer is that a baby cannot be morally culpable for having a non-virtuous character. But that is not what I claimed, nor is it, I believe, what Calvin claimed. Rather, the baby is naturally culpable for having a non-virtuous character.

    Let make the distinction a bit more clear.

    X is morally culpable if X is worthy of being condemned (i.e., being disapproved of) because X intentionally and knowingly performed some act A that is inherently deleterious to human flourishing.

    Obviously, a baby cannot be morally culpable; for a baby cannot intentionally perform any act.

    X is naturally culpable if X is worthy of being condemned (i.e., being disapproved of) because X has some feature that is inherently deleterious to human flourishing.

    I think what Calvin and most forms of Calvinism are saying is that all humans (including infants) are naturally culpable. That is, all humans (including infants) deserve our disapproval (or God’s disapproval) because they have a feature that is inherently deleterious to human flourishing, namely, a non-virtuous character.

    You next ask how a baby can have a character. I suppose in the same way that animals have a character. Some dogs are gentle. Others are aggressive. Some dogs are quiet. Others dogs are loud. Some dogs are hyper. Other dogs are mellow. Dogs do not have these character traits because of the choices they made. Rather they have these character traits because of genetics and environment. Similarly, some babies are quiet. Others are loud. Some are gentle. Others are aggressive. Some are mellow. Others are hyper. Babies don’t have these character traits because of the choice they made. Rather, they have them because of their genetics and environment. Their character may change and develop as they make various choices and, thus, may become morally culpable for their character. But it seems that they do have a character (a certain way of behaving in the world) and it may be that they are naturally culpable for it.

    Comment by Aurelius — March 20, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  29. Aurelius,

    Hmmm, I must not have understood your meaning of natural culpability then. You said:

    Natural culpability is the blameworthiness that we deserve from the type of person that we are, i.e., from our character.

    What is your view of character? Isn’t our character a consequence of the free choices we have made in the past for which we were morally culpable? It seems that when you say “character” you have in mind something more like DNA. Natural culpability, as you define it ablve, doesn’t have anything to do with culpability, it has only to do with the fact that we (or God) disapprove(s) of our make-up. So, does the doctrine of original sin boil down to the idea that God disapproves of our DNA?

    Comment by Jacob J — March 21, 2008 @ 12:24 am

  30. Jacob:

    You stated:

    Natural culpability, as you define it ablve, doesn’t have anything to do with [moral] culpability, it has only to do with the fact that we (or God) disapprove(s) of our make-up. So, does the doctrine of original sin boil down to the idea that God disapproves of our DNA?

    This seems to be (or at least something very similar to) what Calvin is saying when he states:

    Original sin . . . seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath , then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’. . . .

    Comment by Aurelius — March 21, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  31. Aurelius: I suggest that your “natural culpability” lacks any real meaning. Look, the infant is just as God created it according to Calvin. If there is any culpability, it is God’s — and I noticed that you avoided responding to that part of my post that suggested that any failure is due to God in Calvin’s theology. That is a huge problem.

    Equally importantly, what you call natural culpability is just not culpability in any recognizable sense. The infant is disordered according to Calvin. Further, Jacob isn’t saying that God actually disapproves of our make-up, only that what you are saying seems to entail such a view that really doesn’t deal with culpability at all. Tell me how an infant could deserve or be justly damned to hell for an eternity in light of what you call natural culpability? How is God not directly responsible for the infant’s make-up? If the infant is somehow disordered, then what has that got to do with “culpability” which is an inherently moral category? Why use the term “culpability” at all? In all due candor, it seems that this distinction is comparing apples and oranges. The problem is that Calvinists assert that there is somehow blameworthiness for such non-moral culpability and thus confuse moral with non-moral terms by making us morally blameworthy for non-moral facts for which we are not accountable but God is. Do you maintain that infants can be justly damned for what you call natural culpability?

    Comment by Blake — March 21, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  32. What Blake said.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 21, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

  33. Blake:

    You stated:

    Look, the infant is just as God created it according to Calvin. If there is any culpability, it is God’s.

    However, unless you are interested in burning only straw men, this not Calvin’s nor any educated Calvinist’s position. As Calvin states:

    Now away with those persons who dare write God’s name upon their faults . . . Our destruction . . . comes from the guilt of our flesh, not from God, inasmuch as we have perished solely because we have degenerated from out original condition .

    [W]e declare that man is corrupted through natural vitiation . . . we call it ‘natural’ in order that no man may think that anyone obtains it through bad conduct, since it holds all men fast by hereditary right. . . . How could God, who is pleased by the least of his works, have been hostile to the noblest of all his creatures? But he is hostile toward the corruption of his work rather than toward the work itself . Therefore, if it is right to declare that mean, because of his vitiated nature, is naturally abominable to God, it is also proper to say that man is naturally depraved and faulty. (Institutes 2.1.10-11)

    So, pace your claim, Calvin did not teach that everything is as God created it. Quite the contrary! Our nature has been vitiated. It may be that for Calvin everything is as God decreed it. But this is not the same as saying everything is as God created it . The two sentence clearly do not mean the same thing; for one may be true and the other false.

    Now does this make God morally culpable? Perhaps. But I suppose that has something to do with one’s adopted moral theory. As I understand it, and as Ostler rightly points out, Calvin and many Calvinists are strong voluntarists. Ostler has made many arguments against this position (or should I say repeated the same old and tired arguments against this position). However, none of them demonstrate its falisty.

    His favorite seems to be that voluntarism results in absurdities. But what is absurd to one is rational to another. He claims that if voluntarism is true, then, God could make it so that rape could be performed meritoriously. He then claims that this is absurd and, thus, so too is voluntarism. But it is no argument against some position to point out its consequences. Why could not the voluntarist respond, “Yeah, so what?” As Ockham stated: “The hatred of God, theft, adultery, and actions similar to these actions according to common law, may have an evil quality annexed.” The argument has no sting for those who are prepared to accept the consequences.

    Another of his favorites is to point out that if voluntarism is true, then, morality is arbitrary. But that is absurd. Therefore, so too is voluntarism. But again, it is no argument against a position to point out its consequences. Why cannot the voluntarist again say, “Yeah, so what?” What follows from morality being arbitrary? Nothing other than it is arbitrary. One may not like this idea. But one’s likes and dislikes have nothing to do with the truth of an idea.

    So, to argue that it is absurd or unjust that God could damn an infant to hell merely for having a nature that is displeasing to him, especially since God decreed that the baby have such a nature, assumes the falsity of voluntarism, which in no way has been demonstrated by Ostler (or anybody else for that matter). It’s just out of favor these days. Although, the argument with the best chance of disproving the thesis is the argument from tautology. But if my distinction b/t natural and moral culpability holds then even this argument fails.

    You also state:

    Why use the term “culpability” at all? In all due candor, it seems that this distinction is comparing apples and oranges. The problem is that Calvinists assert that there is somehow blameworthiness for such non-moral culpability and thus confuse moral with non-moral terms by making us morally blameworthy for non-moral facts for which we are not accountable but God is.

    I ask you what is blameworthiness or culpability? The only meaning I can understand of this term is “deserving of someone’s (ours, God’s, aliens’, etc.) disapproval”. And if we give it that meaning then to say that something is naturally blameworthy or culpable makes sense; for to be naturally culpable is just to have some feature that deserves our disapproval.

    I suppose my distinction has something in common the the now common distinction made between moral and natural evil. Moral evils are those acts performed by humans that deserve our disapproval b/c they are inherently deleterious to our flourishing. And natural evils are those natural events that b/c of some feature they have are inherently deleterious to human flourishing. If we are will to say that this distinction makes sense, then, why not my distinction b/t moral and natural culpability. It seems to me that all evil is worthy or deserving of our disapproval. And, thus, both moral and natural evil seem to be worthy of our disapproval, which is only to say that they are both blameworthy.

    Lastly you ask:

    Do you maintain that infants can be justly damned for what you call natural culpability?

    I maintain nothing of the sort. Yet I do not deny it either. Rather I only maintain that Ostler’s (your?) argument does not demonstrate that they aren’t or cannot be. I also maintain that your argument against original sin is a straw man and not what Calvin or educated Calvinists maintain. This I believe I have demonstrated.

    Comment by Aurelius — March 23, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  34. Aurelius: First, if everything occurs both because God so decreed it and causes it directly, as Calvin maintained, then your protest that I have misrepresented Calvin is not only empty but vastly misleading. Your account is myopic and misleading because it focuses so narrowly that it misses what I actually argue. I assert that no person can be morally blameworthy or justly held morally accountable for what another did. You don’t use accountable in a moral sense, but in a different sense that literally has no meaning in a moral realm. To the extent Calvinists hold such a view, I believe that they are missing the nature of moral accountability. I claim that Calvinism entails that we are guilty for what God decrees and causes and we cannot do otherwise and that is a deficient view. Calvin most certainly held that babies can be justly punished in the sense that they deserve hell for original sin. So I ask again, What has the baby done to be blameworthy for anything?

    I am not usually this direct. Your assertions here are misleading and misrepresentations of Calvinism because you fail to take into account that Calvinism holds us accountable for what we don’t do.

    Here is how I prove that you account of culpability simply misses the boat and drifts at sea drowning. You assert that to be culpable just means “deserving of disapproval.” Such a view demonstrates precisely how you fail to grasp the moral nature of blameworthiness such that a person could be held accountable and thus justly punished. I disapprove of air pollution. Will you say that air pollution is therefore blameworthy or culpable for the fact that it obtains? It is not enough for moral culpability merely that we disapprove of something (Galen Strawson’s redefinition of moral accountability), we must be justly held accountable and blameworthy in a moral sense.

    Further, you assert: But it is no argument against some position to point out its consequences. If you were correct, then the argument ad absurdum would have no bite. The fact that Calvinism entails that God is directly responsible for everything that occurs, as you admit, entails that God is culpable for anything of which you assert God disapproves and also for any moral evil. It entails, in other words, that the being you assert is God ain’t. That is a pretty damning indictment of a view that follows from pointing out what follows!

    Comment by Blake — March 23, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  35. Blake:

    You state:

    I assert that no person can be morally blameworthy . . . for what another did.

    Yes, I know that this is what you assert and in doing so you misrepresent Calvin and Calvinism; for this is not what Calvin maintains — as I have demonstrated. If you have a quote from Calvin where he states that some person can be morally blameworthy for what another did then by all means provide it.

    You also state:

    I assert that no person can be . . . justly held morally accountable for what another did.

    Again, Calvin never claimed this. Rather he states that everybody is held accountable for and only for what they do and for what they are. If you have a quote to the contrary provide it.

    Furthermore, this claim assumes and does not demonstrate the falsity of voluntarism. If God makes the rules then if he wanted to do this then it would be just. Sure your principle makes sense intuitively, but intuition is a cheap mistress. Many before Copernicus would have said that intuition tells us that the sun revolves around the earth. Intuition has lead us astray many, many times before and there is no reason to trust her here. It is no contradiction to say that “God is the moral law maker” and, thus, it is logically possible.

    You claim:

    I claim that Calvinism entails that we are guilty for what God decrees and causes and we cannot do otherwise and that is a deficient view.

    Calvin, of course, denies libertarian free-will and consequently must maintain that moral culpability is compatible with determinism. But this issue is entirely separate from the doctrine of original sin, which states that we are naturally culpable.

    You stated:

    Calvin most certainly held that babies can be justly punished in the sense that they deserve hell for original sin. So I ask again, What has the baby done to be blameworthy for anything?

    The infant has not done anything. But of course this is the point. The infant is not morally culpable, but naturally culpable.

    You:

    you fail to take into account that Calvinism holds us accountable for what we don’t do.

    Yes, but not morally accountable. Try this thought experiment. Suppose that cancer were a conscious entity. Suppose further that it is completely unaware that it destroys human life. Can we hold it morally accountable for destroying us? Let’s just assume the answer is no. Does this mean that we should invite it into our body? Of course the answer here is no. Should we still try to destroy it if it takes hold in our body? Of course the answer here is yes. But what has the cancer done to deserve this? Nothing. Couldn’t it ask us “How can you justly condemn me for only being what I am?” Isn’t the answer to this because it is inimical to our flourishing and we matter more than it? We destroy it and hold it accountable b/c of its nature. Are we unjust for doing so? No; for cancer is naturally culpable to us.

    This seems to me to be similar to what Calvin is saying. Human nature left in its vitiated state is like cancer. If allowed into God’s glorified body (i.e., heaven) without being regenerated, it would destroy it. So God does not and will not let this happen. Is God unjust for doing so? No; for we in our vitiated state are naturally culpable to him.

    You state:

    I disapprove of air pollution. Will you say that air pollution is therefore blameworthy or culpable for the fact that it obtains?

    Would you allow air pollution into your utopia? I wouldn’t. But why? What has air pollution ever done to deserve this banishment? Nothing. Rather, it is banished merely because of what it is.

    You state:

    Further, you assert: But it is no argument against some position to point out its consequences. If you were correct, then the argument ad absurdum would have no bite.

    And? What follows from this? That reductio ad absurdum arguments do have bite? How? Why can’t I just accept that they don’t. Indeed, I do. Reductios demonstrate nothing other than the psychological leanings of the person(s) using them. Does any contradiction follow from denying reductio ad absurdums as a valid form of reasoning? No.

    You state:

    The fact that Calvinism entails that God is directly responsible for everything that occurs, as you admit, entails that God is culpable for anything of which you assert God disapproves and also for any moral evil.

    Culpable to whom? Culpability seems to imply that there is somebody to whom one is culpable. Again this just assumes that voluntarism is wrong. And I see no reason to think that is the case.

    Comment by Aurelius — March 23, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  36. Aurelius: Look, let’s get something straight. I have not asserted that Calvin or Calvinists claimed that people are morally responsible for original sin; what I claimed is that only moral responsibility can justify punishment and blameworthiness. Because little children deserve damnation as a result of original sin, the kind of non-moral (natural) defect that you and other Calvinists have in mind won’t do the work it has to in order to justify the claim that we all, including little children, deserve damnation for original sin. We can deserve to be punished only for acts for which we are morally responsible — for acts and not for being defective in our make-up. I view having mental retardation as something which I disapprove. I would like to make it so that no one is mentally challenged. But we couldn’t justly send anyone to hell for being mentally challenged now could we? That is why your argument that the notion of natural defect will explain original sin in Calvin’s thought is bankrupt. It is a dodge, an attempt to misdirect and avoid the real issue.

    So what I claim is that Calvinists attempt to deal with original sin as a non-moral category of natural defectiveness, but only morally significant acts can justify desert and damnation for original sin. It is the same mistake you make over and over again by failing to see where moral culpability is required and not merely a natural defect. You just aren’t getting it.

    If God makes the rules then if he wanted to do this then it would be just. Sure your principle makes sense intuitively, but intuition is a cheap mistress. Many before Copernicus would have said that intuition tells us that the sun revolves around the earth. Intuition has lead us astray many, many times before and there is no reason to trust her here. It is no contradiction to say that “God is the moral law maker” and, thus, it is logically possible.

    This claim is multiply flawed. First, your argument simply begs the question by assuming that if you believe something and something else follows from it, then it must be fine to believe whatever follows. However, if what follows is absurdity, then you have begun with something that ought to be rejected — like the view that God causes everything and therefore is responsible for evil. Simply because it that God is responsible for all evil if we begin with God causing everything, it doesn’t make it OK that God is responsible for evil!

    Would you allow air pollution into your utopia? I wouldn’t. But why? What has air pollution ever done to deserve this banishment? Nothing. Rather, it is banished merely because of what it is.

    Duhh. Of course I would banish air pollution in my utopia. But I wouldn’t blame the air pollution for being morally culpable for being something that is a defect. I would blame God who caused it.

    Culpable to whom? Culpability seems to imply that there is somebody to whom one is culpable. Again this just assumes that voluntarism is wrong. And I see no reason to think that is the case.

    Nonsense. One can be culpable without owing duties to another. God could be culpable for failing to make something less that the best that he could make because if he is really perfectly good then what he makes must also be perfectly good! Further, God is unfair to all those whom he damns that he could save because he is unfair and unloving to them to damn them arbitrarily when he just as easily save them all at will. He wrongs all those whom he creates defective that he could have created non-defective.

    Comment by Blake — March 23, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  37. Aurelius,

    The only meaning I can understand of this term is “deserving of someone’s (ours, God’s, aliens’, etc.) disapproval”.

    Calvin, of course, denies libertarian free-will and consequently must maintain that moral culpability is compatible with determinism.

    It’s coming into focus for me now. I agree that if you reject libertarian free will you are forced to strip moral culpability down to a matter of disapproval. Nothing in theology really makes any sense to me after that, which explains why your view makes no sense to me. But at least I think I get what you are saying.

    By the way, since you seem to have asked, but I didn’t see an answer, Blake the commenter is the same as Ostler in the post.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 24, 2008 @ 1:12 am

  38. Blake:

    You state:

    Look, let’s get something straight. I have not asserted that Calvin or Calvinists claimed that people are morally responsible for original sin; what I claimed is that only moral responsibility can justify punishment and blameworthiness.

    This is not what you claim. Look, you clearly state in your book that

    The traditional doctrine of original sin adopts the untenable view that moral culpability can be transferred from one person to another. (POT 121)

    But this is not the traditional view of original sin and certainly not what Calvin had in mind. Rather, the traditional doctrine of original sin agrees that moral culpability cannot be transferred, but claims that natural culpability can.

    You further claim in your book that

    Calvinism violates both (MP) and (MPC). Not only are we [morally] guilty of Adam’s, but we all deserve eternal damnation from birth as a result. Thus, we are not only [morally] guilty for Adam’s sin but can be justly punished for an act done by another. (POT 126)

    Both (MP) and (MPC) have to do with moral accountability. You are now offering a new principle. Let’s call it the justified punishment principle, which states:

    (JP) Only moral responsibility can justify punishment and blameworthiness.

    From this principle you can now argue that Calvinism violates (JP) and, thus, is unacceptable. But this is an entirely different argument than what you present in your book; for (JP) and (MP)/(MPC) do not mean the same thing. Calvin and Calvinist can and do accept both (MP) and (MPC), but they cannot accept (JP).

    Perhaps a third party can weigh in here:

    In his book, does Blake argue that

    (a) DOS is untenable because it violates the principle that one person cannot be morally accountable for the actions of another person

    or

    b) DOS is untenable because it violates the principle that only moral responsibility can justify punishment?

    As I read it, you argue for (a). And I suppose that’s why you call it the problem of “vicarious guilt” (which BTW is quite catchy) rather than the problem of “confused categories” (which is plain and boring).

    You state:

    So what I claim is that Calvinists attempt to deal with original sin as a non-moral category of natural defectiveness, but only morally significant acts can justify desert and damnation for original sin. It is the same mistake you make over and over again by failing to see where moral culpability is required and not merely a natural defect. You just aren’t getting it.

    You may claim this now, but this is not the argument you present in your book. And, yes, I am getting it. I just disagree. You state that only immoral acts can justify punishment of any sort. But I claim that if God is the law maker then he can justifiably punish anything he wants. You may think that this is absurd, but there are plenty of rational people who have and still do disagreed with you.

    You state that

    if what follows [from an idea] is absurdity, then you have begun with something that ought to be rejected.

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is true. Tell me how you decide whether something is absurd or rational. And once you give me the criteria for something being absurd or rational, tell me how it is that the idea of God being the moral law maker fits that criteria. Then tell why I should care about being rational or absurd in that way.

    As far as I know, there is no widely accepted concept of absurdity or rationality (and even if there were, it would not follow that it was right). Rather these concepts seem to reflect and only reflect what a community is willing to accept and reject. Thus, if a community accepts God as the moral law maker then it is rational for that community. If a community rejects it then it is absurd for that community. Now, this does not prove that there is no absolute sense of these concepts. But I don’t know what they are and, thus, cannot judge whether something is absolutely absurd or not. I have to allow for the possibility that it may only seem absurd to me b/c of my historical and cultural context.

    Comment by Aurelius — March 24, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  39. Aurelius asserts: Rather, the traditional doctrine of original sin agrees that moral culpability cannot be transferred, but claims that natural culpability can.

    First off, I believe that I have shown that what you claim is “natural culpability” just ain’t culpability at all. We can disapprove of natural states that are not culpable.

    Further, when I assert that Calvinism asserts that moral culpability can be transferred, I am clearly referring to the kind of culpability for which we can be held accountable and punished — and only moral culpability will do the job. In fact, to be clear what I assert that is that God is really opposed only to his own sovereign and arbitrary judgment as to what is disagreeable to him — God imputes sinfulness to us just as much as he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. It is all purely arbitrary in the Calvinist view.

    So I am asserting something quite consistent: Calvinism wants to say that we are not morally accountable for original sin, but merely for the effects that follow from it. However, when Calvinism asserts that we all deserve to be damned so that God does us no injustice when he leaves some to damnation, only the category of moral culpability can justify this claim. What you call “natural culpability” cannot justify punishment or damnation. In fact, I claim that it is just conceptually vacuous. So while I acknowledge that Calvinism wants to fob off some non-moral notion of original sin — and in fact does when it is discovered that good and evil are purely arbitrary because they are whatever God deems them to be with no real meaning — only moral culpability can do the job that Calvinists want original sin to do.

    You have to read the entire chapter and not proof-text it the way you have done. I am loathe to read the entire thing for you or to reproduce it here just to show that what I am saying is what I have been saying all along. But read the definition of Calvinist original sin on p. 123 and what I say about imputed guilt and righteousness on pp. 358-59.

    Comment by Blake — March 24, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  40. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is true. Tell me how you decide whether something is absurd or rational. And once you give me the criteria for something being absurd or rational, tell me how it is that the idea of God being the moral law maker fits that criteria. Then tell why I should care about being rational or absurd in that way.

    We all agree that God isn’t the cause of evil because he is good. When your view entails that God is accountable for evil, it follows on both of our views that the being we are talking about isn’t God. You attempt to escape the clear implications of your Calvinism by attempting to say that if it follows from what you believe in your belief-system then it cannot be objectionable is just non-sense. For example, if I show that materialistic naturalism entails epiphenomenalism (and I believe that it does) and I show that epiphenomenalism just isn’t an acceptable view, then I have shown an aporia and deep problem in the beginning assumptions of the entire enterprise. When it is shown that God is responsible for evil and arbitrary predestination, and that such implications are inconsistent with the fundamental Christian commitment that God is loving, then it follows that I have shown that the entire system of Calvinism is called seriously into question. It is incoherent. It gives us an unworthy view of God and in fact a view of a being that cannot really be called God consistently. Attempting to avoid this conclusion by asserting that it just follows from the entire belief system is hardly an answer. It is to recognize that one’s views have been reduced to absurdity but to suggest that it isn’t absurd because the absurdity follows from other beliefs in the belief system. But that is just the point of a reductio ad absurdum argument. It’s like seeing that the system is incoherent but suggesting that isn’t a problem because the incoherence follows from the belief system as a whole.

    Comment by Blake — March 24, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

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