by George Brahm
I love the summer despite hating the heat– it’s the time of the year when I get to read the books I actually want to read as opposed to the books I have to read. (Usually books to do with coursework, something I’m conditioned to detest.)
Given a few other commitments this summer, I wasn’t able to read as much as I wanted to, but I thought it might be worthwhile to share something about two of the books I really enjoyed reading.
The Potter’s Freedom by James R. White
The Potter’s Freedom is a book I’ve read before, back when I was a staunch Arminian. A lot of noise had been made about Norman Geisler’s ‘moderate Calvinism’/’Calminianism’ that was supposed to offer a peaceful middle path. Wanting to know what a traditional Calvinist would have to say in response to the Geislerian take, I picked up a copy of The Potter’s Freedom. I do not remember my exact response to the book, at least not more than that I strongly disagreed with it, given my Arminianism.
After my adoption of Reformed theology last year (ironically, partially as a result of listening to White’s material on Church History), I wanted to go back to The Potter’s Freedom and figure out what it was that I had so strongly disagreed with during my Arminian days. And so I decided to give it a read over the summer.
What’s it about?
Intended to be a rebuttal to Norman Geisler’s dismissal of Calvinism as “theologically inconsistent, philosophically insufficient, and morally repugnant” in his seminal Chosen But Free (which was itself supposed to be a rebuttal to R.C. Sproul’s vastly influential Chosen by God. White walks through Geisler’s attempted refutation of historic Reformed theology, responding to Geisler’s use of Scriptural proof-texts that allegedly refute Calvinism, as well as defending the standard texts that have been used in defense of Reformed theology through the centuries.
What I enjoyed about it
The book is very accessible. White takes material that is generally discussed in the hallowed halls of seminaries and explains them in common parlance and with the support of analogies. This is a quality I can appreciate in any theological book.
I also appreciate White’s methodology in responding to Geisler and Arminianism in general. He understands that soteriological conversations need to be addressed primarily on an exegetical level, for as Protestants, we do hold Scripture to be our highest and only infallible authority on all matters of faith and practice. To this end, he dedicates a significant amount of space to examining Geisler’s use (or rather, misuse) of various passages of Scripture in favour of his position. An important point White makes here is never to read a verse and assume that it supports your theological position because that’s what it seems to say at face value, isolated from its context. Instead, we ought to exegete in a manner that is consistent with the rest of Scripture– in other words, exegesis ought to be both faithful to the specific text and consistent with the rest of the text.
I also appreciate the range of topics White covers, supporting his views against Geisler’s with Scripture and the positions outlined by historic Reformed theology. These topics include the alleged conflict between divine foreknowledge, predestination and human freedom and responsibility, total depravity and inability, the doctrine of election, the extent of the atonement, and the alleged ‘moral repugnance’ of Calvinism. Each section is supported with robust Scriptural exegesis.
Finally, I appreciate White’s dedicating an entire appendix to defending Reformed theology against two proof texts that are often brought up against Reformed theology- 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 Timothy 4:10.
What could’ve been better
White is right in pointing out that Norman Geisler, at least in Chosen but Free, appears to be a philosopher first and foremost, because he seems to read his philosophical presuppositions about ideas like libertarian free will or the nature of love into the text of Scripture. And he is also right to point out that, when examining crucial theological concepts like soteriology, we ought to prioritize direct and consistent exegesis from the text of Scripture over satisfying our philosophical commitments.
Nonetheless, there are points in the book where this (correct) line of thinking begins to seem like it has been implicity taken to an unnecessary extreme– a general dismissiveness of philosophical and appearing to pit theology against philosophy. I am not convinced that White holds such a view, but one who reads The Potter’s Freedom might come away with such a view.
The point that needs to be recognized is that theology does often rely on concepts that are essentially philosophical in nature (free will would be a good example), and good philosophy is always in harmony with Scriptural theology. What needs to be emphasized is to test whether our definitions of these philosophical concepts are in harmony with how Scripture treats these concepts. (Yes, believe it or not, Scripture does deal with philosophical concepts, even though it is by no means a book of philosophy.) For instance, if you’re dealing with the philosophical concept of free will, what you need to do is to examine whether your conception of free will, whether libertarian or compatibilistic, aligns with a direct and consistent reading of Scripture. (Which would get you into issues about whether God is absolutely sovereign over all things, including human action, etc.)
As an antidote to this, I would have loved to see at least an appendix from a philosopher who also holds to Reformed theology (like Paul Helm), responding to the specific philosophical errors that Geisler makes with philosophical points that are faithful to and consistent with Scripture. That would have been a good engagement with Geisler on his home turf.
Explaining Evil: Four Views edited by W. Paul Franks
Ever since I got interested in the philosophy of religion, I’ve firmly held that the existence of evil and suffering in the world is not an issue that the theist alone is supposed to explain. The atheist must also explain why evil exists and why we must work towards alleviating what seems to be fair game in a naturalistic system. Editor W. Paul Franks expresses an identical sentiment in the introduction to this 2019 book published by Bloomsbury.
What’s it about?
As is typical of ‘Four Views’ books, the book presents four alternative explanations for the existence of evil and suffering in the world. The first two sections involve theistic explanations, with Richard Brian Davis defending agent causal libertarian free will as an explanation for evil and Paul Helm defending a version of the Plantingean felix culpa theodicy. The latter two sections involve atheistic explanations, with Michael Ruse defending a version of non-realism about morality, dismissing evil and Erik Wielenberg defending a version of strong moral realism, labelling evil to be an irreducible non-natural property of things in the world. Each section is followed by rebuttals from the three other authors and a response from the section author.
What I enjoyed about it
The format of the book is terrific. The individual chapters are very accessible to an intelligent reader with little to no background in philosophy. (That is, of course, a vague statement, but you know what I mean.) The back-and-forth set up ensures lively critiques of each view, ensuring that the sparks fly in plenty. (Especially between the two theistic views, which brings in the differences between the irreconcilable Calvinistic and Arminian positions on divine sovereignty and human freedom.)
While I find myself in the theistic compatibilist camp, I found the three other sections to be quite persuasive in their own right, buffered only by the pointing out of weaknesses in the response sections. My favourite section was the one on the agent causal explanation by Richard Brian Davis. He had a remarkably lucid way of putting his thoughts on paper (complete with weird but fun-sounding acronyms). His essay also generated what I thought was the best response essay in the entire book, from the theistic compatibilist Paul Helm.
What could’ve been better
My only complaint with the book is that the space dedicated to the section author’s response to the three critiques presented was way too short. There were times when I felt that some significant critiques either went unaddressed or addressed far too briefly, which could (wrongly) one to think that the author decided to merely skim over what was a valid critique of their view. The book isn’t too long as is (a mere 180 pages, way too short for a book on such a substantial issue) and I would have preferred to see longer and more thorough responses from the section authors themselves.
Also, as much as I enjoy his work, I would have preferred to hear a little less about Michael Ruse’s sexual exploits in his chapter, but I digress.
Overall, both The Potter’s Freedom and Explaining Evil are two books I would highly recommend to all interested in the relevant topics.
Check out The Potter’s Freedom here:
Check out Explaining Evil here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.