Philosophy & Religion

One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

I’ve been poking around recently in Greco-Roman philosophy and found this website as a quick resource for looking up stuff: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  While it’s not much more detailed than wikipedia, it is ‘professionally peer-reviewed’ (at least it says it is).

I’m sure we’re all still trying to get over the Judaism-Hellenism divide, so this detailed and extensive annotated bibliography by Greg Boyd concerning the possible influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Christian theology will be helpful.  It ranges from NT to patristic and includes a wide variety of views.  One can’t miss his emphasis on the free will/determinism issue.

My esteemed collegue John Goodrich, recently pointed me to this collection of Greek and Latin classical texts online, along with a collection of other helpful items.  Many are old Loeb translations that have gone out of copyright.  They include: Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and many more.  Enjoy.


While doing some reading on the Stoics, I came across this interesting discussion about Calvin and the Stoics.  He wrote a commentary on Senaca’s On Mercy (1532).  Sellars writes:

In his own preface, Calvin defends Senaca against both ancient and modern critics, proclaiming that ‘our Seneca was second only to Cicero, a vertiable pillar of Roman philosophy’ (Battles & Hugo, 11).  Having worked on the text so closely, Calvin was inevitably influenced by Seneca, whether positively or negatively, but the extent to which Seneca’s Stoicism contributed to Calvin’s later religious thought is much harder to determine.  Some have suggested that Stoic notions of determinism and an internal moral law helped to shape his religious outlook (Beck, 110), and others have gone so far as to suggest that ‘Calvinism is Stoicism baptized into Christianity’ (see Battles & Hugo, 46*), but no doubt the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex than this emphatic statement claims. p. 142

John Sellars, Stoicism (Bucks, UK: Acumen, 2006).
FL Battles & AM Hugo, Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (Leiden: Brill, 1969).
LW Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1969).

…on the problem of evil, a recent debate in San Francisco.  See here for the audio.

A few of us have started taking out different lecturers for lunch to pick their brains about academic life in the UK and other things.  Last term we had an enjoyable lunch with Prof Robert Hayward, who teaches ancient Judaism and OT. I had the pleasure of sitting in on his Genesis Rabbah midrash reading group last year. 

One of our common questions is what books would one recommend for PhD students, especially for those in biblical studies.  For the most part he didn’t give specific books, but he recommended specific areas of reading.  These are: 1) the main Dead Sea Scroll documents, 2) something on church history, 3) something on enlightenment, 4) something on the development of scientifc thought in late 19th c. and critical methods for the Bible study, and 5) post-modernism.  He thought people should understand the factors that influenced the rise of marxism and fascism in the 2oth c., particularly because their fruit has been so murderous.  It wasn’t what we were expecting, but I thought it was good to have reminder that we don’t need to get so tied up into just one small area of thought and to think more widely about the faith.

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