Psychological Necessity & the Doctrines of Grace

Doctrine and Division, I.3.4

Psychological Necessity as the Slope and Gravity of our Inferential Life

The flip side of psychological impossibility is of course psychological necessity. Here we are not talking about an overall determinism, but a set of conclusions that are a basically inevitable consequence to the assumptions which form them. In other words, there is an “all other things being equal” clause attached to them. So, for instance (all other things being equal), if I believe the world will end tomorrow, then—and of course, most everybody finishes this sentence a little differently. But all are agreed that it radically changes the rest of the day today. And why is that? It is because the conclusion is psychologically necessary given the premise. Not all things that are logically necessary—from premise to conclusion—are immediately psychologically necessary. Just as in the case of psychological impossibility we live with cognitive blind spots. The point is that the bigger the issue, the more the snowball of our premises turns into an avalanche at our conclusions. All things being equal, premises weigh heavy on us, and this our anti-rational age has attempted to remove from the human experience. But such a denial is not possible. The weight of the “if-then” is the quintessentially human attribute. So, all other things being equal:

If my doctrine of the atonement denies that Christ satisfied God’s wrath aimed at every single one of my particular sins, then, all other things being equal, I suppose that at least one of my sins was not atoned for, which sin either does not require satisfaction or else will be atoned my something I do or else will not be atoned for at all. If my doctrine of man in the fall suggests that his primary need is to be educated or motivated, on the basis of a nature he already possesses, to love God or follow Christ, then, all other things being equal, my doctrine of the church’s mission will be aimed principally at this persuasion and will necessarily exclude the content which can only be grasped by the working of a higher nature.

We would expect B to follow A, for the most part, all other things being equal. Naturally all other things are never equal, which is why the compromise takes time to work itself out. Real people do not live a big white room containing only the clear transcripts of their most important deductions. We recognize this and that is one reason we blow it off—“Nobody thinks about it that way!”—when what we really should say is that nobody thinks about it immediately or consistently. But B will follow A, one way or another, sooner or later. Psychological necessity can be resisted, but it will be met, in due time.

Whereas psychological impossibility dissolves the relationship between the mutually exclusive over time, psychological necessity demonstrates the relationship between the necessarily inclusive. If A, then B. If it is raining today, then it is today. If all bears are mammals, and Yogi is a bear, then Yogi is a mammal. Psychological necessity cements the relationship between real antecedents and consequents in the mind. It is where subjective psychology conforms to objective epistemology. The end of the string you pull really is connected to the other end of the same string. The one will move with the other by the other. God and Christ and the written Word and the flow of history and the destiny of each individual really are objectively connected, even if not in exactly the way that the best of our doctrinal formulations suggest. They are connected much more solidly and finally that any piece of string. The relationship is one of necessity and ultimacy, which actually makes the present thesis guilty of understatement more than anything else.

Let us take the doctrines of grace as our basic case in point.

Common ground is always a good place to start in a controversy. And I think that an awful lot of Arminians can agree with we in the Reformed strand of thought that somehow or other the contemporary church is trying just about anything to get people to church except the gospel. There are many reasons for this that require a good sociological nose to uncover. I want to acknowledge that so that the following points are not dismissed as one-dimensional. I am fully aware of the pressures of anti-intellectualism and pragmatism on the church culture, and that an Arminian can be just as annoyed with such things as a Calvinist. What I do want to suggest, however, is that even with those sociological phenomena, it is the shift to a man-centered worldview that is at work. That is to say, the idea that man’s free will is the paramount concern of God either in creation or redemption tends to evaporate both rationality and fidelity to the content and power of the Word. As a young Christian, I began to fully embrace Calvinism just as I was reaching my last nerve in my struggle with anti-intellectualism in the local church. It had not occurred to me that the two issues were connected.

But so it is, that as man takes more of a central position in his own thinking—in terms of his autonomy in the areas of reflection, meaning, and action—he begins to lose the pervasiveness of God in the created order. History does not lie. The Arminians of the seventeenth century became the Deists of the eighteenth century. The Lutheran Pietists who inherited Melanchthon’s deviation from his mentor’s theology became the radical critics of the nineteenth century. Likewise, yesterday’s free willed Neo-Evangelicals are today’s Open Theists. As God is systematically nudged from the created order to a more tame location, it is not merely Reformed theology, but Supernaturalism, which suffers. “A little leaven leavens the whole batch” [Gal. 5:9]. Iain Murray chronicles this same trend in the waning of Puritan New England: “In the progress of a decline which Edwards had rightly anticipated, those Congregational churches of New England which had embraced Arminianism after the Great Awakening gradually moved into Unitarianism and universalism, led by Charles Chauncy.”[1]

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that in the midst of these conversations, it is a foregone conclusion that the Reformed are just that—Reformed—while others are just being biblical and textual. The system that does the best rationally is victimized by its own success, and the catch-all charge “You’re imposing your system on the text!” is read to the guilty suspect, when it seems to never apply to anyone else. Consequently in warning people never to follow mere mortals, lest we love them more than Christ or His word, a devilish weed begins to charm and suffocate our minds. It never occurs to us that it might be just as heart-warming to reject a system as to embrace one. In other words, the temptation to flee a certain five points of doctrine at warp speed might become just as precious to me as it is for someone else to uphold them. “Do you Calvinists love these points so much that you cannot force yourself to see anything else in this or that text?” That is a perfectly warranted question. But I think the historical burden of proof is a ripe shoe that is on the other foot. Simply look at what has occurred anytime a movement has tried to get away from the implications of any of the five points.

For instance, when someone begins to consider the atonement at a deeper level, it may become clearer to them that in order for Jesus to have really saved us, something more than the Mormon doctrine of the atonement (that Jesus simply made salvation possible for all on the cross) is required. He may rightly see that unbelief is also a sin, that we do not believe perfectly, even after conversion, and that this unbelief needs to be atoned for as well. Moreover this “payment” was not to the devil but to God’s own justice. Hence, the Son absorbed the wrath of the Father meant for me, the sinner. This is why the believer is not going to hell. When all of the pieces are put together, and one lands on that third of the five points, he arrives at a thorny impasse. There are several alternate paths on this theological journey. One is to turn back and stop thinking about it (That is the popular option); another is to convince oneself that belief is the decisive thing that applies the effect of the cross over to one’s account, but this does not add a thing to the cross (That is the base-line Arminian option); another is to deny the wrath-bearing component of the atonement (Which is becoming increasingly popular in evangelical circles); while other roads include denying the conscious eternality of hell, or, the omniscience of Christ, or, the legal/justice component of the cross altogether. Now we know that most American Christians never even get to this multi-option intersection, and so we assume it’s a moot point. However, their pastors have long since come to and passed this intersection. They have made choices like this, though you will never hear an overt sermon about it. Instead, we will be fed it intravenously throughout all sermons until it has absorbed.

It is simply psychologically impossible for those who teach to reject a system of thought at just one point. Here we will see psychological impossibility and psychological necessity feeding off each other at the beginning of apostasy. Thus, there is not merely leaven in the soul, but leaven at an institutional level. In one’s passion to be pure of doctrinal systems, the more doctrinally active (i.e. pastors and seminary faculty) never realize that fleeing that most notorious system called “Calvinism” becomes more important to them than submitting to Scripture. A chain reaction has begun that will unravel the whole fabric of the faith—in some ways, in one’s own lifetime; in other ways, over a generation or so. Let me give some concrete examples, beginning with the doctrine of Scripture.

If one is committed to ideas such as “parallel truths” and “paradoxes” (both misused terms in this context especially), that any two meanings of this or that doctrine could be merely two aspects that go together in logical tension, resolved only in eternity, then it is difficult to see how such a person could ever submit to the authority of Scripture on anything. For a contradiction is a kind of error, and the inerrancy (and therefore authority) of the Bible is sacrificed at the altar of trying to have it both ways. Moreover, if one is committed to the idea that a loving God can never force His will on our actions, then it would seem that the prophets and apostles whom God inspired would either have to be an exception to this, or else, the possibility of human error must be considered. Can the Arminian believe in inerrancy? Absolutely—with all his heart, just not with all of his mind. Yet the heart will follow the head in due time.

Look now at the doctrine of God. Does God know all future events? Does that include the fact that you would be reading this right now? If so, then it would seem a contradiction that you could have been doing otherwise. Now the fact that you are reading this doesn’t cause you break too much of a sweat, but how about this one: Did God know—during creation—who would go to heaven or hell? If not, then He is not omniscient. If so, then He does not love everyone quite the same. The thoughtful Arminian sees things like this, and is faced with either agreeing to Calvinism or renouncing certain other aspects of classical orthodoxy. He may deny the omniscience of God or the reality of hell. He does this either through Middle Knowledge, Open Theism, or Annihilationism. But which ever he chooses, choose he must. Can he back off of all of this and simply affirm both the classical attributes as well as libertarian free will? Absolutely—with all his heart, just not with all of his mind. And the heart will follow the head in due time.

Now I would draw your attention to the Arminian conception of love. According to what is the aforementioned libertarian free will—the ability of free moral agents to do or do otherwise—the essence of love demands the possibility of rejecting that love. But if this is true, then the closer one gets to the essence of love, the more that possibility should exist. The Bible says that “God is love” [1 Jn. 4:7]. He is not merely the finest exemplar of love. His whole being is love. Why did a perfectly self-sufficient Being create anything outside of himself? Someone will say that God created to experience love. Others will say that He created to share that love. What would we mean by “share”? Would we still mean that He was adding something to His character that He did not already possess in perfection? That is part of what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us—that God has always existed in a perfect community of love. And as Edwards said: “Surely it is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow.”[2] But supposing that the essence of love really did demand the possibility of rejecting that love? What becomes of the Triune God? It is unthinkable that the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit could have ever bowed out under irreconcilable differences! And the more we think about this Tri-unity as it is presented in Scripture, the more we will learn about a lot of other things in creation, redemption, and glory. But if it is the very essence of love that it demands the ability to choose or choose otherwise, then the Trinity must be more susceptible to it than anyone! Can the Arminian believe in the Trinity? Absolutely—with all his heart, just not with all of his mind. And the heart will follow the head in due time.

As a consequence of this definition of love—libertarian free will—something else happens to the biblical worldview which I think we would all regard as negative. The hope of heaven is vitiated. The Bible teaches that we will always be with the Lord once this age has passed away. But how can this be guaranteed if the ultimate thing in genuine love is the possibility of rejecting that love? What power will prevent that possibility from becoming a reality? Myself? Or God? And if it is God, then why should we resent His doing in this age what we so desperately need Him to do in that age—preventing us from “choosing” otherwise? But while we haggle over this, the true hope of heaven (which is not our own power to shape and define reality) is not even a glimmer in our eyes. On the flip side of love and heaven is eternal punishment. Does God love everyone the same? Does He love us all unconditionally? If so, then how do we understand hell? Rehab? Not if we are biblical Christians. No, you know very well that the doctrine teaches that it is irreversible and everlasting. What lesson is God teaching the damned? What impurity is He cleansing them of? And for what? None of this will work, and so, much like the exceeding beauties of heaven, we do not contemplate the obvious horrors of hell. And this is what Armnianism does—to make room for the centrality of the all-encompassing human will, heaven above and hell below are pushed ever further out of our consciousness, and we do not treat the things of true religion with any sense of gravity. Is there any denial that this has happened in contemporary Evangelicalism? Can the Arminian believe in the doctrines of heaven and hell? Absolutely—with all his heart, just not with all of his mind. And, yes, the heart will follow the head in due time.

In all of these, the heart will naturally follow the head in due time; but it does not follow that God will allow nature to run its course. The same divine mercy at work in the Calvinist is at work in the Arminian. For that we should give thanks. But should we thereby burry our heads in the sand to the fact that nature does run its course if left to its own? How ironic! We do not make that excuse in evangelism and prayer, do we? Don’t look now, but if you disagree, it will come with this irony: If this phenomenon of unraveling consistency really is at work, and the Arminian (or confused Calvinist) throws up their hands, saying, “Oh, but the Spirit is in control of that,” or “Yes, but nature will be nature—that is not for us to be involved!” just please understand that in the name of making a molehill out of a mountain, you have behaved like the very thing you detest. Your theology has sapped the mission out of you: all because you were afraid that taking theology seriously would.
Other times, we are met with people who say: “I see that these things are true and that they are taught in Scripture; but how does this help my marriage or parenting?” The context of the question betrays a subtle objection. The objection may be summarized like this: “Election, or Predestination, is a mystery and therefore is not to be included with those things profitable for Christians to meditate upon in this lifetime. Certainly they should not be explicitly teaching it, and even more certainly should not be dividing over it!” Now that is a mouthful for someone professing humble ignorance. I would add that it also betrays a practical naturalism—as if the subject matter of theology is somehow less real, or at least, less important at the present moment. This is quite simply unbelief. And it is an unbelief that has been cultivated by the prostitution of weighty truth by their church leaders. Laypeople are responsible, yet those “who teach will be judged with greater strictness” [Jam. 3:1].

Finally, a more man-centered gospel also deprives the believer of the fuel of worship. To think less of God is to breed irreligious affections. As Luther said, “For when He promises, it is necessary that you should be certain that He knows, is able, and willing to perform what He promises; otherwise, you will neither hold Him true nor faithful; which is unbelief, the greatest of wickedness, and a denying of the Most High God!”[3] When our view of God is lowered in theology it will be lowered in our hearts, and we will not worship. Do you know what worship is? It is the soul’s feeding on what it perceives will satisfy. All humans do it. We are worshiping beings. If we distort who God is, we will still crave worship. What we will worship will be the shadow that our sinful, finite minds cast upon the wall of Plato’s cave. A picture of God that strips Him of all that is satisfying to the soul will not direct our souls toward Him.

[1] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh 1987); p. 454
[2] Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh 1974); p. 102
[3] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI 1976); p. 44

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