We Choose According to the Greatest Apparent Good (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2b)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

We must take note of two things to get a good grasp on the idea that the will and the apparent greatest good always coincide.

1. First, in saying “good” I mean “agreeable. What I call “appearing good to the mind” is that which seems pleasing to the mind. Certainly, if something appears disagreeable or even bad, it would not tend to engage the mind’s inclination or choice (and so also with something that appears indifferent, i.e., neither agreeable no disagreeable). If anything tends to move the Will it can only be because that thing appears to suit the mind. To say otherwise would be a direct and plain contradiction.

“Good” also means avoiding or removing things that are disagreeable, uneasy or evil. The removal of uneasiness is in itself please and agreeable. This is what Mr. Locke believes to determine the will. When he says that “uneasiness” determine the will, this can only mean that the aim that controls that act or preference is the avoidance or removal of uneasiness. That would be the same as choosing what is easier.


2. When I say that the will and the greatest apparent good always coincide, I am talking only about the immediate object of the act of volition, rather than some object that is only indirectly or remotely related to that act. Many volitional acts bear some remote connection to a goal or object that is different from the thing presently chosen. For example when a “drunkard” has a drink in front of him, the immediate objects are simply whether to drink it or leave it alone. If he chooses to drink it then that choice was more pleasing to him than to leave it alone.

There are, of course, objects to which that drunkard’s action are connected more indirectly and remotely: the present enjoyment he believes he will get from taking a drink and the future misery he believes will result from his drinking. He might decide that the future misery will be more unpleasant than it would be, at the moment, to abstain from drinking. However, neither of those two things is the object about which this discussion is concerned. The act of Will I am referring to concerns only present drinking or refusing to drink. Whether he choose to drink or abstain, that choice is the immediate object of his Will. If he chooses a present pleasure rather than a future advantage (to drink rather than avoid future misery), then we can say that that less present pleasure appears more pleasing to him than a future advantage at a distance. On the contrary, if he chooses a future advantage, then that is what suits him best. In either case, the present volition and the greatest apparent good coincide.

I have chosen to say that “the Will always is as the greatest apparent good” rather than “the Will is determined by the greatest apparent good” because I see very little distinction between the mind’s preferring and the appearance of being most agreeable to the mind. Strictly speaking it may be more precise to say that the voluntary action produced by the mind’s choice is determined by whatever appears most agreeable rather than the choice itself. But volition is always determined by those influences on the mind that cause it to appear most agreeable. Those influences include not merely the object itself, but also the manner in which it is viewed as well as the state and circumstances of the mind viewing it. Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas [N.B.: in the next post].


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What Determines the Will? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2a)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

Section II.

Concerning the Determination of the Will.

The phrase “determining the will” means making a choice regarding a particular thing. This is in the same sense as the phrase”determination of motion” which means causing motion in a particular direction instead of another. For the Will to be determined there must be a Determiner. In other words, the Will is an effect that must have a cause.

Two questions then arise: what determines the Will and does the Will always follow the last order/command of the understanding? Rather than delve into all the various answers to those questions, I think it is sufficient to say that the will is determined by the strongest motive of the mind. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Domino efect rendered on white isolated

Motive is whatever moves or invites the mind to volition. It could be one thing or several things working together. By “the strongest motive” I am referring to whatever it is, whether one thing or many, that induces a particular act of volitions.

For something to be a motive in the way I use the term, it must be something that can actually be perceived. In other words, only those things that are in the mind’s view in some way are things that can induce the mind to will or to act. Anything outside the mind’s perception could not possible affect the mind at all.

I think most would agree that any true motive to a perceiving, willing agent has at least some tendency to move the Will prior to the act of the will itself. This prior tendency of the motive is what I call the strength of the motive (a motive with less tendency to move the Will would be a weaker motive). Whatever is most appealing to the mind and has the strongest prior tendency to induce the choice is what I call the strongest motive. It is in that sense that I say that the will is always determined by the strongest motive.

A thing may draw its tendency to move the Will from many different sources (the nature of the thing itself or the nature of the mind that views it). Listing all the possible sources would be difficult if not impossible. However, I do not think it would be controversial to say that in general whatever moves the will of a person (“an intelligent and voluntary agent”) is seen by that person as good; it moves a person to act only to the extent that it is viewed favorably. To say otherwise, would be to claim that things move the will by some means other “than by their appearing eligible to it.” That would be absurd. Therefore, in some sense it must always be the case that the will and the apparent greatest good coincide.

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On Freedom of the Will (Part I, Section 1)

In the American theological tradition, there is perhaps no greater mind than that of Jonathan Edwards. Among his many writings, Freedom of the Will is considered to be one of both his best and most important works. The editor of Yale’s collection of the works of Jonathan Edwards wrote that “This book alone is sufficient to establish its author as the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene.” More recently, John Piper has called it “probably the greatest defense and explanation of the Augustinian-Reformed view of the will.”

That it is a work that deserves the attention of serious students of the Bible and Christian theology seems obvious. For many, however, reading it is likely to be a significant undertaking (and I include myself in that number). Aside from the fact that Edwards was a bona fide intellectual giant, the style of writing employed in the 18th century makes parts of the book difficult to follow for today’s readers. Because it is a work that I want to understand and because I think others would benefit from grappling with Edwards’ ideas too, I plan to attempt to summarize, paraphrase, and “translate” his work into a form that might, I hope, prove to be more easily understandable for today’s Christian. There are resources out there for that purpose, but I look forward to the benefit to me, personally, that is sure to come from the exercise of trying to put his ideas into my own words.



I’ll attempt to go through his work one section at a time, keeping his section titles. I don’t intend to make this a word-for-word reworking of his writing, but I will try to follow his structure thought-by-thought as much as possible. I will also try to retain Edwards’ use of personal pronouns and capitalization to the extent that doing so won’t be confusing or obscure the argument. I’ll include an index to all the posts in this series at the end of this post. My hope is that I can summarize Edwards’ thoughts accurately, making them more accessible to my fellow Christians, and in the process come to a deeper understanding of these ideas for myself.



Section 1. Concerning the Nature of the Will

Defining  the Will might seem unnecessary because the Will can be understood just as easily as any other words we could use to explain the concept. On this topic, however, the waters have been muddied, so the rest of the discussion will be much clearer if we start by defining our terms. “The will,” says Edwards, “is that by which the mind chooses anything.” Therefore, to say that something is an act of the will is the same as saying that it is an act of choosing or a choice.

One might think that a more complete definition would be that the Will is how the soul chooses or refuses. I could accept that definition, but I think it is enough to say the Will is how the soul chooses. I say that because in every act of will we choose one thing instead of something else; we choose either something or “not-something.” So by refusing we are actually choosing to have the absence of that same thing. Put differently, a voluntary act of the soul is always an elective act, a choice.

Mr. Locke wrote that while “preferring” is the best way to describe the idea of volition, even that is imprecise, because one might prefer flying to walking , but we would never say that a person wills it. This example, however, fails to show that “preferring” is an incomplete description of willing something. Whether it’s walking or any other external action, we must consider what the present goal of the will is. The goal is not getting from Point A to Point B regardless of whether we do so on the ground or through the air. Those preferences are far removed goals, but the immediate goal or purpose of the will is simply the present physical action. When we choose to walk, our first choice (or preference) is not whether we would rather be at Point B instead of Point A; our first choice is whether to make our legs and feet start moving in the direction we ultimately want to go. Willing the body to move right now is nothing but choosing or preferring that the body move right now, or liking movement better than standing still. Because of the way that God made us, our souls are so united with our bodies that the instant our soul chooses to move or change the position of our bodies, it happens. When we walk, our only conscious act is the choice to walk; we expect that our feet and legs will obey because of our experience. The same cannot be said of flying: someone might say that he chooses to fly, but in reality he cannot choose to actually do the things that would make flight possible. A rational person has no reason to think that he can fly under his own power; he knows from his experience that any attempt to fly under his own power would be useless. Therefore, if we properly distinguish between various objects of the will, it seems clear that there is no distinction between volition and preference.

Locke also says that the Will is completely distinct from desire; in one action his desire might be at odds with what his will directs him toward in that same action. For instance, says Locke, I might feel compelled by someone to try to persuade another person, despite the fact that I do not really want him to be persuaded by my words. In that case, he says, the Will and Desire contradict each other. However, I do not think that Will and Desire are so distinct that they can ever be truly contradictory. No one ever wills what he does not desire or desires something against his will nor does Locke’s example prove otherwise. There is some reason why Locke chooses (wills) to say certain words; that reason (whatever it is) influences him not to desire the contrary. In the end, he chooses to speak  and does not desire not to say those things. So the thing Locke says he desires–that his words will fail to persuade this other person–is not contrary to what he wills. He does not will that his words will be effective, but rather wills that they be ineffective and that is precisely what he says he desires.

To prove that Will and Desire may be contradictory Locke would have to show that they contradict each other in the same object of Will or Desire. However, in his example there are two objects. Looking at each of those objects separately, there is no contradiction between Will and Desire. Of course, they may contradict one another on separate topics (even if the separation is small). The Will might differ from the Will when it comes to different things (and likewise for Desire). This is the case even in Locke’s example: a person might have some reason to desire using words of persuasion at the same time that he desires those words will not succeed in persuading. In that situation, however, no one would say that Desire contradicts Desire nor would anyone count this as proof that Desire is something completely distinct from Desire.

Regardless of whether Desire and Will or Preference and Volition are exactly the same, I hope we can agree that in every act of Will there is an act of choice. Therefore, in every act of the Will, the mind or soul, prefers one thing to another or prefers the presence of something to its absence. In addition, in the complete absence of any choice or preference (in a state of perfect equilibrium) there is no volition.

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The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 3)

In my previous post on the topic of immigration, I ended by pointing out that the state’s mandates regarding which individuals may pass from one plot of land to another (and under what conditions) are, in fact, encroachments on the property rights of the person who owns the land. Only the rightful owner of the land can impose such restrictions; the state, as pointed out before, cannot be the rightful owner of the land according to biblical principles.

I want to wrap up this series of posts by briefly answering the following question. In the absence of state-imposed restrictions on immigration, must Christians fall in line with those calling for “open borders”? In short, no. Although there is a tendency to set the immigration issue up as a choice between sealing off the borders with a wall (and making Mexico pay for it?) and having a free-for-all with no rules whatsoever, those are not the only choices. In two excellent posts first published at libertychat.com in 2014, author and economist Robert P. Murphy succinctly and effectively laid out the alternative: privatize the borders.

Given what I’ve already discussed regarding property rights, privatizing the borders is the only solution to the immigration question. If a particular individual owning the land along a border with another nation-state does not want people to cross into his land then he can rightfully forbid them from doing so. Anyone who violated his exertion of control over his property would be considered a trespasser and could be dealt with accordingly. On the contrary, if he wishes to permit people from another country to come onto his land he can do so.

Murphy, at this point, anticipates an objection:

Now if they saw this particular map, the critics to my original post would say something like, “Murphy you idiot! Your proposal is tantamount to NO BORDER AT ALL! I mean, suppose Jim, Sue, Bob, et al. are generally wise and have a smart enforcement policy, but that Pam is unaware of the risks of ebola and just lets anybody onto her property! Then the whole country would be vulnerable because of that one weak link in the chain. Man you libertarians are dumb.”

Given what I’ve already discussed in this series, however, I hope that the rebuttal is obvious. Here, again, is Murphy:

You see, it’s not simply the border real estate that would be privatized; the entire country would be divided into plots and held privately. So if Pam really did have some “nutjob” policy, letting ISIS fighters or lepers or mass-murdering cocaine kingpins roam around her land freely, then Meg, Ed, Bo, Mark, and Eve could contain the problem with their own border policies. It would be as if Mexico simply had a “peninsula” that extended upward into current U.S. territory

Thus, when property rights are respected, there may be instances in which those who own property on the border with another country might exercise their rights in ways that, although others might not approve, are not themselves inherently wrong. Of course, because they are the rightful owners of the property, such approval is irrelevant in any event. For those “disapprovers” (or busybodies, if we want to use a more biblical term), the relief for their worries is found in the very same property rights: if they despise the “immigration” policy of their neighbors they may exercise their property rights accordingly by shutting off “immigration” with whomever they please.

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The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 2)

I ended the previous post on this topic by asking whether the state’s claim to own all the land within its borders is a legitimate claim (given that the state must make such a claim as a prerequisite to imposing immigration controls). How, then, does one legitimately and biblically acquire an ownership right in property? In his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke made the following observation:

 [I]t seems to some a very great difficulty, how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing: I will not content myself to answer, that if it be difficult to make out property, upon a supposition that God gave the world to Adam, and his posterity in common, it is impossible that any man, but one universal monarch, should have any property upon a supposition, that God gave the world to Adam, and his heirs in succession, exclusive of all the rest of his posterity.

In other words, if God’s commandment to exercise dominion over the earth was one that is common to all people, how can any individual claim that he has the right to exclusive dominion over any particular part of creation?

The perceived problem did not prove to be intractable for Locke:

And tho’ all the fruits it [the world] naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common . . . yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

This, of course, is the beginning of Locke’s famous labor theory of property (not to be confused with the labor theory of value). Locke concluded that a person may acquire property (to the exclusion of other men), by mixing his labor with it. The question remains, however, whether such a theory of property rights is consistent with the Bible.

God’s sovereignty over all creation is fundamental to Christianity.  It follows that, as Locke acknowledged, “God gave the world to Adam” because “The earth is the Lord‘s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) In a sense then, the universe is God’s property because it is His creation. God, therefore, has the right to use creation as He pleases and that can include delegating authority over portions of it to others, including human beings who are themselves part of creation.

Although God’s grant of dominion to Adam as representative of the human race was a general one, we also see that God granted more specific property rights to specific groups of people. For instance, God granted the Promised Land, a specific geographic area with defined borders, to his chosen people, Israel. Within that area, the land was divided among the tribes of Israel, a task we read about in the latter half of the book of Joshua. Within those tribal allotments land was further divided among families. All the while, the people were reminded that the land, ultimately, was God’s. Although they were free to sell the land, God made clear that he retained ultimate ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” (Leviticus 25:23). With that and others caveats in Leviticus 25, individuals had certain property rights as against other individuals. Clearly, the command “Do not steal” would have little meaning in practice if there was no such thing as private property. God went further, of course, forbidding covetousness in addition to outright theft.

In an essay for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Dr. Art Lindsley draws attention to the story of Naboth’s vineyard:

The story of the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and their acquisition of his vineyard is a classic biblical story of theft in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, which was close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange another vineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

Jezebel found Ahab sulking on his bed and devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. She proposed a feast with Naboth as the guest of honor, “at the head of the people.” During the feast, “worthless men” would be seated around him to accuse him of cursing God and the king. The plan was executed and it succeeded. Naboth was stoned, and Ahab acquired his coveted vineyard. Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed.

Naboth’s concern to preserve the inheritance of his fathers is underlined again in Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.” In the broader biblical picture, God is, strictly speaking, the owner of all of the land. He appoints believers as his stewards and expects them to exercise creative rulership or dominion with the land they are given.

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee.

I think the story tells us something about the biblically legitimate means of acquiring property. Obviously, taking land by force (deadly force in Ahab’s case) is forbidden; the command “Do not kill” makes no exceptions for “Do not kill unless there’s no other way to acquire that property you want” (which would violate the commandment against coveting in any event). Early in the story, Ahab himself seemed to acknowledge that he could rightfully acquire Naboth’s vineyard only through voluntary exchange: “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” (I Kings 21:2). Those efforts failed and, as Dr. Lindsley points out, should never have been made in the first place, given the restrictions God had placed on otherwise voluntary land transfers. Notice, also, that Ahab did not merely declare the vineyard to be his property. At least as far as I can find, there was nothing resembling the modern idea of eminent domain in ancient Israel.

On the question of the acquisition of property in the Bible, Dr. Walter Kaiser, writing in the Spring 2012 volume of the Journal of Markets & Morality, argues that the Bible provides for the acquisition of property by way of reward for one’s labor, through inheritance, “by industriousness (Prov. 10:4; 13:4; 14:23), wisdom (Prov. 3:16; 24:3), or by the development of insight (Prov. 14:15).” The passages in Proverbs, I think, lend some of the best biblical support to Locke’s labor theory of property. Industriousness, wisdom, and insight are all things that can be “mixed” with land or natural resources in order to create a property right. By contrast, Kaiser regards the concept of eminent domain (which is merely acquiring property by declaration), as lacking in any biblical authority. He concludes that section of his article with this: “If it is asked, ‘Then how can roads and buildings be built by the state without the tool of eminent domain?’ the answer is to use procedures that come from other areas of authority rather than from a statist doctrine of sovereignty.”

When it comes to land, the state fails to show that the property it claims to own was acquired by any one of those legitimate means. The state is not God and therefore cannot create its own property rights by mere declaration. Likewise land acquired by killing or other violent force has not been rightfully acquired. If we were to restrict any given state to only such lands as it had legitimately purchased from previous owners or “homesteaded,” I daresay the maps would look radically different. Granted, there are many other issues related to property ownership, especially in countries where land might not currently be occupied by people having the best ownership claim (but I think that’s straying a bit too far afield for our purposes). I think we can say with confidence, however, that no matter how the ownership claims between two given individuals might be resolved, the state’s claim is virtually certain, in almost every case, to be at the back of the line in terms of legitimacy.

I asked in the previous post: “Upon what Biblical basis do we conclude that ‘it is within the rights of the government to determine’ conditions for immigration?” I hope I have made a clear case that the Biblical basis for such a claim is lacking. The state cannot be the legitimate owner of all the land over which it claims the right to grant rights of ingress and egress. In the absence of such rightful ownership, the state’s dictates regarding immigration are more like encroachments on the rights of the true property owners.


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Guns, Christian Hedonism, and the Sovereignty of God


The Patient Job by Gerard Seghers

Perhaps John Piper intended to set off a firestorm of discussion with his essay “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?”  If so, he appears to have succeeded. The response to his article (at least among those who are aware of Piper) was spirited, to say the least.  Piper’s post was, in fact, a response to remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University. Falwell told students at Liberty “I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your [concealed handgun] permit. We offer a free course. And let’s teach them [i.e., terrorists] a lesson if they ever show up here.” Piper responded to that statement in his lengthy post, but he puts the meat of his argument up front:

My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

Piper then laid out nine points in favor of his position. Like most of the responses to Piper (examples of which are here, here, and here)  I find some points of agreement and some points of disagreement.

The response that I found most intriguing, however, was “How to Carry a Gun Like a Christian Hedonist: A Response to John Piper” at The Christian Egoist (one of the blogs in the sidebar). For those who have not read Piper, the term “Christian hedonist” is likely jarring. It is a term, however, that he carefully defines and ably defends in his book Desiring God (for as condensed an explanation of the concept as you’re likely to find, look here). The Christian Egoist’s blog post points out that Piper’s own concept of Christian hedonism seems to undercut Piper’s argument when it comes to this latest post about guns. He acknowledges that Piper’s “concerns have very strong roots in the New Testament . . . and as such, should not be hastily written off by modern gun-toting Christian conservatives.” He goes on to say that he wants to help “make sense of these passages in a way that embraces Piper’s Biblical concern for a general Christian heart-attitude and the concerns of many others when it comes to self-defense. That paradigm is rooted in Piper’s own Christian Hedonism.”

Having read Desiring God within the last year or so, I was intrigued to see how Piper’s own philosophy might apply here in ways that he himself might have overlooked. Piper, after all, spends an entire chapter of Desiring God on the topic of suffering. The Christian Egoist points out (correctly, I think) that:

according to Christian Hedonism, all Christian suffering is meant to be value-oriented. Every Christian loss is meant to be a net gain. There is no value in suffering, as such. Only in suffering for the sake of the gospel––only in sharing in the fellowship of His suffering (Phil. 3:10). What does this mean? It means we don’t seek out suffering. We follow Christ, avoiding unnecessary suffering, and joyfully embracing any necessary suffering. Necessary to what? To following Him.

We rejoice in our suffering, therefore, not because of the suffering itself, but rather because we want to follow the example of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Carrying that line of reasoning forward, The Christian Egoist continues as follows:

What about when you’re “persecuted”, but not “for the sake of righteousness”? What about a random assailant, who has no clue you’re a Christian––and who couldn’t care less? Where, specifically, is the value in patiently enduring his violence? How, specifically, is Christ magnified? I don’t think He is. I don’t think there is any value to be sought in passively enduring random assaults which are not primarily related to one’s faith in Christ. No one will magnify Christ because you refused to defend yourself against a drunken thug. This, it seems, would be a bit like doing kart-wheels on ice, and then saying “to God be the glory” for the suffering incurred as a result.

Perhaps one of the reasons we may be tempted toward a more pacifistic position in regard to random (non-faith related) assault, is that we do not have a category for the eternal value of our own individual lives (or of those around us). Here’s a thought experiment: Do you think Jesus would have passively allowed himself to be killed by a random thief before His time came to go to the cross? God aims to be glorified in our life and in our death (Phil. 1:20). Piper is known for saying “don’t waste your life”. I would add: don’t waste your death. Each Christian is called to glorify Christ to the max in this life. Some will be called to give up that future glory for the sake of a greater glory brought on by being killed for the faith. But what glory is there to be found in giving up the future glory of one’s life by being killed, not for the sake of the faith, but for the sake of… nothing?

It’s here, however, that I think something is left out. It’s true, of course, that no Christian should claim that he is being “persecuted” if he is injured due to his own carelessness (although God can still be glorified in the Christian’s response to his self-inflicted suffering). I also agree that God is to be glorified both in the life and death of His followers.

Where I cannot find full agreement, however, is with the suggestion that God is not glorified in the “random assailant” or “senseless tragedy” scenarios. If God cannot get glory from what seems to human minds to be a “random act of violence,” then what does that mean for the sovereignty of God? R.C. Sproul wrote the following about “senseless tragedy” in Surprised by Suffering:

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I noticed that a number of different words were used to describe those events, words such as catastrophe and calamity. But the word I heard perhaps more than any other was tragedy. Usually, however, there was an adjective attached to this word to describe the attack. It was called a senseless tragedy.

If I had the time to go into a technical, comprehensive analysis of these two words in conjunction with each other, I could demonstrate that the phrase “senseless tragedy” is an oxymoron. For something to be defined in the final analysis as being “tragic,” there has to be some standard of good.

The word tragedy presupposes some kind of order of purpose in the world. If things can happen in a way that is senseless, there can be no such thing as a tragedy—or a blessing. Everything is simply a meaningless event.

The idea of a “senseless tragedy” represents a worldview that is completely incompatible with Christian thought, because it assumes that something happens without a purpose or a meaning. But if God is God and if God is a God of providence and if God is sovereign, then nothing ever happens that is senseless in the final analysis.

The excerpt quoted above can be found here.

With that in mind, I think it’s more difficult to say “No one will magnify Christ because you refused to defend yourself against a drunken thug.” If Sproul is right that “nothing ever happens that is senseless in the final analysis,” then that would seem to include the “senseless tragedy” of being killed by a “random assailant.” In many (perhaps even most) cases it’s probably true that a burglar who breaks into a stranger’s home and murders the occupants will not be driven to magnify Christ by a Christian’s refusal to use deadly force against his assailant. I don’t think we can make that a categorical rule, however. Piper alluded to an example that I think is useful:

If we teach our students that they should carry guns, and then challenge them, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,” do we really think that when the opportunity to lay down their lives comes, they will do what Jim Elliott and his friends did in Ecuador, and refuse to fire their pistols at their killers, while the spears plunged through their chests?

There is relatively little evidence of which I’m aware that would suggest that at the time that Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian were killed that the Huaorani people they were trying to reach knew that they were Christians. Their contact with them up until that point had been extremely limited. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we might be tempted to conclude that Jim Elliott and the others wasted their deaths. The rest of the story, I think, shows that God, in his ultimate sovereignty, did not allow their deaths to be wasted. Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Eliot returned to Ecuador and continued the work of Operation Auca, eventually seeing several of the Huaorani men who participated in the attack come to be Christians.

No doubt it’s easier in the case of men who dedicated their lives to mission work to see how God is glorified even in the seemingly senseless death of a Christian. However, the same God whose ultimate purpose to reach the Huaorani people was not thwarted by an unprovoked attack in the jungles of Ecuador is the same God whose ultimate purpose cannot be thwarted by the unprovoked attack of a random burglar in suburban America.

Again, I don’t find myself in complete agreement with Piper on this issue (and I think the suggestion that his post masks an unstated preference for pacifism is likely correct). I think something that has been missing from the ensuing discussion, however, is attention to God’s sovereignty. Christians will likely never come to complete agreement on this issue, but whatever side we come down on I think it is imperative that any position is built on the foundation of God’s sovereignty. Whether a Christian chooses to use or refrain from using lethal force against an assailant is, after all, a product of providence, not fate.


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The Bible, immigration, and private property (Part 1)

A website on which I’ve encountered some good articles frames the illegal immigration issue as follows. I cite it here because it is, I think, not an uncommon viewpoint among many Christians.

Are the immigration laws of the United States unfair or unjust? Some think so, but that is not the issue. All developed countries in the world have immigration laws, some more strict than the USA’s, and some less strict, and all have to deal with illegal immigration. There is nothing in the Bible to prohibit a country from having completely open borders or to have completely closed borders. Romans 13:1–7 also gives the government the authority to punish lawbreakers. Whether the punishment is imprisonment, deportation, or even something more severe, it is within the rights of the government to determine.

I’ve emphasized the last sentence of that paragraph because I think it is the key assumption upon which the argument relies.

I believe, however, that it is an incorrect assumption for those who believe that the Bible, in addition to teaching about how Christians should relate to the state, affirms the principle of private property. In fact, the very same website says the following in regard to the question “What does the Bible say about capitalism?

In Genesis 1:28, God says we are to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. One aspect of this is that humans can own property in which they can exercise their dominion. Since we have both volition and private property rights, we can assume that we should have the freedom to exchange these private property rights in a free market where goods and services can be exchanged.

For a little bit more on the biblical roots of private property, take a look at this post by Dr. Jay W. Richards at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Perhaps some Christians do, nevertheless, reject the notion of private property and any rights arising therefrom. That very well may be a good topic for another post, but for now I want to focus on those Christians who agree with me that there is a right to private property that is not only consistent with Biblical Christianity, but also required by it.

For those who agree with me about private property, but who would also tend to agree with the paragraph about immigration above, I pose the following question: “Upon what Biblical basis do we conclude that ‘it is within the rights of the government to determine’ conditions for immigration?” In order to reach that conclusion, it seems clear to me that the underlying assumption must be that the state is the rightful property owner of all the land encompassed within its borders. If one accepts the idea of private property, that is the only basis on which one could conclude that the state has the “right” to exclude or admit people. Exclusion is the sort of right entailed by the right of private property (e.g., if I own an apple I have the right to “exclude” anyone else from eating it), but it’s a right held by the property owner, not someone else. Thus, for the state to tell someone living on the border with Mexico “You have no right to admit anyone from Mexico to your land unless we say so” is really for the state to say “We have the right to exclude people from this land because we are entitled to exercise the rights that would naturally belong only to the property owner.” The state (in effect, if not in so many words) has claimed ownership of all the land.

If the state’s claim to own all the land is a legitimate one, then it would naturally follow that the state can exclude people as it chooses. If, however, the state’s claim to ownership of all the land is not a legitimate one, then it is reasonable to conclude that its claim of a right to exclude certain individuals from the property of certain other individuals is, at the very least, a questionable one. How to resolve those questions will be a topic for another post. For the time being, I hope I’ve written enough here to at least get people thinking about this issue in ways that might not have occurred to them before.

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