Wednesday, December 26, 2007

More Thoughts on Calvinism's Noetic Effect

A few months back I wrote against Calvinism's noetic effect (part 1, part 2). My contention is that this particular theology is philosophically rootless (24 Oct) and inconsistent (30 Oct).

Some of the criticisms that I received are that I "utterly misunderstand" the Reformed's definition of noetic effect, "attacking a strawman", inadequate understanding of "chim" stuff, and etc:
Leon (29 Oct): I do know is that Total Depravity does not mean the faculty of reason is non functional nor that the "depraved" man is non rational. Otherwise they wont be the long tradition of classical apologetics in the likes of Augustine, Aquinas and Sproul that aim to convince a person via the faculty of reason to the point of conversion by the Holy Spirit.

Steven (30 Oct): why are you forcing your IDEA of noetic effect on those who ACTUALLY believe in noetic effect?

Dave (30 Oct): To paraphrase Jeremiah 12 "If you have run with the Calvinists, and completely misunderstood them, then how can you understand with more "chim" stuffs?"

Steven (30 Oct): In the first place, leon has already pointed out the noetic effect he knew (he may not believe it, but he is fair enough to know what IT IS), is not like what you defined and what you criticized.

Steven (30 Oct): you are utterly mistaken about TULIP and noetic effect…attacking strawman is ridiculous and waste of time...don't do that, ppl will not take u seriously.

Jason Loh (1 Nov): The noetic effect of sin does not render objectivity impossible. The mind is not precluded from *understanding* the Word of God. What is lacking is *faith* which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Christian believes that the Bible is the Word of God because the internal witness of the Spirit and the external witness of the Bible. In other words, the noetic effect of sin is not *ontological* but metaphysical, moral and spiritual. Man remains a man after the Fall, only that he now is an unrighteous man who suppresses whatever remnant of divine knowledge in him. So, he knows as in understand, but he does not know as in believing.

After taking in all these criticisms, I started to doubt my critique against Reformed understanding of noetic effect. I consulted books of Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, Alvin Plantinga, R.C Sproul, Robert Reymond, Stephen Moroney, and James Boice. Their works widen and strengthened more on what I already know on the subject. But these reference are still not precise because they are not distinctively Reformed or claimed to be that.

No doubt all these theologians are from the Reformed persuasion but their works are more of descriptions of their own personal reflection as an individual theologian rather than a definitive and authoritative view on the subject from a Reformed position. For eg. Erickson describes the noetic effect as he understands it, and he does not make any claim or whatsoever that his understanding is or represents THE Reformed understanding on the subject. Neither do Grudem, Plantinga nor Reymond do the same. Their systematic textbooks do not claim to represent the "Reformed" theology, faith, or both. Their books are all personal exposition of Christian theologies resulted from their own studies rather than representing any particular theological system. That means even though they inclined to the Reformed tradition, yet their works do not represent the voice of the wider Reformed community. In other words, they do not view themselves as speaking on behalf of the Reformed circle.

(Some might argue that the right Christian theology is the Reformed theology, but this is just too narrow a definition, and unjustifiably insensitive towards other Christian traditions.)

One main reason why I was very selective to look for a definitive work because I want to avoid any domestication of the Reformed's view on noetic effect. An example of such "domestication" is when a person wants to believe X, which contains inconsistency in its parts, changes (domesticates) the bit in X that is inconsistent in order that he/she can continue to believe X, a domesticated product according to his/her own image.

In order to avoid this unending and hopeless domestication, I want something that defines itself as distinctly Reformed. And I find none of the references mentioned so far represent that magisterial authority.

Nonetheless, providentially, that search led me to a book which quintessentially titled "After Darkness, Light: Distinctives of Reformed Theology". In the "Introduction" chapter, R.C Sproul Jr. stated that the book is "a heartfelt celebration of the doctrines that define the Reformed faith" (p.11, emphasis mine). This is exactly what I need: an authoritative work that represents the Reformed tradition (or claims to be).

This book claims to be distinctively and definitely "Reformed". This reference is different from other reference in that it claims itself to be the representative of the Reformed position. In fact, this book was edited by R.C Sproul Jr., with contributions from Jay E. Adams, Sinclair B. Ferguson, Michael S. Horton, John F. MacArthur and others who are explicitly claimed to be Reformed and thus well known for their Reformed theological orientation and career. All of them are from institutions famous for their strong Reformed stand such as Westminster Theological Seminary, Ligonier Ministries, Knox Theological Seminary, and etc. And therefore, this is exactly where I need to search into for the definitive construal of Reformed's noetic effects. And here is how the book defines 'noetic effect':
'The reasoning processes of human beings set them apart from all other creatures. The Fall did not destroy the intellect or the reasoning processes, but it did cause the intellect to function irrationally. Total depravity does not mean that mans' mental faculties were destroyed by sin. It does mean that they were disabled, defiled, and injured by sin. Before the Fall, Adam could not make a mathematical mistake or engage in any faulty reasoning. After the Fall, he and all of his progeny became faulty in their intellect and reasoning processes…The noetic effect of sin leaves the mind in a state of confusion.' (Distinctives of Reformed Theology: After Darkness, Light, p.18-19, emphasis mine)
The context of the above passage is taken from the chapter on "Total Depravity", sub-chapter "A Corrupt Mind". In this context, the author describes the intellectual faculty of human and its connection with human's will. He ends this sub-chapter by drawing our attention to the various problematic conditions of societies as evident for such corruption. The author presupposes that human's rationality is not separated from human's will. In other words, he is saying that if we cannot rationalize rightly, we cannot will rightly. And this is how our rationality and will are totally depraved.

Although the interconnectedness between rationality and will is not the author's major contention in the article, his idea on the interconnectedness is certainly correct. Just as another author rightly describes this connection: "..the intellect cannot be surgically separated from the will. Since we know that human beings have willfully turned from God, their rebellion has not only moral and spiritual but epistemological consequences." (Stephen K. Moroney, How Sin Affects Scholarship, Christian Scholar's Review XXXVIII, 1999, n.55). Oliver O'Donovan shares the same perception between the human's rationality and the human's will: "All description of reality has moral implication to some kind. And every resolution of the will presupposes some description of reality."

But I am not contending against the idea that our will and intellect are unrelated. Neither am I contending that they are unmarred by sin. I agree that rationality and will is interconnected. And I agree that we are corrupted by sin. But I disagree with the author and the wider Reformed community to which he claims to represent, that such corruption makes our reasoning ability or rationality unreliable. I am contending that the 'Reformed notion that our reasoning faculty IS unreliable' is incoherent and need to be abandoned.

I find that my understanding of the Reformed noetic effect is precisely the same as the description of the authoritative book: "…all human understanding is unreliable as an effect of the Fall." (24 Oct). I never claimed that Reformed noetic effect is the destruction of human reasoning. All I am objecting is the proposition 'human rationality or reasoning ability is unreliable'.

Was I wrong in my understanding of Reformed Noetic effect? I am willing to admit it if there is evident to the contrary. At the same time, this discovery reveals to me that my critics are actually the ones that are defending strawman, their own domesticated belief all this while.

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