This is an analytical inquiry of CARM’s article “Prevenient Grace Fails as a Valid Option in Molinism.” In his article, Matt Slick makes the claim that Molinists cannot appeal to prevenient grace because it is self-refuting. I argue that Slick is using idiosyncratic definitions of total depravity and prevenient grace and this results in the overall failure of his argumentation.
Issue 1: Defining Prevenient Grace
Matt Slick alleges that there are two main views of prevenient grace taken by Molinists:
“The first is where God re-enables a person to be able to choose Christ freely.”
“The second view is that God providentially brings a person to the place of regeneration as long as the person does not resist along the way.”
There are a number of prevenient grace views articulated in the literature that are compatible with the view of God’s omniscience referred to as Molinism. Prevenient grace is defined as grace that “heals the deadly wound of sin and enables humans, who are otherwise in bondage of the will to sin, to respond freely to the message of the gospel.”1 Crudely put, prevenient grace enables a person to refrain from resisting God’s call to repentance and faith in Him.
Furthermore, Slick also bifurcates the definition of prevenient grace when he presents these views as if they are mutually exclusive when the literature indicates that both are compossible. To demonstrate the point, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines “prevenient grace” as:
“The species of actual grace which, as an illumination or inspiration of the Holy Spirit, precedes the free determination of the will. It is held to mark the beginning of all activity leading to justification, which cannot be achieved without it, but its acceptance or rejection depends on man’s free choice.”2
“Molina insisted that because of the effects of the fall, no one can come to Christ by their own devices. Rather, for anyone to come to Christ, God must first give that individual a new, soft heart and a new spirit to replace the old, stony heart and dead spirit wrought by the fall. Hence prior grace given by the Holy Spirit, which Molina called prevenient grace, sufficient grace, or grace making gracious, is necessary for anyone to receive Christ.”3
Luis De Molina explicates his prevenient grace position:
“Now even though both things are necessary for our conversion, namely, that (i) God stir and move our faculty of choice by the assistance of supervening grace and that (ii) the faculty of choice consent and cooperate, still, since God is always generously ready to stir and move us by the assistance of grace if we do not stand in His way, and since miracles worked in our presence have the greatest power to move us to consent (as showed in the same place), it follows that christ, who is prepared to help everyone through the assistance of prevenient and cooperating grace, justifiably reproached the inhabitants of Chorozain and Bethsaida. For although so many signs and wonders had been worked in their presence, then willed for their part not to give their consent to repentance and conversion, a repentance and conversion to which the Tyronians and Sidonians would have given their consent, had those very same signs been world in their presence.”4
From the above it is unmistakable with exception to Slick, that prevenient grace is the position that God providentially bestows grace onto a person enabling them to not resist God’s drawing him. This signifies that the Molinist can take total depravity seriously because apart from the drawing grace of God, man cannot come to Him. This also demonstrates that the Molinist position avoids the common objection that it somehow relies on semi-Pelagianism.5
Issue 2: Mischaracterizing Total Depravity
Moving forward, Slick says “total depravity is the teaching that sin has touched a person in all areas of what he is: heart, mind, soul, and body. The result of this total depravity is his inability to come to Christ freely.” If this is true, then Slick must be affirming divine causal determinism because God gives a metaphysically ineluctable invitation to the person to place his faith in Christ. If Slick adheres to divine causal determinism as his compatibilism view requires, then this implies that the agent does not respond to God’s grace at all, he is incapable of resisting it, hence God’s grace is irresistible on this view.
Aside from this faulty view, I have serious misgivings about Slick’s uncited and idiosyncratic definition of “total depravity.” Consider the following definition of total depravity:
“A term in common use esp. in Calvinism to express the extreme wretchedness of man’s condition as the result of the Fall. It emphasizes the belief that this result was not a mere loss or deprivation of a supernatural endowment possessed by unfallen man, but a radical corruption or depravation of his whole nature, so that apart from Christ he can do nothing whatever pleasing to God. Even his reason has been radically vitiated, so that, acc. to Calvinism, all natural knowledge of God (such as obtains in the system of St. Thomas Aquinas) is held to be impossible.”6
Given this definition of total depravity so long as God does not involve himself, the totally depraved sinner is incapable of coming to God. But if God does involve himself by gifting prevenient grace, then the totally depraved sinner can be drawn by God to Himself. That said, Molinist don’t assert that a totally depraved individual can just freely come to Christ at any point without prevenient grace. As we have seen MacGregor and Molina articulate, we believe that if the totally depraved person does not resist God’s prevenient grace then he will be saved.
Following his appraisal of total depravity Slick gives the following argument:
“The fact Molinists offer prevenient grace as a solution, is an admission that total depravity is true. Otherwise, prevenient grace would not be necessary. But, prevenient grace fails as an option because it still results in the ultimate choice being made out of man’s unregenerate state. This state of being totally depraved is a condition of the unregenerate. But, prevenient grace doesn’t stop a person from being totally depraved. It is supposed to be something that re-enables an individual to choose Christ – yet within his total depravity. But, if that is the case, how is he still totally depraved.”
Charity demands that I construe his argument the strongest way I know possible:
1. If prevenient grace is true, then totally depravity is true.
2. If total depravity is true, then man cannot come to Christ freely.
3. Prevenient grace is true.
4. Total depravity is true.
5. Therefore, Man cannot come to Christ freely.
Earlier I demonstrated that total depravity did not imply that a person could not freely come to Christ tout court. What total depravity does imply is that no one can freely come to Christ without prevenient grace. So it is easy to see that though the form of the argument is logically valid, premise 2 is clearly false, so the argument fails.
This isn’t the only failure of the argument, it also suffers from question-begging. In premise 1, Slick assumes that prevenient grace is ineffective against total depravity, which he defined in the above as the “inability to come to Christ freely,” in other words, Slick built his conclusion into the premises of the argument.7 But, these aren’t the only problems with Slick’s position; as we’ll see in the below there are numerous problems with passages Slick cites in support of his peculiar definition of total depravity, but before this can be delved into it’s important to mention that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the definition of total depravity must be satisfied within a given passage in order for that passage to lend support to total depravity.
Issue 3: Proof-texting and Necessary/Sufficient Conditions for Total Depravity
A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain. For instance, a necessary condition for receiving an A in Philosophy 101 is that a term paper be turned in. If a term paper isn’t turned in there is no possibility of receiving an A in the course.
A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains. For instance, a sufficient condition for receiving an A in Philosophy 101 is that all work turned in received the grade A. But it is not a necessary condition for the reason that one can receive an A in philosophy 101 without having all A’s on graded work.
In what follows, I’ll demonstrate that many of the passages Slick uses to support total depravity do not satisfy the necessary conditions and thus do not demonstrate that Slick’s total depravity is biblical.
In my last response to CARM it was noted that Slick proof-texts to “demonstrate” the validity of his position.8 Proof-texting occurs when folks “use the Bible like a telephone book of texts they cite chapter and verse to prove their viewpoint.”9 Clearly I am not advocating that one cannot use text’s to support their particular viewpoint, however if they do, adequate justification for a given passage is not optional. It isn’t enough to merely assert they support a given position, passages should be handled reasonably and responsibly and Slick has yet again demonstrated his lack of prudence in this area.
In light of Slick’s errant definition and his proof-texting it will be necessary to include the surrounding passages in order to discern the fuller context and the semantic domain of particular terms. In doing so, it will become apparent that the passages do not in fact lend themselves to total depravity because they do not satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions of that definition.
John 6:44 states, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Prima facie, this text doesn’t seem to support Slick’s peculiar definition of total depravity at all. Recall that Slick posits that no one can come to God freely, but notice that this particular passage is completely silent as to whether or not total depravity precludes libertarian free will.
Moreover, Slick’s criticism seems to rely on an incorrect definition of libertarian free will. Slick defines libertarian free will as the view that a “person’s will is not restricted by his sinful nature and that he is still able to choose or accept God freely.” This is incorrect. Libertarian free will is instead the position that we are sometimes free to make morally significant choices and that freedom is incompatible with determinism. Peter Van Inwagen says Libertarian free will is “the conjunction of the free-will thesis and incompatibilism”.10 Notice that this definition does not stipulate or imply that a libertarian agents choices aren’t delimited by factors external to the agent. Libertarian free will only requires that we make some choices that are not causally determined. As such libertarian free will is compatible with the claim that our freedom to come to God without prevenient grace is delimited by our totally depraved nature.
Concerning John 6:44, typically Reformed theologians say “draw, ἑλκύω” means to “drag” (by drag I mean metaphysically impossible to resist) but the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament supports more than this rendering. ἑλκύω means to “pull or drag, requiring force because of the inertia of the object being dragged—‘to pull, to drag, to draw.’”11 This definition in and of itself doesn’t necessitate a person being “dragged” metaphysically against their will because the semantic range allows for something or someone being drawn or attracted as well. Since the term itself is insufficient to necessitate total depravity, the broader context will be the deciding factor.
With the broader context in mind, it isn’t the case at all that the author intended ἑλκύω to denote being “dragged,” the same Greek term “ἑλκύω, draw” is employed elsewhere in John. In 12:32 the author cites Christ as saying, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” This raises the question, if John is using “draw, ἑλκύω” as “drag” thus implying “irresistible grace,” then why aren’t all saved in leu of 12:32? He does say he will draw “all, πάντας” to himself, and if draw really means “drag” then this would imply that all are saved, which is clearly false.
The rendering best fitting of the context is “draw” as in to pull or attract in a moral sense and if this is the case, then the proof-text provided lends itself to prevenient grace, which is consistent with the common definition of total depravity because it satisfies a sufficient condition, namely that apart from God’s gifting of grace a totally depraved individual can do no spiritual good such as refraining from resisting God’s grace.
Support for rendering ἑλκύω as “draw” lends itself from the immediate context as well; v. 45 says, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned (μανθάνω) from the Father, comes to Me.” In other words, those who are observant will be saved. Learn (μανθάνω) means, “to come to understand as the result of a process of learning—‘to understand” and This indicates that the one who hears and learns comes to God.12 Come (ἔρχομαι) means “to move toward or up to the reference point of the viewpoint character or event—‘to come, coming.’”13 Thus, the above indicates 6:44 and 45 do not satisfy the necessary conditions for total depravity. Both metaphysical “dragging” and lack of libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a passage to support Slick’s definition of total depravity and given these passages do not satisfy this condition they cannot be used as a proof-text for it. To do so, is philosophically and hermeneutically flawed.
In conclusion, we’ve seen that more often than not Slick’s definitions are idiosyncratic and his expositions of prevenient grace and total depravity prove to be no exception to this observation. Also, it was demonstrated that Slick’s argument failed because he begged the question when he assumed prevenient grace was ineffective against total depravity. Finally, Slick’s proof-texts in favor of his own view on total depravity were shown to be impotent because they didn’t satisfy necessary and sufficient conditions for total depravity and thus cannot lend themselves freely to this abuse.
As in my last article, I’d like to extend my hand to CARM, I hope this in-house debate isn’t taken with the assumption that I have ill intentions toward this ministry. It is my sincere hope and desire to see CARM succeed, but in order for this to occur more scrutiny is needed before publishing articles.
5 Semi-Pelagianism is the view that salvation begins with our own efforts rather than God’s. Those that assert Molinists hold this are attacking a strawman since the prevenient grace position is that God first bestows grace on the agent and the agent can go along with or resist that grace. Thus, Molinists can concur with the rest of Orthodoxy that salvation begins with God.
7 For a similar assessment of Slick’s argument see: http://www.randyeverist.com/search?q=total+depravity