Are you immune to the universalist hope?

Theologian Roger E. Olson posted on Thursday an article on universalism over at his blog. He’s been discussing Oliver Crisp’s book Deviant Calvinism. As one who has little interest in Calvinism, deviant or otherwise, I doubt I will ever read this book; but readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy may remember that in 2013 I blogged on Crisp and his proposal of an Augustinian universalism: “From Limited Atonement to Universalism.” It’s not clear to me whether his proposal was merely intended as a thought experiment or was advanced with a more serious intent.

After discussing Crisp’s interpretation of Karl Barth’s view of universal salvation, Olson goes on to suggest that were universal salvation ever to become acceptable within evangelicalism, it would be because of the Reformed, not the Arminians:

If this happens, however, I predict it will not be Arminians who lead the way; it will be Reformed/Calvinist evangelical theologians who bring it about. The fact of the matter is that, contrary what neo-fundamentalists would have you believe, it is Calvinism, not Arminianism, that inclines toward universalism. Schleiermacher, for example, was never an Arminian and did not believe in free will. Barth, whatever his beliefs about free will, was untouched by Arminianism (even though I find elements in his thought that are consistent with Arminianism). It’s pretty easy for a young, unmarried or not-yet-parent Young, Restless, Reformed person to embrace double predestination, but when he has a child and gazes on it as his own beloved son or daughter he beings to change (or should if his love is real and deep). Could this beloved child be predestined by God our Father to eternal torture in hell? Sure, some very iron clad Calvinists will not let that sway them, but many will. Then, unless the Calvinist converts to Arminianism, the next step, insofar as he or she holds firmly to “decretal theology” is to universalism. Universalists are Calvinists with soft hearts and a true vision of the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy. (emphasis mine)

The bolded sentence is what caught my attention: Arminians are immune to universalism because they are convinced that the divine love accepts the possibility of eternal estrangement. “Immunity” is a pretty strong word. How did they acquire their invulnerability to the universalist disease? No doubt it varies for each Arminian. All cite Scripture on their behalf; yet interpretations of the biblical texts can only possess a measure of probability: it’s always possible that someone will come along with a fresh reading of the texts that might cause us to modify our certitude. Hence the Bible alone cannot be the inoculation that protects Arminians from apokatastasis. Ultimately it comes down, I suggest, to a shared vision of libertarian freedom. It just seems so obvious that every human being is free not only to reject God at this very moment but to do so definitively, irrevocably, and eternally. It was obvious to the great Arminian hero C. S. Lewis. It’s obvious to Roger Olson. It’s obvious to Roman Catholics like Pope Benedict XVI and every other pope one might mention. And it’s obvious to Eastern Orthodox theologians like Dumitru Staniloae and Christos Yannaras. All share an ecumenical immunity to the universalist hope. Theoretically they might leave open the minuscule possibility that everyone will take the bus to heaven and freely remain in the Blessed Realm; but they really know that some, perhaps many, will not. It’s just obvious. That, after all, is what it means to be free, right? If we are free, we virtually need someone to be damned.

But why do we feel it’s obvious? Because, I suggest, the possibility of definitive rejection is how we experience life. We experience this possibility when we reject another and when another rejects us.  We experience this possibility when someone we love irrationally chooses a destructive behavior and we are helpless to help them. We experience this possibility when we sulk in a corner, impervious to all pleas to join the festivities.

a lover may spurn us for another;
we may decide to stop returning the telephone calls of a friend;
we become so overwhelmed by an addiction to some drug or pleasure that we are willing to do anything in order to possess it;
we are wounded so deeply by an act of wickedness that we become utterly consumed by hatred and the desire for revenge.

We know (we think we know) that it is possible for someone to reject God forever because our present experience of the world leads us to believe that we are personally capable of rejecting God forever, no matter what the cost and suffering it might entail. Hence when we read the proposals advanced by universalists such as Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan, we immediately dismiss them as implausible.

But are we right to project this commonsense notion of freedom upon the human being and his relationship with his divine Creator? Does our finite experience of personal freedom in the world exhaust the possibilities of God? And what if, as Servais Pinckaers suggests, our commonsense notion of freedom has been uncritically formed by a late medieval innovation, what he calls the “freedom of indifference” and which we would today call “libertarian freedom.” He describes this freedom of indifference, famously formulated by William of Ockham, as follows:

Ockham … maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts. “For I can freely choose,” he said, “to know or not to know, to will or not to will.” For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. … Freedom was posted as a first fact of human experience. It was affirmed that, whatever the decision dictated by reason, the will could follow it or not (Quodl. I, q16).

In view of this experience, how could freedom be described? Freedom lay entirely in the power of the will to choose between contraries, and this power resided in the will alone. It was the power to opt for the yes or the no, to choose between what reason dictated and its contrary, between willing and not willing, acting and not acting, between what the law prescribed and its contrary. Thus freedom consisted in an indetermination or a radical indifference in the will regarding contraries, in such a way that actions were produced in a wholly contingent way. As Gabriel Biel was to say, freedom was essentially the power to move in two opposite directions. It was qualified by an indifference to the opposites.

Thus understood, freedom was practically identified with the will, as the origin of willing and acting, as a power of self-determination. In this way, it came to constitute, in some way, by itself alone, the very being of the person, at the source of all action. It was in this sense that Sartre could write: “My freedom is not an added quality or a property of my nature; it is the very stuff of my being.” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, pp. 331-332)

Ockham does not, of course, deny that man is divinely ordered for happiness with God; but he insists that human freedom transcends the natural desire for God. The human being is free, in the radical indifference of his freedom, to choose or refuse happiness, to choose or refuse the good, to choose or refuse his very existence. As a result, human freedom is divorced from the natural inclinations of human nature:

All natural inclinations, summed up in the inclination toward good or happiness, were thus subject to choice and to the will’s free determination. It was as though they were uprooted from the will’s depths, to be placed before it, beneath it, and subjected to its choice. They were no longer a part of the essence of freedom. (p. 333)

When I read Pinckaers’s lengthy description of the freedom of indifference, I find myself nodding in agreement. Yes, that’s how I understand human freedom. It’s so obviously true. Yet Pinckaers believes that his this freedom of indifference represents a significant departure from the Church Fathers and high scholastics. Oops. Maybe our commonsense notion of freedom ain’t so obvious after all.

So what is this more traditional alternative to the freedom of indifference? Pinckaers names it the “freedom for excellence” and identifies St Thomas Aquinas as its most sophisticated exponent:

For St. Thomas free will was rooted in the two spiritual faculties of intellect and will, which make the human person an image of God possessing freedom of action, particularly in regard to the natural inclination toward happiness and love and in the inclination to truth. It opened these faculties to the measure of divine infinity, beyond any created object and any created love. Thus the human person was free and in control of his actions, not in spite of, but because of this natural inclination to happiness and truth. … This concept of freedom was based on the harmonious interplay of mind and will. I name it freedom for excellence or perfection, since it tends spontaneously to the good and true, to what is of highest quality in view of human perfection. (p. 223)

To state the matter succinctly, for Aquinas we are free not despite our natural desires for goodness, happiness, being, and truth but because of them. They are the sources of our freedom. Thus the rejection of God must be seen not as an expression of freedom but as a sign of deficiency: “The ability of free will to choose between various things in conformity with the end shows the perfection of freedom; but to choose something not ordered to the end, that is, to sin, evinces a defect of freedom. Therefore the angels, who cannot sin, enjoy greater freedom of choice than do we, who can” (ST Ia, q62 8, ad 2).

This isn’t commonsensical at all!  But if it’s true, perhaps none of us are immune to the universalist hope.

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49 Responses to Are you immune to the universalist hope?

  1. 2 years ago, I had a mock debate with my dad on the subject of universalism. I took the pro side, he took the con side. I presented, as best I could, a logical and coherent patristic and exegetical argument for universalism (of course, since con goes last and my dad has experience with mock debates, I was smoked). But I found out that day that my friend, who is technically in a Wesleyan tradition (though I’ve no idea how faithful she is to that tradition or if she even cares enough), would find it a distortion to not choose God and finds the idea of someone not choosing God if given the chance to be highly inconceivable.

    Note also, if you read closely the full Arminian doctrine, Arminians cannot entertain anything other than some sort of alien free will given to people by God. In other words, our free will is not our own in Arminian theology, we lost that due to total depravity which Wesley and Arminius both maintain to the same effect as did Calvin. Our free will comes as a gift imparted from God. If this is so, then an Arminian is not immune to universalism at any rate due to the fact that God bestows free will on us and presumably, he would not bestow a distorted desire on us, now, would he? The logic of Arminianism for you there.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, I think Roger Olson would disagree with your construal of the Arminian position on free will: Arminian Theology.

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      • “Arminianism teaches that all humans are born morally and spiritually depraved, and helpless to do anything good or worthy in God’s sight without a special infusion of God’s grace to overcome the effects of original sin” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 33). “Classical Arminianism agrees with Protestant orthodoxy in general that the unity of the human race in sin results in all being born ‘children of wrath’” (33). “Arminius, Wesley and classical Arminians in general affirmed inherited total depravity as utter helplessness apart from a supernatural awakening called prevenient grace” (27). “prevenient grace restores free will so that humans, for the first time, have the ability to do otherwise” (76). “sinners under the influence of grace have genuine free will as a gift of God” (emphasis mine, 76).

        “But still as none of them were apprized of the fall of man, so none of them knew of his total corruption. They knew not that all men were empty of all good, and filled with all manner of evil. They were wholly ignorant of the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul, not so much by those particular vices which reign in particular persons, as by the general flood of Atheism and idolatry, of pride, self-will, and love of the world.” (Wesley, Sermon 44)

        “there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God.” (Wesley, Sermon 82)

        From what I have read of Dr. Olson, he seems to break from Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace being universal but in every other aspect, he seems strongly Wesleyan. He would more than likely defend himself as being a more faithful follower of Arminius himself.
        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/10/arminian-theology-prevenient-grace-and-total-depravity-including-a-review-of-a-new-book-about-prevenient-grace/

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      • Also note that “Roman Catholics like Pope Benedict XVI and…Eastern Orthodox theologians like Dumitru Staniloae and Christos Yannaras” are not technically Arminians under Olson’s definition of an Arminian. They do not hold to total depravity as would the Arminians as both the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have rejected that doctrine seeing as being created with free will still intact (though not necessarily this libertarian idea) is important to being made in the image of God. For the Catholic and Orthodox, they would object to Wesleyan and Arminian definitions of total depravity as saying that humans lost the image of God in the fall.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Daniel, you are reading Arminians as if they were crypto-Calvinists. What you need here, I think, is the distinction between sufficient and efficacious grace. For Arminians, every human being is given sufficient grace to freely respond to the gospel: http://goo.gl/ucbN5T, http://goo.gl/5T8fkc. In any case, what matters for the purpose of this article is the default assumption of libertarian free will, which Olson most certainly affirms.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Probably best for you, Daniel, to take your questions about Arminianism and free-will over to Dr Olson’s blog.

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  2. Steven says:

    I’m not so sure it isn’t that common sensical. Perhaps we have all had experiences in which we were confronted with a reality which previously had been in doubt: say, you finally catch your neighbor in the act of stealing peaches from the tree in the backyard. At that point you make an automatic cognitive adjustment to reality as discovered and begin to live differently in light of the gained knowledge. There is no room for choosing one way or the other; reality has shown itself to you, and because your rational faculties are minimally well functioning, you begin to live differently. There is hardly any sense of “unfreedom” here, at least not to me. And yet this is how many universalists describe the experience of the damned in hell: they hit a brick wall, realize the futility of their rebellion, and repent. There is a kind of guaranteed outcome and yet there is no sense that they are unfree in all of this — so say I, anyway — because there is no unfreedom in perceiving reality and making the rational choice in response. If anything, you are especially in free in acting in an eminently rational way.

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  3. Jeff says:

    Once we see God as he truly is, in all his glory, his awesomeness, we will all freely choose to be with him.
    I just finished reading Thomas Talbott’s, The Inescapable Love of God, and I loved it. If only we could all, in this life, begin to see God in the light of Universalism.

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  4. Grant says:

    I think it is more commonsense but it can be difficult to understand because the view beginning with William of Ockham was made central to the Enlightenment project and for generations has shaped Western minds to think at a basis instinctual level, part of the narrative through which Westerners and most countries influenced by the West (which is nearly all now) approach, try to make sense of and understand anything at all. Thus it is difficult and requires persistent effort and disciplined mindfulness not to revert to our mind’s inherited default narrative.

    But we can see this and apply this older understanding all the time. People suffering from all the complex and difficult forms of mental illness and disorders and depression arising from complex interaction of reasons, biological, environmental, relational, stress etc show in varying extents greater or lesser that being prevented from being and functioning full humanity and being are not free and until heathly didn’t enjoy the freedom even to the extent that others can in a truly deep way. The same is the effect of serious and long term illness of more obviously physical sort, that effects someone’s freedom both physically and mentally, so to does grief and pain, and again does any form of addiction or obsession, we can see a person is not able in those areas and beyond to fully function in their personhood and humanity even as we define it commonly in our societies. Less obviously but just as clear is how our existence and understanding is defined in a big way by the environment we grew up in, the culture and fundamental worldview we take from it, all that has allot of sway over how we see and understand anything and how we see others and our actions in them, they can and do effect and trap us all and can effect us negatively. The influence of others, the control and ideology can have over us can effect how we think and are, are ability to understand and understand at different levels (for instance we might be good at abstract intellectual thought, though even it’s parameters will be set and determined by your environment, persons if influence etc, but not great at personal understanding) differing interests and personal weaknesses, many areas where even interests and sudden emotion or feeling or drives control us and our actions in negative and destructive ways far more than we like. And of course the reality of death, often unsaid, hidden or rationalized away (all to common in Christian circles by talking of ‘going to heaven’ or it’s opposite which is just a way of describing death, rather than the hope if resurrection, which is the defeat and destruction of death, to be raised through and beyond death into immortal embodied life in this world and creation, renewed and transfigured with us), while in other ways does this avoidance or rationalization or attempts to make accommodations with death happen. But death remains and these things other things set us free, it’s dominion over humanity is the evil that effects all the aspects of lives together, it is the great slave master that would prevent full being and humanity and destroy us, it is the thing most things above are symptoms of, and is the enemy preventing freedom. The Resurrection therefore is what sets us free, and until we are truly raised with Him at His appearing no one besides Christ is fully free, and prior to it the more we grow by the Spirit and in Christ that we are healed, renewed and drawn into the Life of God and begin in Him to become more the image and likeness of God will effect how free we are.

    And this might not even be that observable but God works through everything and how people are, using and taking up all the broken areas in people’s lives and between people and creation to heal and renew than in the Messiah. Through all different ways, beauty and hope, small things we don’t even see in people we right off as terrible or evil might be massive towards their healing, freedom and for others and justice of all which will be fully revealed in completion of the resurrection of the dead when all is transfigured with His love and Truth. And full being and humanity, being raised out beyond death to share fully in His Life must bring full liberty and freedom for all.

    And so freedom we know instinctively flows from our being, and the more we existence in relation to and in reality and living in life and love, of living and functioning in full being in relation to the One who is Being and beyond Being, to the extent we are able to live in the Life of God within the rest of humanity, living in the reality of the immortal resurrection life and defeat of death which fully realized in Christ and which we begin to share and participate now we become more free. But freedom flows from Being and therefore God, the is no freedom outside Him, our ability to think and choose itself is greatly compromised the more damaged by death we are. But the defeat and coming destruction of death by death and raising of humanity united to Him into sharing in Life in the Resurrection, allowing and bringing us to finally answer the human calling and being human being renewed in His image, the One in whom the work of God to create humanity in His image and likeness, and us also through Him, of the resurrection of the dead has already begun and will be completed can only mean to me the promise of freedom for all allowing us to fully be and to become fully the persons we really are of which we are just shadows right now.

    The concept of being fully living in the Love and Truth of Christ, being fully alive, beyond death fully free could at the same time remain in slavery and a state of death and confusion and irrational hatred when being fully rational at last seems completely contradictory and impossible. Just as someone successfully treated for a severe mental psychosis (assuming theoretical it was completely cured) or suffered a debilitating brain injury can’t still be psychotic or suffer and act und the power and influence of that disorder or someone can still be be handicaped in their life when a brain injury is healed. Such is not restricting their freedom, we understand that it is the very act of giving their freedom to them. For me such concepts regarding the ultimate restoration of humanity seem to fall into the same territory, and equally don’t make sense

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Grant, thanks for reinforcing the important point that the modern notion of libertarian freedom has become the default position for us, which is why it seems so darn obvious that of course any given human being can freely reject God forever and ever. Yet all one needs to do is to jump into the philosophical discussions about freedom to discover that these matters are vigorously debated by philosophers. Many question whether the libertarian construal is coherent. Certainly no consensus exists. Yet we find many theologians (I’ll mention Roger Olson, to cite just one example) who insist that our libertarian freedom only allows, at best, a hope for the salvation of all. It appears that not only has libertarian freedom become our default position but it has become a dogma.

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    • brian says:

      Some good thoughts, Grant.

      The better understanding of freedom is ontological. We are free when we are the beings God intends us to be. The libertarian notion is thin gruel based on significant philosophical and theological errors. The kind of god that follows in consequence should be an obvious idol, but isn’t to many.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have made some minor revisions to the article. Looking at it again this morning, I found a couple of paragraphs unsatisfactory. I don’t know, though, if my changes have improved it or not. 🙂

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Perhaps also of interest here is an article I wrote a year and a half ago: “Universal Salvation: What are the Odds?” Also of relevance here is “The Secret of the Universalist Hope.”

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  7. tgbelt says:

    I advocate a libertarian notion of freedom, but I don’t recognize my understanding of this freedom in the version of freedom being here criticized. I’m comfortably familiar with who’s on first and what’s on second when it comes to the debate, so I don’t think my understanding developed in a vacuum. As I understand it, libertarian freedom (at least the version of it I run across) isn’t at all the sort of absolute freedom from all contextual restraint or influence (including the denial of our natural desire for God) which is here rightly criticized. Nor does it deny that the fulfillment of the will is to finally and irrevocably rest in God as its end/telos. Libertarian freedom needn’t have any problem with its being the case that we are truly and finally free when we’re free for the Good and only the Good.

    The question a libertarian like myself asks is not ‘Am I absolutely uninfluenced and free from all constraint?’ (and if so then I object) but ‘Given the fact that we don’t start out life as free as God intends us to finally be, what in fact must be the nature of choice/volition if we’re to responsibly ‘become’ as free as God intends?’ Nobody is absolutely free from all condition or measure of constraint. But neither are our contextual constraints (whether natural or societal) absolutely determining of choice. The Eastern fathers are libertarians—not in the Enlightenment sense surely, but in a philosophically minimal sense of understanding us to be capable (don’t use the word ‘free’ if you want to say that for an irrevocable glorified state) within our natural and contextual influences to actualize one among several options. It may be a limited freedom within conditions and constraints we have no control over to determine ourselves. But it’s a real God-given ‘say-so’ to shape ourselves with respect to those conditions. I don’t see anything obviously idolatrous about this.

    The reason Arminians would struggle with universalism is because as universalism is often promoted it ends up requiring a compatibilist understanding of freedom—i.e., in the end God just decides for you, or God decides that you decide. And for reasons we don’t have space to debate here, that’s a big problem for non-compatibilists. But Reformed or Calvinist believers already understand choice in compatibilist terms, so there’s no great adjustment to make to accommodate universalism.

    This option isn’t open for libertarians, but not because they want a form of absolute existence free from God. Rather, they’re convinced that the ‘telos’ to which God calls us itself requires a cooperation, a synaphia, a mutuality to creative becoming in which the creature is more than an object determined by God. Libertarian choice isn’t the ‘end’ of the will with respect to the Good, but it is (so Libertarians argue) a necessary means to becoming finally defined by the Good. The ‘personal’ sort of existence God (as Person) calls us to simply can’t be given to us by God apart from our free acceptance of it. So it’s the nature of that acceptance vs rejection, not the nature of the will’s final resting place in God, that’s the point.

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    • brian says:

      tgbelt:

      Your response is well stated. The libertarian freedom I would quarrel with is less sophisticated and equates at the vulgarian level to freedom defined as a mere choosing between options. Liberty is one of the big subjects; complex and worthy of long discussion. I won’t enter into such now or probably ever on these boards. As no doubt you are aware, universalists claim that God’s inventive ingenuity and never exhausted good will is warrant for the belief that eventually every person will come to be part of God’s loving communion. It is not based on a coopting of creaturely freedom.

      Naturally, one can deny that this is something one can know. I take it this is a matter of faith.

      I have tried to make the following point several times, but it never gains traction. Yet I will state once more that it is my belief that the Triune God is the ultimate exemplar of what it means to be a person. In my view, our relations to one another are just as constitutive of identity as our “substantive core,” if it makes sense to speak of ourselves in such a manner. Individualist notions of salvation assume that if X is saved, the loss of Y has no material effect on X. But if the relation between X and Y is just as constitutive of X as what we think of X as being, the full and proper salvation of X requires Y.

      I don’t think this dimension of personhood has been attended to, because soteriological theories are still focused on terms consistent with the modern western individual.

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      • tgbelt says:

        Thanks Brian. I don’t disagree with anything you bring up. I incline to a universalist hope myself. But I try to maintain at minimum the integrity of the creature’s ‘say-so’ throughout. So for me that means the closest I can get is agreeing that (a) God never gives up or forecloses upon all possibility of Godward movement, but that because we’re always minimally free to responsibly determine ourselves relative to God’s invitation (b) there’s no terminus ad quem, no ‘line in the sand’ or ‘point’ at which God says, “Look, enough already. Time to get saved,” and–poof–does whatever love does (and could always have done?) to make rejecting God an essentially impossible option and get the choice he wants. So for me it’s left a bit open ended. God doesn’t determine us and we can’t irrevocably dispose ourselves out of all possibility of Godward movement.

        It’s because I totally agree with you that salvation is essentially the formation and fulfillment of personal being that I have problems with securing UR via a dismissal or circumvention of freedom (or of creaturely “say-so” if we wish “freedom” to stand just for the final/eschatological conformity of the will to the Good).

        I feel like I’m explaining it poorly.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    FEI: I just came across this blog article that Eric Reitan wrote a couple of years ago in response to Olson’s critique of universalism: http://goo.gl/hsZ2GF.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Excellent piece by Eric. Olson’s article is, I agree, a bad piece of reasoning all around. As Eric rightly points out, the question of the rationality of the choice to accept/reject God depends upon how one construes the ‘epistemic distance’ (= how much we don’t know about God) at work. If we’re overwhelmed with truth about God we are left no contextual means of constructing a rational rejection of God. On the other hand we require sufficient access to truth to rational choice for God possible. If God collapses the epistemic distance to zero (i.e., overwhelming us with truth), then rejecting God becomes impossible and you can set a date for the final salvation of all, i.e., that point at which God reduces the distance to zero. Nice ending. But in this case (a libertarian ought to argue) the very theosis (creaturely participation in personal existence) is precluded.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Roger Olson: “Someone once asked me whether I would still worship God if somehow I became convinced the Calvinist view of God is correct. I had to say no. Sheer power is not worthy of worship. Only power controlled by love is worthy of worship.”

      Tom: This is a perfectly impossible answer to the question. If Calvinism were true, and Olson convinced of it, whether or not Olson would still worship God would be God’s determination, as would be Olson’s beliefs in what constitutes a notion “worthy” of worship. There is no answer to the question “Would you worship God if you became convinced Calvinism were true?” for what one becomes convinced of when one is convinced of Calvinism is that what one becomes convinced of is unconditionally determined by God and that not worshiping God is more frequently God’s choice for people than is their ending up worshipers of God. And one can never know what God finally has determined. And it’s as inconsistent for a Calvinist to ask such a question as it is for anyone to answer it.

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  9. Mike H says:

    Olson’s quote:

    “but when he has a child and gazes on it as his own beloved son or daughter he beings to change (or should if his love is real and deep). Could this beloved child be predestined by God our Father to eternal torture in hell?”

    I can relate to his quote here. And while Olson is very kind and generous in his overall response and thinking, I don’t find the waters to be any more gentle in Arminian thought. A double predestination Calvinist who deemed it necessary to do away with the “sovereignty” trait of God in order to affirm total love for every person may be choosing the lesser of two evils, but as the parent of a 17 month old who grew up in an Arminian/Evangelical tradition I can tell you that the trade off is ultimately of little comfort. The ultimate end of the story in Arminian theology is a tragedy of the worst kind, and just as tragic (if not more so) as Augustinian thought (though they’d say that God gets exactly what he wants).

    But Olson does raise some good and challenging points. A very good article on his part and a wonderful response by you, Father. I’m glad that this conversation is taking place.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Michael. Thank you for bringing to our attention that particular sentence. I wonder if Olson has in mind this controversial statement by John Piper:

      “I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.” (Cited in Jerry L. Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist, (InterVarsity, 2004), 162)

      You are absolutely correct that Olson’s free-will defense of hell does not mitigate its tragedy and horror. If I know that one of my children has definitively rejected God and thus consigned himself to the outer darkness, how can this not diminish my joy and happiness? How can it not fill me with profound sorrow? I asked this question in my article “Hell and the Solidarity of Love.”

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      • Mike H says:

        Thanks for your response and for the link. I read that quote by Piper several months ago – it was originally in a written discussion between Piper and Talbott that I accessed thru Talbott’s website. Indeed, Piper means exactly what he says. No need to try to contextualize it or beat around the bush. One thing that I appreciate about Piper (probably not the appropriate word as Calvinist theology has nearly destroyed me) is that he is willing to take his arguments much further than most before playing the “mystery” card. He unapologetically shows what a particular strand of Calvinists actually believe. The idea that God may have actively willed to damn my beautiful 17 month old little girl, that these precious moments of her infancy are a cruel joke played on both me and on her is, to me, unbearable. Yet I appreciate Piper’s willingness to expose this Calvinist belief and the line of presuppositions and biblical maneuvering that gets a person to believe that. It’s a necessary belief given the underlying theology. While I’m not over the damage of it, part of me feels sympathy for people who believe this. Can a person destroy their humanity so much that they can believe this kind of thing with actual joy?

        As far as the diminishment of joy and happiness are concerned, it seems that both the Arminians and Augustinians have the same response which kind of surprised me. But it seems like the only rational response if heaven isn’t going to suck – that the redeemed simply won’t be affected by whoever is damned and suffering, whatever the nature of their suffering. They either won’t care or will actually take a great deal of pleasure in it. The Lewis quotes on your linked post and some of the blog comments seem to confirm that this is indeed the case, it isn’t a caricature. I really do get what Lewis is saying. I could probably cherry pick some bible verses to support that view, but I do think it’s speculation and I’m not fully convinced by it.

        The dark side of it, for me at least, is the necessary offshoot idea that those in heaven who are “perfected”, redeemed, made whole in theosis, (however you want to put it) actually love LESS when perfected than while in their imperfect state. Once “perfected”, there is no more good will towards my neighbor, no prayers offered, no forgiveness or mercy, no hope, no enemy love. In achievement of divine bliss, those things has passed away. In the Calvinist view at least, it would seem that the only reason to love all my neighbors in this life would be because I don’t yet know who to properly hate.

        But if a person exists, doesn’t that mean that God actively sustains that person? And if that’s the case, would it be necessary that the divine image remains in them, however faint? And if that is so, wouldn’t there be something in that person to love and hope for? Something to redeem? I can see why Lewis takes something of an annihilationist position here.

        So I don’t see the “we won’t care” answer, even if it is true, as one that can stand on it’s own without impacting a lot of other beliefs about God, ourselves, and the nature of love. Perhaps our understanding of love is just completely messed up, and I mean completely. But hasn’t it been displayed in Christ? If that IS the case though, that our concept of love is completely mistaken, perhaps we should just stop using the word “love” all together because in the end it lacks much meaning.

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        • brian says:

          “The dark side of it, for me at least, is the necessary offshoot idea that those in heaven who are “perfected”, redeemed, made whole in theosis, (however you want to put it) actually love LESS when perfected than while in their imperfect state. Once “perfected”, there is no more good will towards my neighbor, no prayers offered, no forgiveness or mercy, no hope, no enemy love. In achievement of divine bliss, those things has passed away. In the Calvinist view at least, it would seem that the only reason to love all my neighbors in this life would be because I don’t yet know who to properly hate.

          But if a person exists, doesn’t that mean that God actively sustains that person? And if that’s the case, would it be necessary that the divine image remains in them, however faint? And if that is so, wouldn’t there be something in that person to love and hope for?”

          If you think about this long enough, you might start to think the universalist view is more consistent with the meaning of the Gospel.

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  10. tgbelt says:

    Just to clarify my agreement with Fr. Aidan’s disagreement with Olson. When Olson says, “Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy,” he is taking love to imply things it needn’t imply. Divine love for us may very well imply our being libertarianly free with respect to some possibilities. There’s an argument to make for that. But Olson takes it further when he says divine love for us requires that freedom include the power to self-determine irrevocably out of all possible Godward movement. But love implies no such thing, at least not obviously. Rather than securing that kind of absolute freedom for finite creatures, I should think love precludes it. That’s the more intuitive/commonsensical notion of love and freedom. Ivan is right. ;o)

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  11. Grant says:

    I just came across this by David Bentley Hart (at least I think it is, it comes from a blog dedicated to his theological reflection and comment) that has relevance to the discussion between different conceptions of freedom:

    The history of modern political and social doctrine is, to a large degree, the history of Western culture’s long, laborious departure from Jewish, classical, and Christian models of freedom, and the history in consequence of the ascendancy of the language of “rights” over every other possible grammar of the good. It has become something of a commonplace among scholars to note that—from at least the time of Plato through the high Middle Ages—the Western understanding of human freedom was inseparable from an understanding of human nature: to be free was to be able to flourish as the kind of being one was, so as to attain the ontological good towards which one’s nature was oriented (i.e., human excellence, charity, the contemplation of God, and so on). For this reason, the movement of the will was always regarded as posterior to the object of its intentions, as something wakened and moved by a desire for rational life’s proper telos, and as something truly free only insofar as it achieved that end towards which it was called. To choose awry, then—through ignorance or maleficence or corrupt longing—was not considered a manifestation of freedom, but of slavery to the imperfect, the deficient, the privative, the (literally) subhuman. Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not its realization, and a society could be considered just only insofar as it allowed for and aided in the cultivation of virtue.

    There would be little purpose here in rehearsing the story of how late medieval “voluntarism” altered the understanding of freedom—both divine and human—in the direction of the self-moved will, and subtly elevated will in the sense of sheer spontaneity of choice (arbitrium) over will in the sense of a rational nature’s orientation towards the good (voluntas); or of how later moral and political theory evolved from this one strange and vital apostasy, until freedom came to be conceived not as the liberation of one’s nature, but as power over one’s nature. What is worth noting, however, is that the modern understanding of freedom is essentially incompatible with the Jewish, classical, or Christian understanding of man, the world, and society. Freedom, as we now conceive of it, presumes—and must ever more consciously pursue—an irreducible nihilism: for there must literally be nothing transcendent of the will that might command it towards ends it would not choose for itself, no value higher than those the will imposes upon its world, no nature but what the will elects for itself.

    From: http://davidbhart.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/pornography-culture.html?m=1

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    • brian says:

      Excellent quote from Hart and very apt.

      Honestly, one gets the sense from modern pedagogy that freedom and rights are the most precious things a culture can bestow on its people. Young people know all about MLK and Rosa Parks and seem to think western civilization is mainly a long history of oppression that only now is being altered by progressive, secular ideology.

      “Free at last, free at last” and they never think that their notion of freedom might be deeply inadequate.

      Only theosis will grant the freedom the human person yearns for. Good luck trying to explain that to almost anyone raised in this “enlightened” era.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom Talbott has left an interesting comment over at Roger Olson’s blog: http://goo.gl/2QZHv2.

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    • Mike H says:

      Father, thanks for pointing out Tom Talbott’s comment.

      I think Talbott’s right – he’s pointed out a possible natural route from Arminianism to universal reconciliation. If I’m understanding Talbott’s line of thought correctly, he’s saying that while each person is free to reject God indefinitely, the consequences of that rejection WILL INEVITABLY (not might but definitely will) shatter the irrationality and illusions that made such a rejection possible. Even “free will”, then, has it’s proper place in God’s glorious plan. This seems completely reasonable and possible to me, but can it be stated dogmatically? Can it be more than a hope?

      While Talbott points out a natural route, it also requires a few other things that Arminians don’t hold to dogmatically – beliefs in postmortem repentance/reconciliation and the idea that ALL punishment (whatever the form) is ultimately restorative. One of the comments on Olson’s blog was really insightful (a few posts below Talbott’s). The gist of the comment is “Arminians place such an emphasis on the infinite value that God gives to “free will”. So given this incredibly high value on “free will”, a value so high that a God who loves all will not/cannot override it even though it might come at the cost of eternal torment to the beloved, are we to believe that, on our death, He will revoke that free will for all eternity?” Some (most?) dogmatically believe just that – that the gift of “free will” will be taken away at the moment of death. There is no natural route from Arminianism to universal reconciliation given that presupposition.

      Ultimately, the Arminian will say something like the following. Is it possible, in this very moment, for a soul in it’s “free-will” to reject and estrange itself from God? The answer would be “yes”, and I think that Talbott would answer the same way. Now, wait five seconds and ask the question again. Now in this current moment, is it still possible? The answer would still be yes. An Arminian would say that this process could continue on forever because the freedom to reject God (whatever this “rejection” might look like and no matter how irrational it might be) won’t change. A universalist would say that it cannot continue forever.

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      • tgbelt says:

        Mike H: Ultimately, the Arminian will say something like the following. Is it possible, in this very moment, for a soul in it’s “free-will” to reject and estrange itself from God? The answer would be “yes”, and I think that Talbott would answer the same way. Now, wait five seconds and ask the question again. Now in this current moment, is it still possible? The answer would still be yes. An Arminian would say that this process could continue on forever because the freedom to reject God (whatever this “rejection” might look like and no matter how irrational it might be) won’t change. A universalist would say that it cannot continue forever.

        Tom: Which is why Olson is claiming an Arminian is immune to universalism. ‘Libertry of choice’ (to go with Hart’s description of the will’s present freedom) is ‘metaphysically’ required of getting created sentient being into the final perfection of its ‘will’. As I read in Orthodox writers (ancient and modern): “Love requires freedom.” And ‘freedom’ there in context is always the sort of thing Hart is describing as ‘liberty of choice’. But whatever we call it, the function of the will relative to its perfection is the same. There can’t be a point at which God says, “Enough already. I’ll just make rejecting me impossible by making it irrational” and ‘poof’ it’s done. That’s why Olson says the best we can get is ‘hope’. I figure, fine, let’s go with that. When you explore such hope, it gets me the same assurance. I know that sounds wrong. But that’s because the assurance we seek rests (I think) on what we DO know, and that is that we can never irrevocably reject God and God will never abandon his loving pursuit of us. Can’t that be enough to ‘know’? If we have to admit that this means there’s no additional terminus ad quem, is that such a bit deal? If we say divine love will pursue us as long as it takes without supposing it pulls the plug on ‘liberty’, can that be a kind of universalism that meet our needs? I think so.

        Couple things:

        a) Rejection is rational or irrational given the measure of epistemic distance. If ‘liberty’ is necessary to choosing God, and if it is to be rational, then all we need suppose is that hell is not the collapsing of epistemic distance to zero. We don’t know what this looks like postmortem. But we don’t even know what contrary positions look like postmortem either.

        b) I remember discussing this with TomT a few years back. He offered Paul’s conversion as an example God more or less determining human choice. The light shines, Paul falls from his horse and is blinded, etc. All of this more or less ‘guarantees’ Paul’s response. To imagine he was still ‘at liberty’ to reject God is a bit unimaginable. What reasons would he have to refuse God at this point? I pressed him by arguing that the (probationary) kind of ‘liberty’ God gave us to move us toward our end isn’t something that can be removed through any divinely arranged contextual constrains (lights, horses, being blinded OR hell-fire). TomT felt that ‘love’ justified just such arrangements, which leaves me wondering why love waits to long to collapse epistemic distance to zero if doing so always gets God the outcome he wants without jeopardizing his goals.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, I corrected your comment. You attributed your first quotation to me instead of Mike H.

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        • Mike H says:

          Tom,
          If Arminians do agree with your two points – that we can never irrevocably reject God and God will never abandon his loving pursuit of us – I’d agree that the Arminian argument would almost have to inevitably lead to, at the very least, a strong hope of universal reconciliation. Not just a “wishful” universalism (which effectively just admits that God is a “wishful universalist” but knows it won’t happen), but an actual concrete hope that it could happen. Yes, most everything (not just postmortem existence) is mysterious when it comes down to it, but if there is a belief that Christ is Alpha and Omega then can’t we frame the answers to certain questions in that light?

          The thing is, I’ve found that most Arminian theology doesn’t really believe those two points, so it’s a non-starter. From what I can tell, nearly all Arminians believe that God’s pursuit does end in some way, shape, or form. The majority believe, for example, that at the moment of death God’s disposition changes (even though I’ve never heard that actually said, that’s what the underlying belief is). God loved you and pursued you before physical death but doesn’t after – or death has sort of “forced his hand” where he has to maintain his “holiness” and commence unending punishment although he doesn’t really want to and “still loves you”. I don’t think that this theology makes much sense when really examined, but it’s prevalent.

          Or, there’s the Lewisy “door are locked on the inside” argument. I think I understand the argument and agree with it, up to a point. But usually, there’s some hidden fine print saying something to the effect of “but the doors are REALLY locked on the inside FOREVER. It’s FINAL”. This isn’t Lewis, but it does represent many who hijack the image. The “doors being locked on the inside” (as if you could open them up and walk out) is just rhetoric. So IMO, using the image of a door but NOT also permitting that the door can be opened just shows that the “door locked on the inside” is a misleading image. If the door can’t be opened, either God has removed “free will” so that a person can’t or won’t want to “open the door” (the person no longer has the ability to freely choose), or the punishment really is purely retributive and the “doors are locked on the inside” language is rhetoric used to not make God look like a cosmic torturer. Lewis’s sort of “fading out of existence” type thing makes some sense to me here though.

          “which leaves me wondering why love waits to collapse epistemic distance to zero if doing so always gets God the outcome he wants without jeopardizing his goals”

          Yeah, I hear this. It becomes a troubling question of theodicy.

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          • tgbelt says:

            Mike: The thing is, I’ve found that most Arminian theology doesn’t really believe those two points, so it’s a non-starter. From what I can tell, nearly all Arminians believe that God’s pursuit does end in some way, shape, or form.

            Tom: Yes, that’s typical of Arminian (libertarians). My point was that it needn’t be, i.e., libertarian freedom (of ‘liberty of choice’) doesn’t itself entail the freedom to irrevocably dispose ourselves in such rejection.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Olson has briefly responded to Talbott’s comment, but his comment doesn’t add anything new. He simply reiterates the perceived impasse: if human beings possess libertarian freedom, then they have the capacity to hold out against the love of God for eternity. I searched through his blog hoping to find a substantive discussion of libertarian freedom; but I did not find anything particularly useful (though his lengthy essay on Karl Barth and universalism is quite interesting). Perhaps Olson discusses libertarian freedom elsewhere, such as in his book Arminian Theology. But it is hardly helpful, as Olson repeatedly does on his blog, to simply say to Talbott and everyone else who raises the question of universalism: “At the end of the day, however, I cannot see how an Arminian, believing in libertarian free will, can assert (as opposed to hope) that all will be saved.” This is not a serious rejoinder.

      Let me assume pontification mode: if a theologian has not seriously engaged the works of Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and Ilaria Ramelli, then he is not entitled to reiterate his previously held opinions on free will and universal salvation. He needs, rather, to either jump in and engage the material or take a step backward and acknowledge that he has a lot more work to do to form a solid, respectable opinion. I am not suggesting that Talbott & Company have proven their positions beyond a reasonable doubt; but I do believe that their arguments need to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Folks who begin acquainting themselves with the philosophical debates on freedom will discover one critical truth: defending libertarian freedom, philosophically, biblically, and historically, is a lot more difficult than they think. Several times on his blog Olson has described universalism as a heresy, yet how can this charge be reasonably advanced if the very construal of freedom upon which the charge is predicated is open to debate and can hardly be described a dogma of the Church?

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  13. brian says:

    Father,

    I cannot say I have a clear sense of either Yannaras’ or Zizioulas’ views on heaven and hell. I have not read Yannaras’ Elements of Faith, so there may be a definitive statement there. What I do know is that I have been able to read their work in a way that I can synthesize with my universalist sympathies. I don’t see how their views on the person logically end in traditional views on hell, at any rate, regardless of what they may individually believe. As you know, a fellow like Staniloae clearly advocates the traditional infernalist position. For that reason, all his work seems to me painted in a dismal color, fair or not.

    And to be clear: my own views on universalism fall somewhere between Balthasar and Talbott, though perhaps that is not a fully logical middle position to take. I think Talbott’s views ought to be true, but I cannot quite get rid of the feeling that I am being presumptive to hold certitude about universal salvation. I describe my belief as a very strong hope.

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  14. tgbelt says:

    Hart: “Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom….”

    Tom: This is of course spot on. And as far as folks have reduced the latter (named true ‘freedom’ as eschatological telos) to the former (here named ‘liberty of choice’) I’m all for focusing on distinction. Unfortunately this has almost nothing to do with the question of universalism and whether and how an Arminian might embrace it. If we all agree to call “freedom” that final mode of the ‘will’ which is the end toward which our natures are oriented by grace and “liberty” that temporary/probationary mode of the ‘will’ which gets us there, fine. Let’s save ‘freedom of will’ for the eschatological. That’s not relevant to the Olson’s doubts are the Arminian. It is entirely what Hart names “liberty of choice” which is the issue. And, let me add, this liberty of choice is also a gift of grace, for it is the God-given ‘means’ by which the will is meant to determine itself relative to its natural orientation. The fact that we don’t all invariably choose the Good is itself evidence that our God-given orientation and attraction to the Good isn’t ‘determining’. We don’t always choose it, and we’re responsible when we don’t. The question is: what is the teleological role such ‘liberty of choice’ has to do with our reaching true ‘freedom’ as our end? The answer to that is why Olson think Arminians can’t claim that all “will” be saved, for he believes that ‘liberty of choice’ can’t be removed by God and the ‘end’ (freedom) still be gotten. We have to choose our way, by grace, into freedom. Orthodox anthropology is–so far as its teleology is concerned–synergistic. So when we’re done pointing out that true freedom is really the ‘end’ and not the ‘means’ which characterizes our present existence, we still have to debate the point of that ‘liberty of choice’ which is the means. It’s the metaphysics of the ‘means’ relevant to the one’s reaching one’s ‘end’ which is the Arminian’s problem. The Calvinist doesn’t have this problem because the exercise of the will is presently ‘as determined by God’ as it shall be when we are (supposedly) ‘free’ in the eschaton. Freedom for a Calvinist simply means the capacity to choose what God has determined you to choose. That Calvinist’s may believe that God determines all to choose the Good (and be saved) in the end is actually little consolation to Arminians who reject the whole providence scheme of theological determinism. It’s nice to see Calvinist’s admit that everybody’s making it in the end is a better climax than the majority’s suffering irrevocable torment, but it’s gotten by means of tweaking a broken system.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the problem is the fact that the issue is being debated by Arminians and Calvinists.

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  15. tgbelt says:

    In the eschaton there will be no typos. Come Lord Jesus!

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    • tgbelt says:

      I’m not responsible for all of them. Some demon is tormenting me. ;o)

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Perhaps one of your fellow pastors can say some deliverance prayers for you, Tom … 😉

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        • tgbelt says:

          Are you sure you don’t have a feature on your blog that messes with the spelling and grammar of certain contributors when they click ‘post’? I thought I did a better job of re-reading before I send it off.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Yeah, I have a special program designated just for your comments, Tom. It’s configured to add a typo every four sentences. 😉

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I corrected some of the misspellings for you, Tom, but I hesitated to do any more serious editing for you. But the gist of your comment is sufficiently clear.

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  16. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I came upon another article by Olson on free will: “Can a Single Act be both Determined and Free?

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