Great Quotes: Thomas Ralston

Concerning the Calvinist claim that we are controlled by motives and our choices and actions are therefore necessitated:

Let us now contemplate these motives which are said to act upon the mind so as necessarily to influence the will. Let us look them full in the face, and ask the question, What are they? Are they intelligent beings, capable of locomotion? Are they endued with a self-moving energy? Yea, more: Are they capable of not only moving themselves, but also of imparting their force to something external to themselves, so as to coerce action in that which could not act without them? If these questions be answered in the negative, then it will follow that motives, considered in themselves, can no more act on the mind so as necessarily to determine the will, than a world can be created by something without existence. If these questions be answered in the affirmative, then it will follow that motives at least are free agents – capable of acting without being acted upon, and endued with self-controlling and self-determining energy. Necessitarians may fall upon either horn of the dilemma; but upon which horn soever they fall, their system must perish.

If the attempt be made to evade this by saying that motives do not act themselves, but God is the agent acting upon man, and determining his will through the instrumentality of motives – if this be the meaning, then I demand, why not call things by their right names? Why attribute the determination of the will to the influence of motives, and at the same time declare that motives are perfectly inefficient, capable of exercising no influence whatever? Is not this fairly giving up the question, and casting “to the moles and to the bats” the revered argument for necessity, founded upon the influence of motives?

Again, to say that motives exercise no active influence, but are only passive instruments in the hands of God by which he determines the will by an immediate energy exerted at the time, is the same as to say that God is the only agent in the universe; that he wills and acts for man; and, by his own direct energy, performs every physical and moral act in the universe, as really and properly as he created the worlds; and then that he will condemn and punish men everlastingly for his own proper acts! Is this the doctrine of philosophical necessity? Truly it is. And well may we say this is fatalism! This is absurdity! [source]

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One Response

  1. Hello Ben,

    Thanks for sharing this quote. Ralston’s argument that Calvinists use language inconsistently is indeed striking. He notes well that whenever Calvinists discuss *God’s* “motives” the motives are ALWAYS capable of efficient cause, but when *man’s* motives are discussed they are not. Therefore (Ralston implicitly argues) to speak of “motives” leading to causal effect depends entirely upon the Subject. Put another way, there is no fixed meaning for a given word like “motives.” Hence Ralston’s justified exasperation for the need of honest language: “why not call things by their right names?”

    Ralston’s point about language changing meaning depending upon the Subject is of greatest importance. This point is also argued by Prof. Thomas Edgar in his article on “to foreknow.” Edgar points out that if verbs change meaning simply because God is the subject, how can we really know what ANY word means in reference to God?

    This is why I think Calvinist apologists, though they seldom formulate or express it as such, believe that Calvinist principles must be *possessed* to be understood. By *possessed* I do not mean something also logically constructed, for as John Piper himself points out, the Calvinist is not to argue his theology from logic or experience, but make [the Bible’s statements] a textual issue every time. But what (we ask) happens if the Bible’s language changes meaning depending upon the grammatical subject? Is it not that the historical meaning of Biblical words as they were understood in their own time will be cast off? Yes, certainly. In a word, the Bible would become deconstructed. Or is that in fact the debate? That the Bible’s words, as written symbols, were never subject to the same meanings given them outside the Bible, or even *inside* the Bible depending upon the subject? Certainly Karl Barth seemed to think so.

    Closer to home than Barth’s atmospheric ‘Christian’ philosophizing is, I think, the biblical deconstructionism of Calvinist James White, in White’s argument about “foreknew” (see the beginning few minutes of White’s 45 minute youtube presentation on Rom. 9). White argues for a relational aspect (of meaning) to “foreknew,” AS LONG AS the general concept of foreknowledge/ foreknew is in its VERB FORM, and GOD is the subject, in the NEW TESTAMENT. In other words, White is asking us to ignore every instance of “foreknew” unless these three conditions are met. Thus White gets rid of what I call “lexical control groups,” such as the use of “foreknew” in secular Greek, or in any instance in the New Testament (Acts 26:5) when God is NOT the subject but the object is personal. Therefore White’s argument about “foreknew” is one of special pleading.

    I think we have long seen the general Calvinist response to non-Calvinists, at least implicitly: “You simply don’t understand [i.e., *HAVE*] the truth; God has not seen fit to give you that.” Again, I’m not saying Calvinists normally articulate their argument specifically this way. Their usual method is simply to insist repeatedly on their special pleading definitions. Apparently they believe these ARE the Spirit’s definitions. If others do not understand them, it is because the Spirit has not revealed such to them. And so the chief conclusion by Calvinists about non-Calvinists seems to be, non-Calvinists simply do not *possess* the truth, i.e., of Calvinist principles, given irresistibly by God.

    Along these lines, it is interesting to note (Anglican) Bishop N. T. Wright’s position about salvation, and how, through the Old Testament example of God’s Law (a specific, declarative Word) *possessed* by Israel, so too justification (he argues) is a *possession* of God’s people, NOT a thing *received.* Notice, then, that the idea of a person actively *receiving* the truth (John 1:12, same Greek word used in Matt. 26:26 for “*TAKE*, eat”) has been deconstructed to a point where it no longer means what it meant in the first century, and what of course it should mean for us today. And so Wright’s position, like White’s, denies any predicative possibility of man, in favor of God deciding who will *possess* the truth. That the believer’s *possession* of the truth has thus been cast TO BE IN CONFLICT with the believer’s *reception* of the truth, is yet another example of what happens, as Ralston notes elsewhere, when things are not called by their right names.

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