It is very common for opponents of reformed theology to bring forth a litany of verses using the phrase "Whomsoever" or "Whosoever" in an attempt to deny aspects of the TULIP. The synergists in their adamant adherence to hold on to the same autonomy that cursed the entire world will of course do this with a complete disregard for reconciling the clear passages that contradict their position. Moreover I will demonstrate in this post how they ignore the logical outcome of their exegetical methodology, and provide an answer that does not imply the bible to be contradictory.
A typical example discussion might go something like this:
Calvinist: Jesus only atoned for the sins of his elect. We know very clearly that Jesus himself said in Matthew 20:28 that he died for many, and not all. We also know from John 10 that Christ said he lays down his life for his sheep instead of the goats. In Romans 8:7, John 6, and 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are told very clearly that no natural man has the autonomous ability to choose God on his own until he is regenerated by God 1 John 5:1, because there is no God seeker Romans 3:10-11.
Synergist: Yes, but there are so many passages that state Christ died for all men like Hebrews 2:9, and God desires all men to be saved 1 Timothy 2:4-6. In john 3:16 and in various similar texts "whosoever" means anyone can come if they simply repent and believe. It makes no sense for God to offer salvation to people who cannot possibly believe. Similarly it makes no sense for God to punish people for not obeying the command of the Gospel when they can't due to inability Romans 10:16.
I want you the reader to observe carefully what has occurred in this example dialogue. This is a very unfortunate thing that occurs in many such doctrinal discussions. I would assume that both of these persons believe the bible has no contradictions and is the word of God with a clear message to his creation. Notice that the Synergist just jumps to verses that contradict the other persons verses. In my experience with many hours of such discussions I have found that it is usually the synergist that almost always does this. Although many Calvinists do this too. This is very harmful to do because anyone in earshot listening to such a discussion would conclude right away that the bible is contradictory nonsense. I would encourage anyone who is engaged in such a discussion to leave such a scenario immediately. Now for a simple response.
Does Ought Imply Can?
What is meant by the phrase "ought implies can"? For clarity sake what is meant here is regarding different sorts of statements or sentences. There are basically 4 types of sentences. Declarative, Interrogative, Imperative, and Exclamatory. Declarative sentences are stating a matter of fact or a description of some reality. Interrogative sentences are basically asking a question. Imperative sentences are expressing a request or some command. Exclamatory statements are expressing strong feeling or emotion. When I am speaking of the Ought implies can fallacy the tension I am trying to unveil is between the declarative and imperative sorts of statements. For example, does the fact that some person is given a command mean that said command requires the ability of the recipient be available in order for the command to be a meaningful? My answer to this is simply that it does not require logical entailment which I will clarify later. On this issue specifically there have been three approaches to this topic in the area of philosophy and semantic studies. One is the approach of Logical entailment, another is presuppositional in that the availability of ability seems to be a necessary precondition for said command to be meaningful. The final position is purely semantic in that said ability being available is only so that the command be linguistically meaningful to convey rather than actually being available.
Why is all of this important? I will candidly admit that not every "Whoever" or "Whosoever" passage in scripture falls into the category of imperative mood. My aim here is only to highlight such passages that are in the imperitive or declaritive mood in recognition that we serve a logical God and should consider logical consequences in light of the divine logos who is the author thereof. That being said I am going to give some examples in scripture that are very clear examples where ought cannot imply can, as well as some philosophical examples to demonstrate where this fallacy is important when considering our hermeneutic methodology and argumentation.
In this narrow scope the two doctrines attacked which employ this fallacy in their responses are with regard to Total Inability/depravity and Limited atonement. The line of reasoning can be put broadly in this way. A command to obey the Gospel is meaningless if God already selected some to believe and others to reject. We can put this into a syllogism in the following way:
Premise 1: If A ought to do X then A can do X
Premise 2: A cannot do X
Conclusion: Therefore A ought to do X is meaningless.
One begins to wonder how this odd logic being used makes any sense. For example in Matthew 5 and 1 Peter we are told to do things that are impossible for us as humans to do. Does this mean that those commands are meaningless or false? A simple reduction of this nonsense can be illustrated by asking the following question. If only some people can drive, does it logically entail that we should remove all stop signs? Of course not. For rules to be made there must be some who obey and others to reject them regardless of their ability. As the old saying goes "Rules were meant to be broken", and we may add "....as well as obeyed".
The obvious next question though is how all can be held responsible under such commands in the face of the fact that some are able while others are not. This is where the problem lies. The answer is simple and biblical. Original sin and the imputation of Adam's sin and guilt to all. You may find this repulsive but it is clearly what scripture teaches. If you don't like the imputation of the first man's sin and guilt, it follows you should not require the imputation of Christ's sinless righteousness. Moreover scripture clearly teaches that our ignorance of the Gospel is still culpable. Keith from reformedapologeticsministries.com notes in the comment section of his video on original sin:
In 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 the apostle Paul affirmed that even though the gospel is veiled or hidden and not understood by unbelievers because they are blind (hence they are ignorant of it), they will nevertheless perish in rejecting it: “3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Ignorance of the gospel or being blind to it does not excuse someone. This is why Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:18 can speak about God destroying those who did not obey the gospel.
Also, the apostle Peter affirms people can be destroyed for talking foolishly about things they are ignorant about: “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction” (2 Peter 2:12). Hence, just because such people were ignorant that does not mean they were not accountable for what they were doing. Plus, in 2 Peter 3:16 the apostle affirms ignorant and unstable people twist Paul’s writings to their own destruction. Their ignorance did not excuse their sin. In Romans 10:3 Paul says “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness” (Romans 10:3). Just because the Jews were ignorant of God’s righteousness and on that basis tried to establish their own does not mean what they did was not wrong. It clearly was wrong.
But how can it be the case that commands do not require ability when it seems an intuitive presupposition that they do? While we are all justly condemned in Adam, scripture also contains references indicating we are not condemned merely for the sins of Adam but also for our own. In order to answer this question properly, the way that ethicists in the realm of moral philosophy work these problems out is to posit thought experiments of possible scenarios that are relevant and compare counter-examples. For the purposes of this section I will take ought to mean a moral obligation or duty, which means "ought to" and "is obligated to" are used interchangeably. Regarding what I take to be "can", a reasonable understanding seems to be in terms of what an agent is capable of doing within the limits of their physical and mental abilities in the circumstances. With that in mind let's work through the three contemporary approaches to this issue after providing an example from Norman Geisler's book "Chosen but Free". In his section called "Ought Implies Can" Geisler argues in the following way:
Not only are evil moral actions ones that could have been otherwise, but they should have been otherwise. There is
agreement by both the extreme Calvinists and their opponents that a moral duty is something we ought to do. Moral laws are prescriptive, not merely descriptive. They prescribe actions that we should (or should not) do.
But here, too, logic seems to insist that such moral obligations imply that we have self-determining moral free
choice. For ought implies can. That is, what we ought to do implies that we can do it. Otherwise, we have to assume that the Moral Lawgiver is prescribing the irrational, commanding that we do what is literally impossible for us to do. Good reason appears to insist that if God demands it, then we can do it. Moral obligation implies moral freedom. The objection brought against this conclusion by the strong Calvinist calls for comment. For he insists that God often commands us to do the impossible and yet still holds us responsible for not doing it.22 For example, God commanded: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt.5:48). Yet we all are painfully aware that in our fallen state this is impossible. In fact, we are commanded never to sin, and yet as depraved beings we cannot avoid sinning. For we are sinners “by nature” (Eph. 2:3). Two comments should be made, then, in response to this objection. First of all, when we say “ought implies can” we do not mean that whatever we ought to do we can do by our own strength.23 This would be contrary to the clear teaching of Christ that “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We can’t do anything but, as Paul said, “ [We] can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]” (Phil. 4:13 NKJV). Sure, we are told to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), but only because “it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). Hence, “ought implies can” only in the sense that we can by the grace of God. Without His grace we cannot overcome sin. Second, further evidence that we can do what we ought to do, by God’s grace is found in a familiar passage: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). It couldn’t be clearer: God never prescribes anything without providing the way to accomplish it. If we are morally bound, then we must be morally free.
As is seen in Geisler's writings he is committed to the strong form of ought Implies can. We can formulate the strong version held to by Norman Geisler in the following way so as to be clear as I provide subsequent counterexamples. (OIC) If A ought to do X, then A can do X.
1. Ought Does Not Entail Can
What entailment broadly means is what "follows" from a statement or other statements necessarily. In this case of strong forms of OIC it would be said that our ability follows from what ought to be the case. There do seem to be very many counter examples to this alleged entailment.. For example think of the following scenario. On the battlefield, a soldier is severely injured and the commander of the platoon orders the platoon’s medic to treat the injured soldier. We could imagine the dialogue going something like this:
Commander: “Medic, take care of your comrade; he’s bleeding to death!”
Medic: “Sir, I can’t do it.”
Commander: “What do you mean you can’t do it? You’re the medic of this platoon and I just gave you an order to take care of your fellow soldier. He’s going to die.”
Medic: “Sir, I know I should, and I would if I could, but I can’t.”
In this example the commander does not know that the medic is paralyzed by fear, and so he is unable to bring himself to treat his comrade. Yet regardless both the commander and the medic know that the medic ought to treat the soldier. So in this case, it’s true that the medic ought to treat the wounded soldier, by virtue of his capacity as the platoon’s medic, even though it’s false that he can actually do so. If this is correct then:
The medic can treat his fellow soldier.
Doesn't follow from...
The medic ought to treat his fellow soldier.
2. Ought Does Not Presuppose Can
Because of the preceding case and others like it demonstrating that the strong forms of OIC completely fall apart upon analysis, many philosophers have opted for alternative, weaker forms. This presuppositional form would say ‘A ought to do X ’ presupposes ‘ A can do X. ’. This approach does not allow for contraposition. This is to say that the move from 'if A ought to do X, then A can do X" to it's contrapositive "If A can't do X, then A is not obligated to do X" is ruled out. So the difference between this model and the entailment model is that on the presuppositional scheme 'A is unable to do x" is not false but it is worse than false. It is instead meaningless unless the ought-judgments corresponding to the can-judgments are true! Again there seem to be numerous counter examples to this that can be given. Consider a case in which it seems that the ought-judgment is meaningful, but the can-judgment is false, as a counterexample. For example Driver A and a passenger in one car are involved in a car accident with a second car. Driver A in the first car tells the passenger to go and assist driver B in the second car. Again we could imagine the conversation going something like this.
Driver A: “Go and help the driver in the other car! You can exit the car but I can’t because I’m stuck.”
Passenger: “I can’t do it.”
Driver A : “What do you mean you can’t do it? You ought to help that driver.”
Passenger: “I know I should, and I would if I could, but I can’t.”
In this case Driver A is unaware that the passenger is extremely disgusted by the gory sight of flesh and blood so the passenger is unable to go help Driver B. Again, nevertheless both the driver and the passenger know that the passenger ought to go help Driver B. But even though the can judgement is false the ought-judgement can still be meaningful. The passenger might blame herself for not doing so, even though she might not be blamed by others, and thus not chastised for being derelict in her duty to help a person in need. In this case, it is meaningful, and true, that the passenger ought to help driver B, even though she cannot actually do so because she is the sort of person who would faint or pass out at the gruesome sight of human flesh and blood. So this example seems to be an instance in which the ought-judgment is meaningful and true, whereas the can-judgment is false. This means that:
The passenger ought to help driver B
is meaningful and true, whereas
The passenger can help the driver B
The real point of divine commands is to point out our inability to obey them and turn to Christ who did.