Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Responding to a Responsive Response on Differing Views of Providence

Some time back I wrote a response an another blog, Deconstructing Neverland, where the author laid out his opinion on Open Theism.  That peaked my interest, and I responded, as bloggers do, with my opinion on what he wrote, and he was gracious enough to post my response

In the mean time, my nephew Tom and I have been bantering back and forth over Twitter and through a few e-mails regarding our respective views on God and providence, and things of that nature. All good natured conversation aiming and expanding our understanding of God and His word.  Tom read my response, and authored his rebuttal to my response. 

Oh, what joy to read thoughtful, loving commentary on God and Christ, from family members who are indeed born-again believers, too! 

So, to continue to the conversation, instead of taking up more space on the other blog, I decided to post my response to Tom here, on my blog.  To be fair, there is even another response on the original blog, Deconstructing Neverland, where the author of THAT blog lays out HIS opinion on the matter. 

All presented in the spirit of love, brotherhood, and encouragement that brothers and sisters in Christ should have for one another. 

My response: 

I enjoyed reading your post, Tom.  You make some points on which we can agree and a few where I have a different opinion.   To start my reply, let me say a bit on what Open Theism is, and is not, from my understanding. 

Open Theism holds that God, in His sovereignty, seems to have chosen to interact with His creation in a somewhat different fashion that traditional Calvinism or Armenianism suggest.  

Calvinism holds, generally, that God has ordained all things past, present and future, and everything that happens is from the sovereign will and preplanned purpose of God.  Nothing in creation happened or will happen or can happen that is outside or in opposition to the will and planned purpose of God.  

Armenianism holds somewhat similar views, in that God knows all things that occur past, present, or future, but not that they were necessarily ordained by God exactly in the way they happened.  God knew all things would happen as they did, seeing as He has perfect knowledge of all things past, present and future, therefore the future, as God knows it, is unchangeable and is, in effect, “ordained” or set. 

Open Theism holds, to my understanding, that God indeed has perfect knowledge of all things past and present, and that nothing occurs outside of His sovereign grace.  But Open Theism holds that God, in His sovereign choice, has decided to interact with His creation in a way that lovingly gives free moral creatures (the angels, demons, and human beings) a great deal of freedom in choosing how they will live out their lives, thus leaving some possibilities for the future “open”.  God knows the future as possibilities, and experiences the future with us as it unfolds.  Since the future has not happened, the future is not there to be known by God as it is.  God has clearly ordained many things in the Bible (Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, for instance), but has also been seen to relent and change His mind about others (Ex. 32:7-14, for instance).  He seems to leave a great deal of latitude in how He works with His creation to bring about His plans (for instance, God’s prophecies never stated exactly how Jesus sacrifice would work itself out, and exactly who the actors would be in fulfilling prophecy. They gave broad strokes and hints at the big picture, but not exact details, In the end, God guided His plan to fruition).

Understanding that these types of discussions are enjoyable from a philosophical and intellectual standpoint, and are used to sharpen our thoughts and minds as to our understanding of scripture, but not to demand that anyone see scripture through any particular lenses (after all, Paul urges us in Romans 14:1 not to argue about things that really aren’t important, and you yourself note that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling; and I think we can whole heartedly agree that Christ is King and the center of all we believe), I would like to discuss a few points you made, and suggest a different way of viewing those verses and their context.
Simply for your consideration, and the joy of the discussion.

First, a definition: I think you equate “sovereignty” with “control’’.  Not to suggest God does not have “control” of His creation when He chooses, but I don’t believe the “sovereignty” the Bible depicts of God over his creation equates with God exerting His will to maintain complete and total control over every aspect and every occurrence in creation.  This is where Calvinism, for me, falls short of exalting the glory of God.

I believe God’s sovereignty is a sovereignty of love, which means “God demonstrates divine power when he empowers others to make choices to either enter into a loving relationship with Him or not.” God thereby “puts Himself in a position in which His heart might grieve because of the adultery of His beloved (Hosea 11). ”*

In order for God to grieve anything (Genesis 6:6-7), something must have occurred that He did not expect.  Truly, why would scripture portray God as “broken hearted” or “troubled” or “sorry that He made” mankind, if indeed mankind were doing exactly as He planned from the beginning of time?  I contend that God is not irrational; He is not a liar; so the text must mean something true about God. 

Isaiah 5 is also an example of God expecting one thing, but experiencing a different outcome.  God says of Israel that He’s tilled the field, worked and planted, and expected a crop of good grapes, but He received a crop of wild, bad fruit.  God asks Israel, “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? When I expected sweet grapes, why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?” If God had ordained all things, how could God ask “what more?” and “why?”.  Again, I don’t think God is irrational, I don’t think He is a liar, and I think scripture is true, so this passage is saying something true about God.

“Sovereignty” is not necessarily the same thing as “control”.

Now, to some of your points. 

I agree Judas is on the hook for his own moral choices.  The question Calvinism must confront is, did Judas have a choice? Did God choose that individual from the beginning of time, or did God ordain the betrayal from the beginning of time? Any number of people could have betrayed Jesus.  What if Judas had repented prior to the betrayal and confessed his sin and came back to Jesus? Calvinism would claim “impossible”, which would indeed make God responsible for Judas and his evil.  But I contend Judas, much as anyone else, made his own free moral choice, choosing earthly riches and glory over God’s love.  God, in His sovereign reign over His creation, ordained that Jesus would be betrayed, and worked with his free moral creatures to bring this about.  Had Judas repented, I believe God would have rejoiced at Judas repentance, and then, in His sovereign love, begun the process of finding another path for Jesus to be betrayed to the cross.  Because God is sovereign, it was always going to end at the cross.  Because God loves, he works with his free creatures to bring about His plans.

Control is not love.

As for the passages in Acts, again, God did foreordain a broad picture of Jesus’ betrayal, and ultimately brought it about.  Old Testament prophecy is clear on that.  But exactly which Jews and wicked men were intended to do exactly which things to bring it about is never addressed in prophesy, and there is no reason to assume that Peter is suggesting that God specifically picked these persons from the beginning of time.  In my reading of scripture, Peter is using broad strokes to say to these people who ultimately did participate in Jesus death – “Look! God foretold that Jesus would be handed over to die, and you just did it!”  They indeed had choices, and at any point could have changed their minds, but because they did not, because they chose to crucify Jesus, they are indeed culpable for their actions, and Peter exalts and glorifies God who orchestrated His will to come to pass.

Complete control over all actions is never suggested, as Calvinism demands, but God’s sovereignty over his plans are exalted everywhere.

And in none of this, anywhere, has God been the creator or the cause of evil. 

I think that even the crucifixion itself must be viewed, not an act of evil, but one of perfect love. No one can kill God without God allowing it.  Indeed, no one can do anything to affect God in any way without God allowing it.  The act of the crucifixion, the Passion of the Christ, was a monumental act of love from God to mankind. It was a positive choice in love for God to interact with and redeem mankind to Himself.  His death on the cross was a perfect, eternal, absolutely beautiful act of love, but it was God’s choice.  All the ugliness and evil that people contributed to get Jesus to the cross were the actions of free moral agents, on which you and I agree, they are responsible for those free moral actions, but their choices would have been meaningless had 

God not willfully chosen to act, to sacrifice, to die, in love.

To me, this means Calvinism has a problem here.  If the action of every person was foreordained, then how can they be responsible?

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think Jesus is clear here. People made positive choices all along the way to betray, torture, and kill Jesus, but they didn’t understand the gravity of what those choices brought to fruition.  Jesus (God), to the end, has love and compassion.  Never evil.

As for creation, I believe creation was subjected against its will in frustration, as you quote scripture, not by its own choice, but by God in response to the choices of man and Satan.  Had man and Satan exercised their free moral choices to love and serve God, creation would never have been subjected against its will.  God, in his sovereign love, gave the angels and mankind the choice to love God or rebel.  Indeed, without choice, there cannot be love. But the evil, the trigger or precursor to the fall, was Satan’s and mankind’s evil choices.  Our rebellion. In Genesis 3, God tells the serpent “because you have done this” you will be cursed, and He tells the man “since you have listened to your wife” the ground is cursed.  Satan and Adam made evil choices when they disobeyed and rebelled against God.  God does not do or cause the evil, but He does respond to it. Even there, in the Garden, God begins the work of bringing about good from man’s and Satan’s evil by promising God’s eventual victory over Satan in verse 15.

In Genesis 20, God does indeed intercede to prevent Abimelech from sinning in verse 6. But look further down, in verse 7.  God still acknowledges that, although God has interceded up to this point, Abimelech still might possibly chose not to return Sarah to Abraham.  “Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.”

God interceded, but His intercession was not to preclude Abimelech from exercising his free-moral choice. There is nothing “preordained” or “controlling” about God’s sovereignty in this passage. Indeed, God acknowledges that Abimelech still has a choice, and warns him to make the right choice.

In 1 Samuel, the sons of Eli are indeed wicked men. But was their wickedness ordained by God? If we read 1 Samuel 2:30-31, we see where God had promised one thing, but because of the actions of Eli and his sons, changes His mind and declares a new thing.

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.  The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age”.

I think the passage here, taken in context, clearly shows God wants them to repent of their ways and return to Him.  God does say that He will kill Eli’s sons, but a further reading of 1 Samuel 3 tells us why.

“Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do a shocking thing in Israel.  I am going to carry out all my threats against Eli and his family, from beginning to end.  I have warned him that judgment is coming upon his family forever, because his sons are blaspheming God and he hasn’t disciplined them. So I have vowed that the sins of Eli and his sons will never be forgiven by sacrifices or offerings.”

Implied here is that God’s warning to Eli was to convince him to gain control over his sons and stop their constant sin.  God judgment and his decision to kill them were because they continue to blasphemy God and Eli had not taken the proper steps to discipline them and bring them under control.  Had Eli’s sons repented and turned from their wicked ways, would God have still killed them?  Was God’s choice to kill them preordained and set in stone by God himself? I think a reading of the context is clear: no.  God does say that their sins would never be forgiven by sacrifices and offerings, but again, implied in the broad context of all scripture, I believe God would have forgiven a contrite heart and repentant spirit, since that is what He was trying to bring about in Eli and his sons from the start.  In 2nd Peter we know that God wants none to perish, and that He is patient.  God has been very patient with Eli and his sons up to this point, warning them again and again. But God knew their hearts, and was well within His sovereign rights to say, they are going to die because I know that they will likely never repent.

Again, not control, but sovereignty.

In Isaiah 10, God does indeed raise up an army as an instrument of judgment against Israel, but I think it is misguided to discuss this passage as an example of how God might be responsible for or the cause of evil, in order to bring about good. To say that this is God causing evil to bring about good is to say that God’s judgment is evil, which is plain wrong.  Remember, all of creation is the Lord’s.  He alone judges, and His judgment is always right.  We must view evil from God’s perspective, and the supposed evil that God brings via that Assyrians is not evil at all, but an action of love designed to bring a wicked people who don’t understand God’s ways back to Himself.  

Indeed, God acknowledges later, in verse 12, that God will punish the Assyrians after they have finished with Israel. 

“After the Lord has used the king of Assyria to accomplish his purposes on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will turn against the king of Assyria and punish him—for he is proud and arrogant.”

How can this be, if they are only doing what God wants them to do? The answer is, God did not force or coerce or preordain the Assyrians to do anything.  God assessed the place and time in history, and simply unleashed them to do what was in their hearts, and in His sovereign love, used their wickedness to discipline Israel.  Even though God used the Assyrians’ evil to work His desire (working all thing together for good for those that He loves and are called according to His purpose), the Assyrians were still held responsible for their wickedness and pride.

God was not the creator nor did He ordain the evil.

The original evil in this passage is on the part of the Israelites themselves, who have turned their backs on God.  Without their disobedience, God would have no need to discipline them.  The Assyrians don’t realize they are God’s instruments, but they act as their evil hearts lead them, and God wonderfully weaves their free-will choice to attack Israel (evil) into His sovereign plan to love His people and discipline them (good).

Even in Job, God is not responsible for the “evil” that befell Job.  Satan is the actor in causing Job’s travails. Indeed. Satan was complaining that all God did was bless Job and give him good things.  So God tells Satan, “All right, do with him as you please”, but spare his life.
The key here is Satan, and what he pleases to do.  Satan had a choice, up to a point, where God commanded Satan to spare Job’s life. God ordained that Job live, which is a loving command. Other than that, Satan was free to do as he pleased.  He could have done nothing at all, and left Job alone, but Satan’s heart is dark and evil, and he used his free-will to do everything he could to poor Job in order to coerce him to curse God.  In the end, Job acknowledges that God is perfect and every good thing, even the measly, sick, poor and cursed life he had left, comes from God.  When Job proved himself overwhelmingly faithful, God lovingly restored his fortunes and then some.     

Again, God is not the creator, nor the cause, of evil. 

God allows his free-will creations a frightening amount of lee-way to cause havoc and destruction in this world.  But without that capability, neither would we have the capacity to choose to love God, freely, as He loves us.

In closing, your next to last paragraph, Tom, is wonderfully “open”.  God does indeed work through us, wills us to work with Him, and desires our participation in His creative work.  You state “We don’t get to sit back and say, ‘well you’re sovereign, God. You could have done something if you wanted’”, which is absolutely true.  The Bible does not allow that.  But I believe the Bible does not allow that because the Bible does not teach that God exerts complete and total control over every aspect of His creation. 

Not that He couldn’t, but that He willfully doesn’t.

So many places in scripture God puts a plan in motion to see how it will work out. 
God was sorry he made mankind in Genesis 6, and sent a flood to destroy them, but kept his promise to Noah.

In Exodus 32, God changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people. “So the Lord changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people.”  David later recounts in Psalm 106 that God would have destroyed Israel had it not been for Moses, God’s chosen one, standing in the breach before God on behalf of Israel, praying that God would turn away his anger. 

In 1 Kings 21, God tells Ahab he is going to bring disaster upon his family, but because Ahab repents and humbles himself, God relents and says He will not bring this disaster in Ahab’s lifetime. God responded to Ahab’s repentance.

In Jeremiah 2, God tells Jeremiah to bring a message to the people in hopes that “they will listen and turn from their evil ways. Then I will change my mind about the disaster I am ready to pour out on them because of their sins.” God says He is ready to do one thing, but will do another if His people respond.

And there are dozens more like these.  

I believe God is an active, moving, and dynamic God, who calls to us daily to enter into His creative work, to bring His Kingdom plan to fruition, and reach as many people as possible for Christ. 

I believe Jesus’ act of sacrifice was a positive choice on behalf of the Son in obedience to the Father, which makes that act one of immeasurable, incalculable, unfathomable love, much deeper than a preordained act which could not be changed.  Jesus could have “called ten thousand angels to take him away”, as the old hymn sings, but He didn’t (seems some of the old hymn writers weren’t strict Calvinists, either).  He could have given in to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, but He didn’t.  He chose to love us, and give His life freely for us. 

That realization brings to me to my knees.

I hope you accept this in the spirit of love that it’s intended.  I don’t make any claims to having the complete truth of scripture.  I am convinced that anyone who does claim to have the complete truth of scripture, and thinks they really have it all wrapped up and that their way of interpreting scripture is the ONLY way, is a prideful liar. We must always be open to the Holy Spirit and His guidance.

However, I do make claim, and I hope you do too, that the way the Holy Spirit has revealed scripture to me motivates me.  It’s clear to me that the Holy Spirit has motivated you, too, and for that I have the deepest love and joy in the Lord.  To know that my brother’s kids have a love for the Lord is of great encouragement to me, Tom.

I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and as such is a light to our paths, and a lamp to our spirits (Prov 20:27).  I think God knows each of our hearts and minds so intimately that His word reveals itself to each of us in a unique, specific way that should motivate us to love and action.  I believe God abhors conformity, but rejoices over obedience.  So long as we rejoice together in Christ, His death and resurrection, and God’s glorious grace by which we are saved, I think God will rejoice with us and sing over us in love.

Submitted lovingly, in hopes that each of our iron would sharpen the other.