From Aomin: God and Evil; The Trauma of Sovereignty

11 03 2010

This is a good article by James Swan that I read over at www.aomin.org

God and Evil: The Trauma of Sovereignty

03/09/2010 – James Swan

I’m not particularly keen on reinventing wheels. Part of the fortunate heritage of the Reformed worldview is that much better minds than mine have studied the Biblical text, then formulated its information into concise doctrinal statements. Of course the statements are only as good as the verses they’re based on. For instance, chapter three of the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass:[1] yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,[2] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[3]

1. Psa. 33:11: Eph. 1:11: Heb. 6:17
2. Psa. 5:4; James 1:13-14; I John 1:5; see Hab. 1:13
3. Acts 2:23; 4:27-28: Matt. 17:12; John 19:11; Prov. 16:33

If one were going to dispute this statement, it shouldn’t be by philosophic speculation, tradition, or an emotional feeling. It should be done by proving the Biblical texts used don’t support the statement being made. Such though typically isn’t the case. The counter charge often begins with the assertion that Reformed theology turns God into a puppet master and the author of evil. The ingredient said to be missing is free will. It’s touted that by adding free willto a biblical summary statement, a completely different view of sovereignty emerges, one which absolves God of being the author of evil and provides humanity with true freedom. Some go as far to say that the God of Reformed theology is far from Biblical.

Before a Reformed person pounces on such a counter view, one thing shouldn’t be overlooked. Those who find Reformed theology illogical often have no other intent than to vigorously defend the honor of God as not being the author of evil, and wanting to place responsibility for evil and sin clearly on the shoulders of mankind. The irony of course is that the Reformed don’t hold God to be the author of evil, nor do they consider men to be mere puppets. We agree with them that God is good and men are responsible. We’re on a similar page in some respects, but the theological explanation as to how we both got there is very different. There are also crucial ramifications on other important areas of soteriology based on those differing explanations.

When non-Reformed people argue against the Reformed understanding of sovereignty, I have to immediately ask them how they also avoid their own argument. If we apply their argument against their own position what happens? They similarly believe God created all that is, and knew the beginning from the end before He created. If I knew in advance that a person was going to get in their car by their own choice, and while driving down the road strike and kill someone, and I let them do it,I share responsibility. It’s actually a severely culpable responsibility because I knew and they didn’t. When God chooses to create knowing full well what evil will happen, and creates anyway, I don’t see how a non-Reformed person can avoid the same charge they place on us. Also, if God knows what we’re going to choose when he creates us, do we really have free will? We certainly can’t choose otherwise at that point. Further, to really make a free choice, those choices would have to be uncaused by circumstances surrounding us. Don’t genetic and environmental factors place quite a burden on the proper and pure operation of free will? The long chain of events leading up to our point of choosing can’t in any way be caused by God for our choices to be truly free. If God is behind that long chain of events, shouldn’t God share at least some responsibility?

Many of you probably realize the above arguments are those typically launched by atheists against theists that use free will to absolve God of evil and determinism. One thing should jump out immediately: garden variety non-Reformed people really share a similar dilemma as the Reformed. Rarely though will a non-Reformed person admit that their view of sovereignty if scrutinized by an atheist, ends up with the conclusion that people are puppets and God is ultimately the author of evil. When the non-Reformed argue against us, they need to explain why they aren’t arguing against themselves. Then they should explain why they use our paradigms when trouble or evil enters their lives. They can’t escape their own heart of faith that knows “God is in control” and that all works according to His purposes. Everything is a free will adventure until tough circumstance befall a non-Reformed person. Then come cries for God’s sovereign control.

The battle therefore really shouldn’t be the Reformed versus the non-Reformed. The battle should be Christian theism versus atheism. The battle is between belief and unbelief. If you have non-Reformed friends that attack your Reformed understanding of sovereignty, with love and respect you have to show them they are standing right next to you facing common enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. If their own arguments work just as well against their own position, they don’t have valid arguments. Then it’s to the Biblical text, to see whose view fits the evidence of Scripture. There, free will as understood by the non-Reformed crumbles under the weight of clear Scripture.

One of the problems with non-Reformed argumentation on this subject is it’s application of extra-Biblical reasoning rather than simply taking sola scriptura to its logical conclusion. This isn’t readily admitted. No Christian wants to admit their core belief on this issue is tainted. Of course, making generalized statements typically isn’t safe, but I’ve found probing through typical non-Reformed explanations of sin and the nature of the will ultimately turn “The carnal mind is enmity against God for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” into “That man has a will and the ability to choose from his heart (indeed that he must in order to please God) is abundantly clear from the repeated references to ‘heart’ throughout Scripture” (Dave Hunt, Debating Calvinism pp.339-340). The Reformed hold whatever views we have of God’s sovereignty and man”s will must be based only on the Scriptures. If God says he’s sovereign, we’re enslaved to sin and responsible, and he’s not the author of sin, that is precisely who God is and how the world is. It doesn’t matter how many times the word “heart” is used. If the Bible repeatedly describes the will and heart as enslaved and dead in sin, that’s indeed what it is.

Only the eyes of faith want to know who God is and what the exact plight of man is according to Scripture. By worldly standards, a sovereign God and a spiritually dead sinner sounds absurd, utterly foolish. The God invented by mankind is more of a loving aged grandfather. It holds all each person, though they make mistakes, all have a spark of goodness within them simply needing to be ignited. Contrary to this, 1 Corinthians tells us how a central tenet of our theology, the cross of Jesus Christ, is foolishness to the world. The passage should serve as a reminder that much of what we believe as Christians will be considered foolish. Is it foolish to believe that a sovereign God created everything from nothing, knew the beginning from the end, is not the author of evil, and that men are responsible? I say without the eyes of faith, it is, but it’s just as foolish as other central beliefs of Christianity:

Christians believe that a virgin gave birth to the Son of God. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

Christians believe that this baby was fully God and fully man, infinite and finite at the same time. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

Christians believe that God almighty spent his infancy being taken care of by a woman, nursed and diapered. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

Christians believe that God Almighty had a job. He was a carpenter. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

Christians believe that a man deemed to be a criminal by his own people and by the governing powers was God. God Almighty, the most powerful force that is, was nailed to a cross and died in weakness. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

Christians believe that God has communicated to us via a book. The book is perfect, even though written by sinful human beings. The book also is authored by God the Holy Spirit. Is this not just as “foolish” as believing God is sovereign, not the author of evil, and that we are responsible?

This of course is only a partial list. We could go on, exploring many more facets of Christian theology. I think non-Reformed Christians often forget the deep mysteries of the faith. There are simply facets of Christianity that can’t be dissected philosophically or understood completely. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is just as mysterious as all those things listed above. As Christians, we don’t simply pick and choose what we’re going to believe based on if it makes sense to us. When our non-Reformed friends chastise us for believing something that sounds utterly foolish, we need to remind them of all the foolish things they likewise believe along with us. We have to press them to choose either the world’s wisdom of the loving grandfather and humanity’s spark of goodness, or the foolish paradigm of a holy sovereign king and enslaved sinful humanity.

Attempting to get an infinite being off the hook because of his sovereignty is a difficult plight for anyone claiming to adhere to Christian theism. It’s a built in failure that the finite will never be able to fully comprehend the infinite. I can’t even wrap my brain around the fact that a simple line with two points on either end has an infinite amount of points in between. How is it possible I can see the beginning and ending of a line, yet have infinity in the middle? As Christians, we’re surrounded by more mysteries than we even realize. But some of those mysteries are holy. In terms of getting God’s sovereignty off the hook, perhaps it would be wiser to simply stand back in awe of his holiness and infinitude.

Simply because it is a mystery though, doesn’t mean Reformed people don’t have any Biblical information to prove their view. The Bible repeatedly shows us that God decreed all things, and that people are still held accountable for their actions, especially their sinful actions.Theologians refers to this as compatibilism: God’s decree is compatible with a person?s will. They don’t contradict each other.

In Genesis 50 we find Joseph, whose brothers sold him into the evil of slavery, who lied to their father breaking his heart, claiming Joseph was dead. In front of his brothers, years later Joseph states, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” The two statements in Hebrew are in direct parallel. Joseph’s brothers meant evil by their actions, but God intended the same actions for good. The text shows one action with two intentions. This same principle can be found in Isaiah 10: 5-12, where God uses Assyria as an instrument of judgment on the rebellious people of Israel, and then holds Assyria responsible for her sinful attitude and desires against Israel. The text shows one action with two intentions, a sinful intention and a holy intention.The most important example of compatibilism though is Acts 4:27-28. Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and the Jews all sinfully join forces to crucify Jesus. Yet God?s predestined the entire event for his holy purpose.

R.C. Sproul wrote a chapter a number of years ago entitled, “The Trauma of Holiness.” Similarly, I think looking at this issue as “the trauma of God’s sovereignty” is a good beginning. We need to remind the non-Reformed of the danger is defining God’s sovereignty differently than the way the Bible has expressed it. It’s not simply an issue that we can be haphazard with. It demands reverence, caution, and meekness. The Belgic Confession rightly puts the humble spirit of a Christian before us on this issue:

As to what God does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgment of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in His word, without transgressing these limits.