Sunday, April 13, 2014

G7. God can do whatever he wants.

The Sunday theology posts continue. You can see a map to the whole concept here.
God can do whatever he wants. But he doesn't want to do certain things.

1. God can do whatever he wants.

God has the power to do anything he wants in the universe. God has the knowledge to do anything he wants in the universe. In this article, we explore the fact that God has the freedom and authority to do anything he wants in the universe.

God has the authority to do anything he wants because he is king. He is sovereign. We call God's authority over the universe his "sovereignty." Nothing happens in the universe without God's permission.

However, Christians disagree on the extent to which God micromanages his creation. Does God determine everything that happens down to the level of detail, such that nothing could possibly happen any other way? Or does God give the creation extensive freedom to where many different scenarios might possibly play out, depending on our choices or even the "choices" of the creation?

We call those instances where God commands the creation to do a specific thing instances of his "directive will." We can contrast such instances with those where he allows humanity or the creation to do something he did not specifically command--instances of his "permissive will." In such cases, God chooses not to choose directly what happens.

Some traditions, like the Calvinist tradition, emphasize the directive will of God. John Calvin (1509-64), for example, believed that God chose who would be saved and that our human will played no role in the equation at all. God's "election" of us was unconditional, his grace irresistible. If God chose us, we would certainly come to have faith, would live more righteous lives than those he did not empower, and would make it to the coming kingdom.

Some forms of hyper-Calvinism would go even further. They would suggest that God willed that Satan fall from heaven and that Adam would sin in the Garden of Eden, bringing sin onto all humanity. They would see God not only as electing those who will be saved but those who will be damned as well (double predestination). This approach goes beyond Calvin in that Calvin believed it was possible for Adam not to have sinned and thus that humanity would not start off full of sin (totally depraved).

Christians have commonly believed that the first human, Adam, brought sin into the world when he sinned in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 (cf. Rom. 5:12:21). Accordingly, the default state of humanity ever since is to have an inevitable drive to do the wrong thing, a "bent to sinning," a "sin nature." For Calvin, God did not chose the majority of humanity to be damned. They were damned already because of Adam (single predestination). [1]

Other Christian traditions, such as the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition to which I belong, believe that God empowers humanity to have a greater degree of freedom in relation to our eternal destiny. While our default state of sinfulness may be the same as Calvin thought (totally depraved), we believe that God graciously empowers us to freely be able to indicate a desire for more grace. If we continue on this trajectory, God will empower our wills to have faith, then empower us to live righteously, and finally empower us to enter the coming kingdom.

As a part of this latter tradition, I believe that God has given significant freedom to the creation. God miraculously enters the time space continuum and gives every person in the world the opportunity to move toward him, a gracious offer we call God's "prevenient grace," a power that comes to us before we could possibly seek him. Indeed, God cares for the creation in general without the creation ever asking, a grace we might call God's "common grace" toward the creation. [2]

In general, God's care for the creation is called his "providence." Christians have long believed that God sustains the creation, such that the creation could not continue to exist without God's active intervention. It is, admittedly, difficult to know how this sustaining providence might work exactly. Scripture does not really address the questions raised by the rise of a scientific worldview in the 1500s and 1600s. Did God create the universe as a self-standing machine that runs by natural laws he has put into it, or does God actively direct the movement of every quark and boson? These are questions that Scripture and the early fathers did not ask and thus did not clearly answer.

What we can say is that the universe exists by God's will. It would not exist without God's will. Nothing happens in the universe without God's will--either by direct command or with his permission. I personally prefer to believe that God created the universe with some degree of freedom. It is certainly distinct from him--it's existence is distinct from his existence. It seems to follow natural laws in a way that was not understood before the modern era. And to distinguish its "will" from God's will provides us with a more satisfactory explanation for suffering in the world, as something God more allows than directly commands. This approach fits naturally within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.

What we are thus saying is that some things happen in the universe as a consequence of God's directive will, his specific command. Other things happen in the universe because of God's permissive will. God allows them to happen or he does not intervene to stop them from happening. In some cases, he may give us and the creation the freedom to make choices where more than one outcome was possible.

It is sometimes objected that God would not be in charge or control if he let a human disobey him. That is to say, God would not be sovereign if he gave humanity or the creation freedom.

But this is a rather anemic understanding of sovereignty and a still more troubling sense of authority. Cannot God freely choose to let someone make a bad choice themselves? What parents with any maturity do not want their children to develop the ability to make the right choices on their own? Which is better, for your spouse to love you freely because they choose to do so or for them to be constrained to be with you?

No, this is an astoundingly immature understanding of authority. This is the projection of a parent who cannot handle disobedience because of his or her own insecurity. This is someone whose sense of control is threatened by someone who will not slavishly obey. This is a picture of a god who is weak and threatened by his creation.

If God is in control, then he is free to give freedom to the creation. If God is God, he is not threatened by our choices. God is not threatened when we disobey any more than I am threatened by a slug in my neighbor's yard.

2. God can do whatever he wants, but he doesn't want to do just anything.

God's will is revealed in Scripture. His attitude toward the creation is so predictable that we can say that God has a certain "nature" that leads him to act consistently and without exception in a certain way. For example, we know that God will never act in a way that is unloving. We can thus say that "God is love" or that God's nature is loving. What we are really saying is that God will never act in an unloving way toward the creation. Everything God does fits with an attitude of love toward us.

There is an old philosophical question in Plato that pre-dates the New Testament. It asks, in effect, "Is good good because God says so, or does God say things are good because they are good?" [3]

What the question in effect is asking is whether God is subject to standards that exist above him or does God himself create the standards? Does God define what is good? Or is good a standard against which we could measure God himself?

The classic example from Scripture is when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. It seems like a wicked thing to ask. What if I were to test my son by asking him to slap his sister, just to see if he will obey me but intending to stop him if he does? [4] The Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) took this story as an example of how we have to surrender our reason completely to God and take a blind leap of faith into his will. [5]

So should we say that if God tells you to murder someone in cold blood, that becomes a good thing to do? Are there rules that God has to follow?  Broadly speaking, the notion that God defines the rules is called "voluntarism" or "divine command theory." It is the idea that good is good because God says so. What is love? In this approach it could be whatever God does, simply because he does it, whether it seems loving by our definitions or not.

You can see that this approach seems to make a mockery of words like good and love. They can come to mean anything.

Yet, at the same time, there is something ungodlike about saying that there are rules God has to follow. Even to say, "God is just freely following his own nature" seems to say that God did not decide who he is and is not really in control of himself. It at least looks like we are simply saying God is a big Guy, just a bigger version of us, someone who is really not completely free. It makes him particular rather than universal.

The model we have been following of creation out of nothing suggests another solution. We can think of God creating this universe as an act of will in which God made this universe to be a certain way. Within this universe, God behaves consistently, and God has revealed in Scripture exactly what his "nature" is within this universe. We can, for all intents and purposes, speak of God having a certain nature with certain "attributes" or characteristics. We have no point of reference to say what God is like in other universes or "outside" this universe. Perhaps God has, from all eternity past, chosen to be this way.

Good is good because God says so in this universe. This preserves the freedom of God without suggesting that God will ever act in a way that contradicts his revealed nature. But at the same time, it keeps us from seeing God more or less as a larger than life Guy with a personality he ultimately did not determine and over which he is not really in control. This approach befits GOD rather than diminishing him to something more like a god.

The opposite approach seems to put God inside a space that already existed, with limits he did not establish. In keeping with a weak sense of creation out of nothing, it seems ultimately to blur God with the created realm. It seems to fit a god who is at the top of this universe rather than a God who created the very emptiness in which the universe exists.

3. So God can do whatever he wants. He does not want to act in a way that contradicts his revealed nature. For example, he does not want to act in a way that is unloving toward the creation.

God freely chose to create a universe with certain necessary truths. He created a universe where 2 + 2 = 4 in base 10. He created a universe with a law of non-contradiction. He created rules of logic that apply everywhere in this universe without exception. But presumably he is free to create another universe where 2 + 2 = 6 or some logic we cannot possibly imagine.

God also has a directive will. There are instances where God commands the universe to do certain things, where his will is specific. When God commands the creation directly in this way, his will is irresistible. His word without fail always accomplishes what it sets out to do (Isa. 55:11).

In other instances, God has no specific command. He will let us choose whatever jello we want. Perhaps he will let the creation spit out of nothing an electron and positron pair without warning. In such instances he is allowing the universe by his permission to do whatever it wills.

In some cases, God collaborates with us. Perhaps in some cases, he waits to see if we will pray for something. Perhaps whether we receive or not in such cases is entirely dependent on whether we ask. At other times, he may let us wrestle, helping us grow to reach maturity, listening, suggesting, working with us toward salvation.

God does not force anyone to serve him. At times God may abandon us to spiral out of control. He will even let us walk away from him, if that is truly what we choose to do. And God sometimes allows suffering that he could obviously have prevented. We have to have faith in such instances that God's nature is still love and that there is a bigger picture that we are not in a position to understand.

God can do anything he wants, but he doesn't want to do certain things.

Next Sunday, G4. God is present everywhere in the universe.

[1] Calvin's theology is most easily found in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[2] The idea of prevenient (or "preventing") grace comes from John Wesley (1703-91). A good overview of Wesley's thinking on salvation found in his sermon, "The Scripture Way of Salvation." The idea of common grace comes from Calvin.

[3] In Plato's Euthyprho.

[4] Interestingly, later Jewish tradition suggested that this was another example of God letting Satan test someone, as in Job 1 (compare also 1 Chron. 21:1 with 2 Sam. 24:1). For the reference, see Jubilees 17).

[5] In Fear and Trembling.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for condensing what could have been a book into this relatively short post!

Pastor Bob said...

Liked this, thanks