Thursday, September 30, 2010

God's Boss 3

What we are discussing here is the question of God's "sovereignty," his authority over everything.  Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous skeptic of the late 1800s, tells how he came to the conclusion early in his life that if we are to thank God for the good things that happen to us, we have to give him credit for the bad as well. [1]  Coming to this conclusion was part of the unravelling of his faith.

But his idea is nothing new.  This is the standard view, for example, of the bulk of the Old Testament--"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21).  Similarly, some Christian traditions like the Calvinist one tend to see God orchestrating even the details of our lives.  A very popular Christian book a few years back, The Purpose Driven Life, presented a view of life that saw God's hand in almost everything that happens to you in life, God teaching you lessons and helping you grow in almost every detail. [2]

However, I as someone from the Wesleyan tradition do not accept this view.  For one thing, we also find passages in Scripture like James 1:13, which says no one should think that God tempts them to do wrong.  "For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone."  This verse gets at the heart of Nietzsche's complaint.  If God is truly in control of the world, then he must also have control of the evil that happens in the world.

But there is a difference between God's directive will and God's permissive will, whether he directly causes everything that happens or in many cases only allows them to happen.  Yes, God is sovereign.  If he is king, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then he must ultimately be in control of everything.  The question is if he has created a world with some degree of freedom or if he micro-manages everything directly.

Some of those who take a very directive view argue that if God would allow someone to disagree with him or violate his will, then he would not truly be sovereign.  But this argument seems rather unsophisticated.  Could not a parent intentionally allow a child experience the consequences of disobedience so that the child can learn, for the growth of the child?  In fact, this is a much more mature and sophisticated picture of God, rather than one that almost sees him flying off the handle in rage every time someone disobeys him or worse--as someone who causes people to disobey him so he can how his greatness at blasting them out of the water?  In short, is God not sovereign enough to choose to allow people to disagree with him?

This is the position I take as a Christian and that I will advocate in the rest of this chapter.  Romans 9 does have some "naughty verses" for this point of view, but every theological point of view has its passages to deal with, and the Calvinist view seems to create a picture of God that is not only incoherent, but makes him at least borderline evil, indeed almost Satanic.  It does not fit with the picture of God elsewhere and, in the end, seems more a particular kind of "language game" in Paul that we should not take completely literally. 

Yes, for God to be sovereign he must "sign off" on everything that happens.  But it does not mean he must orchestrate and plan everything that happens.  The best suggested answer to the "problem of evil," although it is not perfect, is that a world in which God gives people the freedom to make good and bad moral choices is a better world than one in which they cannot help but do good.  God thus has created a world where people can disobey him for a greater good--and a world where we find evil and pain.

[1] Beyond Good and Evil

[2] biblio...


Dick Norton said...

Good blog, Ken!

I would only add that, if there were no free choice in the world, then there could not be genuine love. We would merely be puppets! It's not a bad trade off to have a world where bad things happen, so we can also have a world where true love exists.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Dick. I completely agree.

Paul DeBaufer said...

I would suggest that God's voluntary self-limiting does not absolve God from responsibility for evil in the world, it just pushes it back a ways. I would suggest that God's nature of love means that He is non-coercive, that is He never totally controls creation, there is always a degree of freedom for creatures. God's power is persuasive, but God can be very persuasive. I believe that His nature of love constrains Him, that He cannot act outside of His nature, therefore He is not responsible for evil. For a much better treatment I suggest The Nature of Love by Thomas Jay Oord.

I, believe God to be sovereign, but I may have a different view of that. I really do not hold to the neo-platonic omni statements about God as they normally stand. I do, however, believe that God can do all that can be done. I believe that God knows all that is knowable. Neither of these is exhaustive, I am sure we humans can use our imaginations to conceive of things that are just not doable--like the rock so heavy He can't lift it. I believe that the future is not knowable, not for certain, God may be able to see every possible choice before us, but I do not think He can know which one we will make long before we make it. In genesis 6 God is disappointed with humanity, in 1 Samuel 16 God regrets making Saul king for acting in ways He didn't expect. Jeremiah 19 people are sacrificing children and God says such things never crossed His mind. The future does not exist and is therefore not fully knowable.

Does my rejection of the omni statements negate God's sovereignty? No! Because creaturely freedom is not absolute,

Ken Schenck said...

Paul, I take you to be taking somewhat of an open theist position. I respect that although I have never seen the need for it. I do however feel bad for all those who have been stung by taking that position. It is a conservative heterodoxy in the sense that only those who take the OT quite literally would be open theists. Some Christians with political power have confused it with process theology which indicates ignorance on their part. It is an Arminian mini-heterodoxy that only Calvinists should get their dander up over.

Marc said...

I used to make similar critique of Calvinism until I learned that they are only deterministic as far as salvation goes. If an action affects your salvation, i.e. if it's a moral action, then you're bound by sin and not free to choose. So, by the Calvinist view, you do choose strawberry or chocolate, but you don't choose whether or not you will steal it. It's still ridiculous I know but they're not 100% deterministic except when it comes to heaven/hell.

Ken Schenck said...

I may not have put it well, but I didn't want to make it sound like all Calvinists are deterministic on everything (although I hear there is a joke at Princeton about the woman who fell down the stairs and when she got up said, "I'm glad that's over"). But Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life does have a much heightened sense of God's involvement in things that teach us things. So if after getting strawberry ice cream, the pinkish red color reminds you of sin, then certain American Christians (who may not even be full Calvinists) might see God as leading you to that choice.