The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: God (Page 1 of 2)

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.

(Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, 14)

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]

Calvinist/Reformed

The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?

Arminian

Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.

_______________________

[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.

As I mentioned before, this year I am writing a lot of notes in my journaling Bible as I do my daily reading, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts from time to time.

The end of Genesis 18 contains an interesting interaction between Abraham and God: after Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, he decides to intercede for Sodom, asking the LORD, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”, implying that there are some righteous people in Sodom who don’t deserve to be destroyed with the rest of the city.

And so, a bargaining process begins (my paraphrase of Genesis 18.24-32):

Abraham: God, will you destroy Sodom if there are 50 righteous people in it?

God: If there are 50, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Hmm, it’s not my place to tell you how to do things, but what if there are 45 righteous? Five can’t make much of a difference, right?

God: If there are 45, I will spare the city.

Abraham: What about 40?

God: If there are 40, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Don’t be angry with me for haggling, God, but what if there are 30 righteous people?

God: If there are 30, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Be patient with me; what about 20?

God: If there are 20, I will spare the city.

Abraham: OK, let me ask one more time: what if there are 10 righteous people?

God: If there are 10 righteous, I will spare the city.

And at that point, the haggling comes to an end.

This episode is interesting to me for at least three reasons.

First, it’s interesting to me that in Genesis 18.23, Abraham seems to mildly reprove God for being willing to destroy an entire city that might contain righteous people, and yet, it seems that Abraham’s mercy was exhausted before God’s was. At least, Abraham quit asking to lower the bar for how many righteous people would save the city. Would God have been willing to spare the city if five righteous people were found? Or three? Or one person? We don’t know, because Abraham quit asking before God quit agreeing. It’s a helpful reminder to me that God is always more merciful than I am.

Related to the first point, the things we ask of God have the potential to change His plans. Depending on where you are on the spectrum of how God’s sovereignty works this is a debatable point, but a straightforward reading of the text certainly indicates that Abraham’s requests were influencing God’s plans regarding the destruction of Sodom. And again, it seems possible that Abraham could have continued to bargain with God until He relented from destroying the city altogether. So this is helpful as well, because it brings about a certain degree of resolve in my life: if the deep desires of my heart are denied to me (like, for instance, the healing of my daughter), it won’t be because I am not asking God for them.

And finally, I’m left to wonder: why is it that we assume that God grows impatient with our repeated requests of Him? Abraham certainly assumed and feared God’s impatience: four times he apologized or asked for patience in some way. I think we often do the same thing. But over and over again God tells us to come to Him in prayer, and in the New Testament, Jesus praises the persistence of a widow and uses her as an example of how we should repeatedly come to the Father in prayer. So I am also reminded by this narrative that I should not project my impatience on God: he patiently (and eagerly) hears my repeated requests. 

This is a famous passage: what does it bring to your mind? Would you disagree with any of my reflections above?

God and Government

I go back and forth quite a bit in my thoughts on the relationship between God, government, Christians, politics, etc. I read this yesterday in a journal article and found it helpful:

“Jesus lived in a conquered province in an empire whose imperialistic ruler stood for everything that was antagonistic to the revealed faith of the Jews. Jesus was not a revolutionary but instead conformed to the laws of civil government. Nowhere did he denounce the legitimate power of the state. Jesus paid his taxes (Matthew 17.24-27). He recognized the authority of Pontius Pilate, even when Pilate unjustly delivered him over to his enemies (John 19.11). Jesus reminded him, however, that his authority was not autonomous (John 19.10-11) but that it was delegated from the One who was above. Thus, in practice and precept Jesus recognized that the government under which he lived was ordained of God.”

–David Plaster, in Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall 1985), p. 437.

When Nero Was On The Throne

It has been interesting to me over the last 12 hours or so to read Facebook status updates and tweets from my Christians friends about yesterday’s presidential election. The fact that some of these Christians are celebrating the reelection of President Obama while others are lamenting it tell me that either:
(a) Applying Christian values to voting is a difficult and murky process.
(b) Christians aren’t very aware of what “Christian values” actually are.
(c) Both A and B are partially true.
But I digress. If your candidate won yesterday, be happy, be thankful, and try not to gloat too much. If your candidate did not win yesterday (and if you are in this group, you are the real audience for this post), remember that as a Christian, you can glorify God by showing respect to the one who is in authority, even if he wasn’t your choice:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
(Romans 13.1-7)
Paul’s words here are pretty hard to swallow for Christians who struggle to respect and submit to their leaders. When we think about leaders that we don’t like much, it can be difficult for us to affirm statements like, “the authorities are ministers of God” and that resisting them means that we are resisting “what God has appointed”. But that’s exactly what Paul says.
Mosaic depicting a Christian martyr
And to those who are inclined to think that Paul just didn’t understand about bad leaders, realize that he wrote these words to the Christians in Rome while Nero was Emperor. Nero was a vile man and a dedicated persecutor of Christians who was known for using the bodies of captured Christians as fuel for the fires which lit his garden at night. No President that our nation has ever had could hold a candle to Nero when it comes to sheer wickedness*, and it was most likely during the reign of Nero that Paul himself was executed. And yet, to a man such as this, Paul urges Christians to be in subjection.
If your candidate didn’t win yesterday, it’s okay to be disappointed. It’s okay to disagree with the policies of the current President, and it’s okay to hope for a better outcome next time. But respect your President, and be in subjection to him. Even if it is hard.
*Please do not interpret this to mean that I am suggesting that President Obama is somehow equivalent to Nero. I am not.
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