For Alex: Musings on divine sovereignty

October 2, 2005 at 11:11 pm 1 comment

I’m always a little shy about posting articles that are intensely theological. I invariably get vehement reactions, or charges that I am engaging in irrelevant armchair philosophizing—or both, if it’s a particularly bad day.

And, well, I generally like to be perceived as cordial, and I do not like to be perceived as irrelevant.

Considering all that, this might be a stupid thing to do, but the rest of this post is dedicated to an intense and very divisive theological topic. Not because I want to engage in idle philosophizing, but because articulating a position on such issues helps me grow.

Actually, the more practical reason I’m posting is because Alex Harris asked for a response to his essay on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human will. And I said I would reply. So, heh, I have to follow through.

So consider yourself warned. This is a longer post than usual, on a quite divisive topic. If, considering those warnings, you irrationally bother to read the whole thing, then please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes. 😉

Before I continue, here’s a brief summary of Alex’s argument: He affirms man’s freedom, but contends that even in the state of greatest possible freedom, man’s will is not nearly as free and sovereign as some might suppose. He also affirms the supremacy of God in all knowledge, wisdom, power, and resources to inscrutably persuade man to do exactly what He has foreordained from all eternity.

That said, here goes…

Alex,

First things first: I have to compliment you on an argument that is both intriguing and persuasive. Part of me agrees with you, and I honestly don’t feel a strong compulsion to declare that you’re wrong, per se.

On the other hand, I think the argument is not quite airtight, and I propose the following two critiques:

1. I think you have not actually reconciled God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. In spite of everything, the only logical conclusion of an argument for God’s sovereignty is that any supposed freedom must be only an illusion, and that it does not actually exist.

2. Your argument for God’s sovereignty raises serious questions about the righteousness of His character. I reply that it is of greater priority to me to preserve God’s goodness than to preserve His sovereignty.

Now, for further elaboration…

Part 1: God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are not fully reconciled

The most compelling part of your argument, to me, is your demonstration that the human will is not nearly as free as we like to think. You rightly point out that the will is not indifferent; rather, our “free will” decisions are determined by our desires, and our desires, in turn, are determined by our natures.

And so you attempt to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human freedom as follows:

God so governs the inward feelings, external environment, habits, desires, motives, etc., of men that they freely do what He purposes. (emphasis mine)

I agree with you to an extent, but the problem with your particular form of this argument lies in the notion that the outcome is predetermined. In other words, we do not freely do what God purposes; we necessarily do what God purposes. This means humans must be reactionary, with no true volition or initiative.

After all, in your view, our wills are compelled to act in accordance with whatever desire we feel most strongly. This is an automatic reaction, not a true decision. And, since our desires are determined by our natures, and our natures are determined by God, this means our wills are preprogrammed.

If that’s the case, then the human will is a perfectly predictable closed system, and God controls all the inputs which go into this closed system. Given a particular input of desires, we will necessarily act a particular way in a particular situation. You seemed to acknowledge this fact when you stated that man “is only what his past has made him.” If this is true, you might say we “choose” a particular action, yet in reality, we don’t actually “choose” it any more than a computer “chooses” to do something.

To be fair, you acknowledged this “preprogramming” difficulty when you said:

But granted, the question remains: How does this work? And what makes man not a robot?

But this is precisely the question I don’t think you answered—that I don’t think you can answer.

After all, if God is able to completely control our actions according to the various stimulations, desires, etc. that He puts into us, then we are, as I said, inescapably reactionary. Any freedom of the will is, more or less, an illusion. And we are, more or less, robots.

In order to escape the idea that we are robots, I think we have to retain some idea of true human volition, of initiative, of freedom—some notion that we are not solely reactive. In other words, we must retain some notion of unpredictability—for unpredictability, as near as I can tell, is the only thing separates the human will from the robotic “will.”

I will admit up front that I cannot logically explain how it is that the human will could be truly unpredictable. I cannot think of anything that could be truly and necessarily unpredictable unless it was random. And if the human will works randomly, then it is not rational, and in fact is not a true will at all.

So I have much of the same logical dilemma you do, in that I cannot finally and completely reconcile my ideas either. But I cling to this notion of human volition and initiative, against the notion that we are utterly reactive and predictable, because I have no other choice: Scripture necessitates it and experience demands it.

Which leads to the second part of my objection:

Part 2: Even while it answers some questions regarding the nature of the will, the notion of divine sovereignty simultaneously creates problems regarding God’s character

If the human will is indeed such a closed system that God can perfectly predict the result of any given input, then we have the following difficulties to address (I’m sure you are familiar with all of these, so I will only summarize):

1. It would seem that God must be the instigator of all evil, and that he (not humans) bears the guilt for all evil. After all, it is the controller of the robot who is responsible for the actions of the robot, not the robot itself.

2. If God has controlled all man’s actions from the beginning of time, it is very difficult to see why He would God direct men to sin and then orchestrate the whole plan of salvation in the first place. Your view strongly implies that He is arbitrary and schizophrenic.

3. Then again, you apparently deny that God has the power of choice Himself (on account of the fact that it is impossible for Him to sin). In that case, perhaps you conclude that God’s actions, too, are foreordained. But this also has its difficulties, not the least of which is its denial of the fact that God is actually sovereign.

4. If all men’s actions are dictated by God, it is very difficult to explain how the righteous can be said to “do God’s will” and the unrighteous can be said to “disobey God’s will.” In fact, they’re all doing God’s will (and hence, seemingly not “sinning”).

5. The idea that all our choices are predetermined (and are ultimately only reactionary) would seem to undermine the Bible’s emphasis on choice. Scripture strongly and repeatedly implies human decision-making capacity, in that it asks for willing obedience. (Joshua 24:15 and Deuteronomy 30:19 are the most obvious examples that come to mind.) In fact, the whole of Scripture is predicated on the idea that we can choose to submit ourselves to God. Consequently, your suggestion that Scripture tells us to do things we cannot actually do is perplexing, and very ironic.

Perhaps there is a way of responding to these five objections; I have not heard it. Rather, it seems to be something that Calvinists try to explain, but must ultimately just accept, without being able to solve the difficulties.

Part 3: Ultimately, we have to cope with tension, but I find it of greatest importance to emphasize God’s goodness in this tension

I think there is a sense in which neither of us will be able to fully and logically explain our positions on this issue. There are inherent contradictions within each of our belief systems, and I don’t think we can reconcile these with our limited human understanding.

Actually, you seemed to express precisely this thought when you acknowledged the following, regarding the interaction between God’s sovereignty and human will:

This operation is inscrutable, a[nd] yet real; and the mere fact that in our present state of knowledge we are not able to fully explain how this influence is exerted in perfect accordance with the free agency of man, certainly does not prove that it cannot be exerted. However, we do have enough knowledge to know that God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are both realities.

I think what you said here is exactly right. We have to hold the seeming opposites of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom in tension, knowing that these “contradictory” things are both true, but without being able to fully reconcile them.

In that sense, I think I more or less agree with your position on this matter, and I don’t object to your Calvinist doctrines. I recognize that your statements on the issue are a genuine attempt to hold divine sovereignty and free will in tension, while giving God proper preeminence. Or, as you put it:

The Calvinist responds to this difficult question regarding the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man by denying neither, but rather by reconciling them in such a way that both are given their full weight, with the divine sovereignty retaining preeminence in order that the Creator is duly exalted above the creature.

The point on which I differ with you is not as much in substance as it is in emphasis. You feel that it is important to emphasize God’s exaltation above His creation by focusing on His sovereignty, and you are consequently willing to accept some of the difficulties I outlined above regarding God’s character.

I, on the other hand, cannot stomach perpetuating these Calvinist implications about God’s nature. They seem to stand in opposition to my understanding of God’s goodness, His love, and His righteousness. Because it is of greater importance to preserve God’s goodness than to preserve His sovereignty, I emphasize man’s freedom and man’s responsibility, and insist that this sin-sick world was not God’s will.

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Eulogy to Toby Assigning theological blame

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Khan Po  |  July 17, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    “I will admit up front that I cannot logically explain how it is that the human will could be truly unpredictable. I cannot think of anything that could be truly and necessarily unpredictable unless it was random.”

    Quantum physics gives an interesting perspective (maybe even something of an answer?) to this.

    “And if the human will works randomly, then it is not rational, and in fact is not a true will at all.”

    …unless the bits of randomness don’t completely determine things, and we have the ability (although it’s probably not often used) to consciously override them. Also, how often does your experience really indicate that humans behave rationally?

    “If the human will is indeed such a closed system that God can perfectly predict the result of any given input…It would seem that God must be the instigator of all evil, and that he (not humans) bears the guilt for all evil. After all, it is the controller of the robot who is responsible for the actions of the robot, not the robot itself.”

    Does knowledge of the outcome really imply fault? If you are watching your child, just because you know what he/she will do doesn’t mean you caused it. Could it be that God finds the existence and company of “intelligently random”–or maybe “randomly intelligent”–creatures interesting enough that He’s willing to accept the inevitable pain that accompanies them for a time?

    “If God has controlled all man’s actions from the beginning of time…”

    I didn’t read the OP, but I think this is rather absurd. As I said above, knowing the outcome doesn’t imply control/cause–and neither does the ability to control.

    How well do you think my above propositions reconcile the tension?

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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