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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Playing the Hand He's Dealt

I like Dr. William Lane Craig. He is a leading defender of the faith. He's not a casual defender like I might be called. No, he's on the frontline. When Dr. Craig speaks, the enemies of Christ run. In a recent trip to the UK, he offered to debate Richard Dawkins on the existence of God. Dawkins refused. Instead of picking up the gauntlet, he threw in the towel. Why? Well, Dawkins claims that it's because Craig believes the Bible. Of course, the Christian element saw it as an obvious ploy (it is, by the way, the logical fallacy known as "the strawman"), but even atheists accused Dawkins of cowardice. All this to say that Dr. Craig is a really smart guy doing a really good job defending the faith.

That being said, being really good at defending the faith doesn't make Dr. Craig infallible. I recently read this quote from him.
"The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. [God] has to play with the hand He has been dealt." — William Lane Craig
Now, before any William Lane Craig fans get their knickers in a twist, please understand that 1) I admire the man, 2) I am not intending to attack the man, and 3) I'm only using this quote to illustrate a broader point.

Setting aside the concept of "counterfactuals" (not the point here), I believe that Craig has laid out the basic belief that a vast majority of Christians (and the rest of the world) hold. Let me rephrase it to allow you to see the point: "Creaturely freedom is outside God's control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt." Ten years ago Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, after the September 11th attack, told the nation that God was a gentleman and wouldn't intervene where He wasn't wanted. This year she said, "As a country we have pushed [God] out of our government and schools, and it’s time to repent and invite Him back." We're saying, "Sorry, God. You tried, but our Free Will has blocked You. Try something else. Hopefully You can work Your way around another way. But at this time, Man's Will has prevailed. That's outside of Your control. You'll just have to play the hand You've been dealt." And I have to say that this is just not true. While most of the people who see things this way would strongly deny it, it is a blatant denial of the Sovereignty of God and a cold, hard contrast to explicit Scripture.

First, the pure references to "sovereign":

The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all (Ps. 103:19).

1 Tim 6:13-16 is Paul's charge to Timothy which includes the phrase, "... which He will display at the proper time -- He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords ..."

In Rev 6:10 the martyrs under the altar cry out, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

In Acts 4:24-30, the believers pray to God beginning with "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them ..." They mention some of God's works which include, strikingly, "In this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place."

Beyond the word, "sovereign", in its various forms, the principle is held sacrosanct throughout the Bible.

We know God limits Satan (Job 1:12, 2:6). We know that fallen angels are under God's command (Psa 78:49; 1 Kings 22:17-23, etc.).

Who can forget the declaration of the multitude in heaven, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Omnipotent reigns" (Rev 19:6)?

But a serious number of references come from the Psalms.
For the kingdom is the LORD'S And He rules over the nations (Psa 22:28).

The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it (Psa 24:1)

For the LORD Most High is to be feared, A great King over all the earth. He subdues peoples under us And nations under our feet (Psa 47:2-3).

God is the Judge; He puts down one and exalts another (Psa 75:7).

The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all it contains, You have founded them (Psa 89:11).

Say among the nations, "The LORD reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity" (Psa 96:10)

But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psa 115:3).
(Get that? He does whatever He pleases. See also Psa 135:6.)

And that's without the many references to God as "King". (Do a word search sometime on "king" in the Bible as it refers to God. There is a lot there.) And, of course, it takes no time or effort at all to call up one of the most common terms we have for God, "Lord", and recognize its connotations in terms of sovereignty.

Not to be outdone, there is much more in the rest of Scripture. Isaiah says things like "It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless" (Isa 40:22-23) and "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isa 45:6-7). Jeremiah tells the story of the potter (Jer 18:1-23) where the point is quite clear: "Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?" (Jer 18:6). Isaiah warns about the pottery disregarding its Maker (Isa 29:16) and prays, "O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand" (Isa 64:18). (Of course, Paul pipes in on the pottery issue, too. "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?" (Rom 9:21).) One really pointed statement from Jeremiah is "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?" (Jer 32:27). In Lamentations he writes, "Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth?" (Lam 3:37-38).

Look, there's way too much to list it all. It just keeps going and going. But the real question is "What about God's command over Man? Is Man's "creaturely freedom" something that God is "dealt", something "outside His control"? Does the Bible address that specific question? Yes ... it does ... repeatedly.
"Power and might are in Your hand so that no one can stand against You" (1 Chron 20:6).

"With Him are strength and sound wisdom, The misled and the misleader belong to Him" (Job 12:16).

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He frustrates the plans of the peoples (Psa 33:10).

The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble (Prov 16:4).

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps (Prov 16:9).

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand (Prov 19:21).
Shall I go on? The Scriptures are not unclear on the topic. God is Sovereign. He is not merely sovereign like a human king. There is nothing over which God is not Sovereign. Nothing comes to pass that He did not plan. All that He wants to happen happens. Nothing that He doesn't want to happen happens. He works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). Nothing in human existence falls outside of "all things".

Dr. Craig is a good guy, a smart fellow, a great debater, and an admirable defender of the faith. As such, I felt I needed to bring as much "fire power" to bear as I could. As it turns out, space prohibits it. Suffice it to say that wherever Scripture speaks to the question of whether or not God is left with dealing with the hand He is dealt, the non-negotiable, unequivocated, crystal clear answer is "No! God does whatever He pleases." Nothing (not one, no thing, not even a little something, zero, zip, zilch, nada) is outside of God's control. You may feel like it. You may hear it often. You may think it. But you do all this in opposition to Scripture. Scripture is clear; our God reigns.


Anonymous said...

Good points, Stan. Craig is really good but isn't perfect. That was a truly odd comment of him to make, but when you peel back the layers it is actually consistent with his worldview. Whether it is Arminianism or Molinism, they leave the final say to humans on many issues.

Stan said...

It is all about Human Free Will (the capital letters are there for a reason).

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


I just had a discussion over lunch yesterday about God and His Sovereignty. It seems that the first order of business is to acknowledge all that God has revealed of Himself and His character. Holy, Righteous, Sovereign, Just, Gracious, Merciful, etc. and perfectly so in every case. Seems to me things clear up if we keep this in the front of our thoughts on any topic.

If we say something like, "God is gracious so He overlooks sin" then we fail to acknowledge the Holiness and Righteousness of God.

If we say something like, "God has to play the hand He is dealt" as you have well described, we fail to acknowledge the Sovereignty of God.

Perhaps we don't take seriously enough sometimes what a terrible problem it is, this failure to acknowledge the full nature of God, even if it isn't with deliberate intention of diminishing God's character.

Great post and great insight, Stan. I haven't heard that quote from him, was it in a recent debate or lecture?

Stan said...

That really is the key, isn't it? Keep God's attributes in front of you and do not allow them to contradict each other. It helps keep a lot of things straight. Most importantly, we have to be willing to operate on the nature of God that God has revealed to us rather than our own assumptions.

Oh, and you can find Dr. Craig's statement here on his website.

Marshal Art said...

My first question is, from whom was God's hand dealt?

Stan said...

Excellent question! However, the answer is given in the quote: "The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him." Human Free Will dealt God the hand that God is forced to play.

Stan said...

God's only the dealer if you subscribe to that silly "Sovereignty of God" concept instead of the reality of the "Sovereignty of Human Free Will".

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


Thanks for the link. I've read his response twice and it seems either there is pretty evident contradiction or he just stated his point in a way that suggests pretty strongly something he doesn't believe.

Although deeply entrenched in the mechanism of "middle knowledge" Craig says at one point that God has all possible worlds available and He, in His sovereignty over all things, selects the best one possible to achieve His ends. This doesn't seem to bring in what mankind's freedom into the equation. Man will make decisions, but God has already, through His middle knowledge, selected how things will be best worked out.

Later he says, "The hypothesis is that God has done the very best He can, given the true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him." This is worded a bit differently and "confront Him" could be taken to mean "are the result of His sovereign choice for how the world has been created based on His middle knowledge."

However, when he later states that there are things outside God's control and He must play a hand He is dealt, then it moves (it seems to me as much less than a scholar in such matters) to contradiction to statements regarding God's sovereignty. It seems Dr. Craig is postulating a world that God knew completely beforehand and sovereignly selected to create that resulted in His not being in control of what took place following its creation in some way.

Either he said too much, or He is saying that God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He was not sovereign. It sounds a lot like questions involving God making a rock so heavy He cannot pick it up.

It seems more accurate to plainly say that God is Sovereign and created this world according to His own good pleasure and leave it at that. Although the soteriological problem of evil remains, I beleive it can successfully be dealt with without backing away from that understanding of God's character, or setting the free will of man up as a hand we somehow deal God that He just has to deal with the best He can.

Stan said...

The concept of Molinism ("Middle Knowledge") that Craig holds to is precisely that God has "all possible worlds available" and chooses the best possible one. That, in itself, is problematic. If, in fact, "with God, nothing is impossible", then "all possible worlds" is a contradiction. Or, let's put it another way. "All possible worlds" limits God to "all possible worlds" without regard to "what God wants". He can only work with the cards that are dealt Him. Oh, wait ... that's what Craig said.

The most common position, I believe, is precisely what you said. "God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He was not sovereign." That, they say, makes God sovereign. I think, "In what sense???!!" And the goal, it appears, is to absolve God from the problem of evil. "No evil at all" was not in the realm of "all possible worlds", so it's not His fault. I get the motivation. I just can't figure out how to align it with Scripture.

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


I don't know that I have a problem with the term "all possible worlds" as long as it is stated specifically to be used only to cut off at the pass non-sense questions, e.g. "So God could have created a world in which world's don't exist?" At least you don't have to deal with nonsense. If, however, it is taken to mean that God has been given a prescribed number of scenarios in which to choose, then there is a problem. So, it seems combining "all possible worlds" with God is Sovereign and creates according to His good pleasure would cut off nonsense questions and successfully establish the point. To say "God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He is not sovereign" would be one of the nonsense statements discounted in the first statement and also discounted by the second. As with so many of these issues we must clearly define what we mean by the terms we use. And the problem of evil remains, and difficult as it is must be dealt with but as you said, according to the scriptures.

Marshal Art said...

I dunno, Stan. I think the answer is that God Himself is the dealer who dealt Himself a hand (by creating us with free will) and being the honorable type, plays that hand as it is.

Stan said...

Marshall, if you hold that God dealt Himself the hand (of "creaturely freedom"), you would concur that "God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He was not sovereign", right?

Stan said...

Jeremy, the problem with the "all possible worlds" concept is that "Middle Knowledge" defines possible as "the libertarian free will choices people make". God is limited in "possible worlds" to the choices that Human Free Will can make without being "forced" in any way by God. Libertarian Free Will is the limitation on God's Sovereignty.

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


If that be the case then I would reject the middle knowledge definition of "all possible worlds" and clearly posit my own and argue with that understanding of the terms. Always have to define those terms and be clear on what our premises are.

And it still just seems like nonsense to say that God would sovereignly create a world in which He was not sovereign. I don't think I could ascribe to a system where that was even a possibility intellectually, and I don't see how it can be supported by scripture. I will, however, spend some time studying Molinism more carefully so that I can better understand where they draw support from scripture and be able to speak a bit more intelligently when the position is identified. There just doesn't seem to be enough time to cover all the bases i'd like to the degree i'd like. But as is the case with several topics I have been dealing with lately, they are critically important.

Thanks for taking the time to interact on this and bearing with me.

Seth said...

Hi Stan. Interesting blog and excellent post. Craig's quote can be read in full here on my blog post: It's toward the end.

Marshal Art said...

No, Stan. I would not so concur. Whether or not God chooses to exercise his sovereignty or not is up to Him, as is the manner in which He chooses to do so. Whichever, He is always sovereign. Personally, I don't see how He can't be at all times sovereign, even if He chose to suspend His sovereignty, which I don't think He does by granting the type of "Free Will" you think is not present.

Stan said...

What is the difference between "God chooses to exercise his sovereignty or not" and "God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He was not sovereign"? The only difference between the phrases is that the first suggests "temporary". The second phrase would still match the first as long as it's understood that "God sovereignly chose to create a world in which He was not always sovereign."

Marshall Art: "I don't see how He can't be at all times sovereign, even if He chose to suspend His sovereignty, which I don't think He does by granting the type of 'Free Will' you think is not present."

Two things here. First, if "He chose to suspend His sovereignty", in what possible sense is He "at all times sovereign"? If sovereignty is suspended, during that time sovereignty is suspended ... which means that He is not sovereign. To "suspend" something is to temporarily prevent something from being in force or effect, so if sovereignty is suspended, it is not, at that time, sovereignty. It would be like saying, "I suspended gravity, but gravity is still in effect."

Second, the "Free Will" which I claim does not exist is not simply my claim. It is the claim of Scripture. How would you explain the existence of Libertarian Free Will and passages like "Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it?" (Lam 3:37) and "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9)? Please be careful. I do not deny the existence of free will. I simply deny the existence of Libertarian Free Will. And I do so because the Bible says that God works all things together after His will, that God establishes what is said, and that God establishes what we do apart from our own plans.

Marshal Art said...

The difference is that it is not my position that He created a world in which He is not sovereign. His sovereignty remains intact simply because there is no one who can remove it from Him. If He suspends the effects of His sovereignty, that doesn't mean the sovereignty has vanished, but only that it is not begin exerted. One might not exert one's parental authority every waking moment, but it still exists and is always in effect.

Stan said...

The problem is in the nature of sovereignty. It's not like, say, an orange. An orange can be here, but not over there. Sovereignty is authority. Authority exists at all times. Someone has it. If it is not one entity, it is another. So if God is not "exercising His sovereignty", then someone else is. If a parent is not exercising his/her authority, the children are. At that point in time, the parents are not in authority because they are not exercising their authority. If God is not exercising His authority, then we are, and at that time we are sovereign, not God.

Anonymous said...

I have been buying and reading some of Ann Rule’s true crime books that they have at a used bookstore. I could quote gory details of murders from her books, but suffice it to say that some awful deaths happened to a number of people who were innocent and undeserving of such treatment by any reasonable standard. In some cases the victims were mere children. The church of my upbringing would have explained these incidents by saying something like, “Satan wins some battles along the way, but God will ultimately win the war.” That kind of thinking always bothered me. Why should an all-powerful deity ever even lose a minor skirmish to the Evil One?

One interesting consequence of the assertion that “nothing is outside of God’s control” is that even when we praise God, it is really God using us as tools to praise Himself. Have you looked at it that way?

Stan said...

"Satan wins some battles along the way, but God will ultimately win the war."

That would be the requirement for the "God has to play with the hand He has been dealt" concept. That would be the answer from some who assure us that "God is a gentleman." And the only possible conclusion is "God is not actually sovereign."

"... it is really God using us as tools to praise Himself." Since "all things have been created by Him and for Him" (Col 1:16), it's not too far fetched. And since He is deserving of the praise of His creation, it's not strange or unwarranted.

(I feel I should point out that the phrase "innocent and undeserving" is not consistent with Scripture, which paints all humans as sinners deserving God's wrath.)

Anonymous said...

Are we well-advised to carry through on the “praise Him in all things” commandment regarding our witnessing the bloody death of a rabbit by the teeth of a coyote, or the terminal leukemia in a human child? Or is it better for us to maintain silence in regard to unsavory events?

Stan said...

The world is full of new definitions of standard words. You're certainly free to redefine "all" in "all things".

Anonymous said...

It makes my head spin to think about absolute sovereignty. I am imagining a conversation between two people I will call Karen and Alice.

Karen: I bought a new car. I chose not to get comprehensive coverage to insure it against collision damage or theft.

Alice: Isn’t that dangerous?

Karen: God decides the fate of my car, not I. If it is His will for it to be taken from me, then I should not hedge things by having insurance coverage on it.

Alice: What if it is His will for someone to steal your car, but also His will for you to only suffer a loss of the deductible amount, and His will for those with a financial stake in the insurance company to suffer the bulk of the dollar loss?

Then there is this:

Alice: The original version of the Bible was inerrant. English translations have errors, but they are fairly inconsequential.

Karen: Is God sovereign over the processes of Bible translation and manuscript copying?

Alice: Absolutely.

Karen: So if you are classifying something in the King James Bible as “a minor error,” or “not quite what the original author intended,” aren’t you saying that human sloppiness won out over God’s sovereignty?

Alice: It would seem God wanted those errors to be there.

Karen: Isn’t it dangerous for us to label something an “error” if God’s will caused it to be that way?

Stan said...

Yeah, I imagine those would be the common perceptions. Neither one is either "biblical" nor "orthodox". But they would be the common perceptions. One is fatalism, not a functional position in Christianity, and the other offers an example of a failure to comprehend the claim of inerrancy as well as a clear example of the false dilemma fallacy.)

But, look, you aren't a theist and you don't believe the Bible, so why argue the point? Why not just say, "Those Christians are whackos" and be done with it?

Anonymous said...

Stan wrote, “Why argue the point?”

The philosophers out there will point out that this is one of the deepest topics you have blogged on, Stan. I heard Anne Graham Lotz (it is her mother’s name that is Ruth, if I recall correctly) preach the “God is a gentleman” theory of the 9-11 attack, and I find the various Bible-based ways of looking at that interesting. (I heard her preach once that heaven is a cube 1,500 miles on a side. In the unlikely event that you ever run out of topics, there’s one waiting for you.)

Stan wrote, “You're certainly free to redefine…”

I imagine that turn of phrase was deliberate irony on your part. :-}

Stan wrote, “I feel I should point out that the phrase ‘innocent and undeserving’ is not consistent with Scripture, which paints all humans as sinners deserving God's wrath.”

To coin a phrase, complete sovereignty entails complete responsibility. If scripture says that humans are miserable sinners, and if scripture also says God is absolutely sovereign over us non-sovereign sinners, then whatever we do that wins us the label “sinner” is ultimately done by God, and so He is responsible for it in the final analysis. And yet you will surely say we ought to refrain from applying the “sinner” label to God.

As the sports fans say on the post-game radio talk shows, I’ll hang up and listen on the phone.

Stan said...

The reason I said it was a false dilemma is because you're operating on a very small set of possibilities. If you're interested in philosophy, you might want to look into the concepts of "determinism" -- particularly "soft determinism" or "compatibilism". This view veers off of the cold fatalism like you're describing.

Imagine a human kingdom with a human sovereign. This sovereign (lowercase "s") finds out about a rebellion that will take place. Rather than squash the rebellion before it starts, this sovereign decides that it would be useful for the rebellion to take place and fail publicly. So he does not quietly end the event, but allows it to happen and then deals with it. Did the sovereign cause the rebellion? Or did the rebels cause it? The rebels caused it. Did this human sovereign lose control? He was never (humanly) out of control in this event, even though he allowed the rebels to perform certain acts against his rule. This would be closer to "soft determinism".

You can find info on soft determinism (or compatibilism) on a variety of good philosophy sites. A really good (non-religious) one is the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Note: Folks like Hobbes, Locke, and, yes, atheist David Hume were soft determinists.)

(Note, also, that atheists like Richard Dawson and the like argue that all choices are determined by biology. That's hard determinism -- fatalism.)