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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fatal Sovereignty

Now, I've argued from Scripture for the Sovereignty of God as an absolute, not a limited sovereignty. I've shown biblical reasons why we ought to believe that God is Sovereign over nature, over human events, over everything. I've offered passages that demonstrate that God intervenes in human free will. The doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, as explained in Scripture, means that there is not one maverick molecule (to borrow a phrase from R.C. Sproul) that is outside of God's control and command.

The logical conclusion at this point is the concept known as fatalism. If God is in charge of anything, what difference do I make? What difference do my choices make? What difference does anything make? God will do what God will do. Why bother me about any of this? Fatalism.

Paul faced the same question:
You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" 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 9:19-21).
Paul had compiled the basic argument that God is in charge (Sovereign) and He chooses whom He will save and whom He will not. This response is the standard, expected one. And, admittedly, Paul's answer doesn't serve to clear things up. What do we learn? Well, Paul will not go back on his position. God, in Paul's analogy, is the Potter who gets to do whatever He wants with whatever He makes. Indeed, in Paul's analogy, the Potter makes "out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use." So Paul didn't back down. God does choose what will happen and to whom. He is Sovereign. We have no room to argue with God.

I'm not going to offer a better explanation than Paul did, but I do hope to shed a little light, a line of reasoning to help see how things work. I've already indicated that God is Sovereign in the absolute. The Bible indicates that nothing exists without God's constant work. In Acts 17:24-31, Paul told the Athenians that God made everything including Man, that He "determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place", and that "In him we live and move and have our being." Not much room for anything else there. God is absolutely Sovereign. Even evil requires His permission to occur and God uses it for His purposes. I also explained that two other necessary biblical positions must be kept in suspension here, not rejected. First, humans do have wills. We make choices for which we are held responsible. While holding in one hand the certainty that God is absolutely Sovereign, we must also hold in the other hand the equal certainty that we have free will and God holds us responsible for what we choose. The second consideration is that God does not create evil. Evil is something apart from God. When I say He "uses it for His purposes", we must not conclude He creates it. Keep all that in your mind as you consider the question, "Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?" We must affirm all of these while we answer the question of fatalism.

Given, then, that God is indeed Sovereign but Man has free will (not Free Will), how do we avoid concluding, "It doesn't matter what we do?" How do we avoid being absolved from guilt if God is Sovereign? Well, first, it is clear from all the examples I've seen and listed that, while God works in people to harden or soften hearts, to blind or allow hearts to see, to disincline or incline hearts, God never coerces people to choose something in particular. God does not force the will. He works in the heart. Thus, every action of human beings is "free will" because we actually choose. Our choices are not coerced. As such, God still finds fault because we still made the choices we make out of our own free will and are, therefore, culpable for them.

Consider, then, the alternative. If it is true that God is Sovereign and we still make choices, doesn't it stand to reason that God will use our choices for His purposes? Take, for instance, the choice of prayer. Prayer is our way of saying, "I trust you, God." We pray because we believe that God is Sovereign, that He can do something about those things that concern us. And Scripture indicates that God answers prayer, that God uses our prayers as a means to accomplish the things that He intends to accomplish. Thus, in prayer our free will works as a vehicle for God to do what God will do and we get to participate. And, of course, the Bible is full of examples of people who 1) trusted God and 2) acted, not with fatalism, but with purpose and prudence. A telling example would be in Nehemiah. Those working on rebuilding the walls learned that they were in danger of attack. So we read, "We prayed to our God and set a guard" (Neh 4:9). Was setting a guard a lack of faith? No, it was reasonable and wise. In Proverbs we read, "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD" (Prov 21:31). Fatalism would say, "If the victory belongs to the Lord, why make horses ready?" But in God's Sovereignty both are true. The battle belongs to the Lord and we are to take wise action to accomplish what God wants. Gideon did it by eliminating troops and then fighting with 300 men against a vast army (Judg 7). Jehoshaphat did it when he took his army up on the hill to watch God do the fighting (2 Chron 20). Jonathan did it when he and his armor bearer decided to take on an entire Philistine garrison on their own (1 Sam 14). (Seriously, that is an awesome story.) And while we are told "The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord" (Prov 21:1), we are also commanded to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2). Over and over and over again God's people both acknowledged God's absolute Sovereignty and their responsibility to act.

If God is indeed as Sovereign as Scripture says He is and we indeed still have free will, then it stands to reason that we will be held responsible for our choices even though God is Sovereign and it is natural to assume that we need to choose to do what God tells us to choose to do not because He is Sovereign, but because that's how God works. Can I offer to you the mechanism by which God controls all things? No. Can I explain how it is that free will can coexist with absolute Sovereignty? Not likely to your satisfaction. But keeping both of these in mind, it becomes clear that fatalism is not the proper response to Sovereignty. God does still find fault. Conversely, we do still have the opportunity to participate with God in His work by doing what He commands and instructs. Sovereignty and fatalism do not necessarily need to coexist. Not biblically.


Anonymous said...

A few days worth of posts obviously cannot cover the problem of sovereignty in a comprehensive way, so I am guilty of stating the obvious when I point out that there are some avenues that have not been explored here.

1. Judges 1:19: “And the Lord was with Judah; and he drove out the inhabitants of the mountain; but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” A believer may say that the “he” is a reference to Judah, so it was the Judah’s men who “could not…” It would be interesting to know the pre-English version well enough to understand if there was any ambiguity in the “he” reference. Be that as it may, it looks like the Lord’s help WAS sufficient to overcome the mountain dwellers, so one has to wonder why it was not sufficient to overcome the valley dwellers.

2. The alley cats where I work are provided with bowls of water, canned food and dry food pellets. Yet they still stalk the pigeons that can be found in the alley. One day I noticed a small drift of feathers and a pigeon body with both wings torn off and the head most of the way off. It didn’t look like any pigeon meat had been consumed, but rather that a cat had just ripped the bird up. If a believer claims that God allows in at least a limited way some free will for humans, is that a slippery slope leading to the claim that God allows some free will in cats (“God Himself didn’t want the pigeon to be torn apart…”), and maybe in bark beetles (“God Himself didn’t want the forested slope to be killed off by the beetles…”)?

3. When a human’s free will is in opposition to some wild animal’s free will, would you expect God’s sovereignty to manifest itself such that the human’s will always wins out over the animal’s will? Genesis 1:26 may be relevant.

Stan said...

You are starting, quite obviously, with a different premise. "We don't know anything at all about this 'god' of whom you speak. We'll just pick out what we can." My starting point is "God is who He says He is in Scripture, so we'll interpret the implicit from the explicit."

1. With that in mind, the explicit references tell us that God is Sovereign and implications from Judges 1:19 might indicate that the appearance was that God couldn't overcome the hill people, but the explicit denies it. All commentators on the text assume, then, that Judah couldn't take the hill people either because of sin or some lack of faith. That is, "the iron chariots" frightened them into not doing battle. Either implication is reasonable. It would depend, then, on your premise. Yours is "There is no such Being."

As for 2 and 3, I'm baffled ... truly baffled. You appear to be operating on the idea that, "Cats are people too, you know." Your premise appears to be that all creatures are equal. The Bible, of course, disagrees. (Atheism would require it, which would put you in a difficult quandary, but ...) So the concept of "free will" isn't merely "the ability to choose", but "the ability to make moral choices." One key difference between humans and animals is morality. Animals don't sin. They don't violate God's moral code. Nor are they "godly". They don't make moral choices. As such, the concept of "animal free will" isn't even in view here.

Dan said...

I saw this and couldn't help but think of the above comment. Someone should try and reason to this cat that it really ought to be nice.

Anonymous said...

I spent some time this weekend trying to understand Stan’s bafflement in his comment above. I worked out this imaginary dialogue between two Christians.

Linda: What is your take on Genesis 1:26? There, God gives humans dominion over wild animals.

Jim: I think what that verse is really saying is that He gives us permission to go ahead and TRY to control them, not that He makes them compliant.

Linda: Are you a biblical inerrantist?

Jim: Yes. The original text was inerrant. Nowhere does God promise us that the copies and translations will be the very best they can possibly be. A better translation than the King James would go maybe something like this: “I give you the go-ahead to subjugate animals for hide, meat, milk, and toil in your fields. I foresee that some of you will suffer from teeth, claws, venom, and horns—even strangulation in the case of the boa constrictor. It is up to you to evaluate the risk/reward ratio based on experience, so proceed at your own risk. Do not expect supernatural intervention.”

Linda: So the Creator gave animals an instinct for self-preservation, and He does not promise that He will intervene on our behalf when we humans encounter animals?

Jim: Correct. Animals are not agents of free will. They do not, and cannot, violate God’s moral code.

Linda: What you’re saying then is that when it comes to animals, the Creator “wound them up and let them go.” Are you a deist rather than a theist?

Jim: No, not at all. Someone who is a deist should not even call himself a Christian, because such a person really can’t be a Christian in a meaningful sense.

Linda: Yet it seems like you are part way to deism. Otherwise, wouldn’t you say that God’s sovereignty over each of the trillions of animals is absolute and is in operation around the clock?

Jim. See, it’s like this,__________

Stan, how would you finish Jim’s sentence?

Stan said...

Jim: "See, it's like this: Stan doesn't actually agree with most of what I've said so far.

"Stan does not understand the 'dominion' granted by God to mean 'Sovereign Authority' in the same sense that God has. It is human dominion. It is limited sovereignty. Man is in charge of harnessing the planet, controlling nature as necessary, maintaining the image of God found in nature, but more importantly reflecting the character of God to the world around us. This is done by God's command and with God's help. (Stan, silly man that he is, doesn't believe that humans can do any good thing on their own. In Stan's view, the only genuine 'good' is that accomplished by God's power for God's purposes aimed ultimately at God's glory.) The notion that God will not intervene on our behalf goes against Stan's large view of God's Sovereignty.

Stan does agree that animals are not agents of free will and, thus, cannot violate God's moral code. At least he would agree with me on that point. But the Bible is abundantly clear that God is Absolutely Sovereign in the final analysis. Thus, when Daniel was in the lion's den, no animal attacked Daniel because 'My God sent His angel and shut the lions' mouths' (Dan 6:22). When Balaam tried to go to curse Israel for a price, God used the donkey to redirect and reinform Balaam. When Israel sinned, 'the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people' as a punishment (Num 21:6). And over and over. God uses animals (and the rest of nature) to accomplish His plans. Sometimes it is found in Man's dominion over nature and sometimes it is found in nature's backlash against Man and other times in other ways.

God is always Sovereign. Nature is not a moral agent. And Man, made in the image of God, reflects (albeit imperfectly) God's Sovereignty in the dominion of nature.

But, as I said, that's Stan's view ... that wacky guy."

How's that? :)

Anonymous said...

As always, much obliged that you take time to respond.

In response to a comment of yours days ago: Anonymous = Lee = male = Maricopa County. (Go Scottsdale Beavers!)

Stan said...

Of course, I can often guess that Anonymous = Lee, but not always. Sometimes, in fact, I know better.