What Makes Him So Sure?

September 10, 2008

Part of the self-identity of Restoration theology is that it intentionally non-Calvinistic.  But this non-Calvinism is not consistently applied, and that’s part of what I’m driving at in this series.  Anabaptists have an interesting habit of needing to be Calvinists in spite of themselves.
Here’s an example.  God has made quite an impressive collection of promises to His people, promises which are to be fulfilled in the future.  How do we know that God will fulfill His promises?  Well, in a nutshell, we know because God declares His absolute faithfulness, and redemptive history supports His claim.  But how does God know that He will fulfill His promises to us?  What makes Him so sure?  When God says that all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, how can He know this confidently enough to say it with a straight face?  Does He look back on His winning record and figure that the odds are pretty favorable?  I say that God is not guessing, or lying, but that He knows with absolute certainty that He will accomplish all His decretal will.  But I also say that He cannot know this unless He holds all things, including evil, in the palm of His sovereign hand.  If God does not control evil, then neither He nor we can be sure of His ability to keep His promises regarding our salvation from evil. 
But hold on — can’t we just say that God is stronger than evil, so that while He does not ordain it in any sense, He is still always able to overcome it as it occurs?  Well, yeah, we can say it, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.  First of all, if we mean that God doesn’t know what’s going to happen ahead of time, but fields the ball flawlessly anyway, we’ve denied a basic biblical attribute of God (foreknowledge), and that won’t do.  Second, if we mean instead that God foreknows but doesn’t ordain, then we’re talking nonsense, because we’re talking about a foreknowing God who created this world instead of, say, a world without evil (see here).  Third, if God doesn’t ordain evil, then who does?  Satan?  Okay, fine — let’s go with that.  But then, to whom is Satan subordinate?  Who sets the bounds for Satan’s activities?  Who determines the extent of Satan’s evil schemes?  Why, God of course.  And how does God determine the extent to which He is going to limit Satan at any given time?  By the council of His own will.  So then there’s no entity outside of God governing how much He has to limit Satan?  No, of course not.  God and God alone is the sole determiner of the extent of Satan’s efficacy.  God could, if He wanted to, snuff Satan right now.  But He doesn’t, and that’s got to be either because He can’t, or because He has decided not to for a reason.  Translation: we either answer like flaming heretics, or we answer like Calvinists.  And most days, anabaptists answer like Calvinists.
Not surprisingly, there are some who try to invent a third option.  God can know the future, the argument goes, but He chooses not to.  I swear, I am not making this up.  This argument is meant as an attempt to dodge the obvious exegetical difficulties of Open Theism while also keeping one untainted by that horrible stench known as Calvinism [boooo, hisss].  But instead it manages to have all the difficulties of both, for it describes a God who could secure His promises, but refuses to, and then lies about it.
Continuing from the previous post in this series: God is everywhere, God knows everything (ahead of time), and God is all-powerful, and in a world where all these things are true, evil occurs.  I maintain that this cannot be explained in terms of restorationist theology, and of course this means that restorationist theology, biblical attributes of God, and the fact of evil simply cannot stand being in the same room together, and they’re certainly not going to shake hands.  Now as I mentioned before, there are retorts to this from the restorationist point of view, and I’ll spend some time interacting with some of them here.  If you find I’ve misrepresented the arguments, feel free to enlighten me in the comments section. 
A popular objection to my position is that God is not the author of evil, and therefore does not ordain it.  This argument will not withstand biblical scrutiny, and falls under the category of denying biblical attributes of God, as I will show.  There are  basically two kinds of evil (natural evil and moral evil), and scripture is clear on God’s control over them both.  An example of natural evil would be a hurricane, or an earthquake, or some kind of freak accident that kills people.  Biblically speaking, God is in complete control of natural evil (Matthew 8:27, Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6). This means for example that during a flood nobody drowns outside of God’s control.  If we say that God does not control natural evil, then we have denied God’s claim of omnipotence.  I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of me.
But the bible is equally clear that God is also in control of moral evil.  For two examples, it is God who sent Joseph into Egypt (Psalm 105:17, Genesis 50:20), and God who predestined the actions of Pilate, Herod, and the crucifying mob (Isaiah 53:10, Acts 4:27-28).  Now some may be quick to point out that in those two examples God only ordained the glorious end of the event, and not the sinful means; He just kinda worked with what was given to Him.  But I say that those glorious ends could not have been accomplished without evil (try brutally shaming and killing an innocent man without sinning).  But if you don’t buy that, then you have to explain why God chose the evil route over the alleged evil-free option.  Good luck with that.  So, for us to deny that God controls moral evil is to again deny God’s claim of omnipotence.  I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of you.
But does all this mean that God is the author of evil after all?  To quote Jonathan Edwards, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.”  But it cannot be denied that at the very least God makes the choice to allow the evil to occur, having at all times the power to stop it.  It is under His sovereign control, and He lets it happen.  (More on the implications of this allowance in a minute.)
Now in my experience, many restorationists will not be comfortable with this “allowance” business, and will insist that God doesn’t proactively allow sin at all, but yet does work His sovereign will in spite of it.  Now in addressing this it’s important that we keep our eye on the ball: God foresees moral evil, and God controls moral evil, as we’ve already established.  This means that if God doesn’t want the evil to be there, He has the opportunity and ability to avoid it.  He could head it off at the pass, so to speak.  Given this, God not avoiding evil is a choice, such that not avoiding evil is exactly the same as choosing to allow evil.  There isn’t any way around this.  In the Bible, God repeatedly accomplishes His eternal purposes through both natural and moral evil, and His involvement in it cannot be described as reluctant or forced.  
But allowance is not the same thing as ordination, right?  Can’t we say God allows evil to occur without saying that He ordains it?  Not if we believe in creation ex nihilo.  God is not the sovereign over a world that was handed to Him.  he wasn’t appointed to His post by somebody else.  God, who has always been, determined to create this world from nothing.  Nor was it a surprise to Him what He’d get when the egg-timer dinged.  God knows and has always known everything. 
So now imagine, if we can presume to oversimplify the thing, a snapshot in the thoughts of God.  He desires to create the world, and He prepares to speak it into existence, having in mind of course the exact nature of the thing He intends to create.  “But wait,” He realizes, “I foresee evil in this scenario.”  What does He do?  Does He scrap that draft and formulate a new one?  He certainly could, but as we know very well He did not in our case.  And the point I’m trying to make from this foolish thought experiment is this: God knew evil would occur before He created the evildoers. He could have chosen to alter the creation, to tweak it a bit, maybe add a little something over here just so, way back when the lump of clay was still soft and moist in His hand.  But He did not.  God had all the options available to Him, and out of them all He chose to make this world, knowing everything about it.  Now the restorationist can talk all day long about allowance vs ordination, but at the end of the day, creation ex nihilo makes everything fall into the category of foreordained.

Hand on the Wheel

August 27, 2008

We’re discussing the presence of evil in a world presided over by a good God. In the previous post I made the assertion that a man cannot account for this while maintaining both the fundamental pillars of restoration theology and the biblical attributes of God. I want to explore this in detail here.

Staying with the hypothetical scenario in the previous post, a drunk driver blows through a red light and t-bones another car, killing the baby girl in the back seat. Now several things must be observed by us on the front side, especially these two: First, evil has actually occurred. The man in question had been drinking to the point of irresponsible excess, which is clearly sinful; he was driving while drunk, which is against the law, and this willful disobedience compounds his sin; and these sinful acts directly caused the death of another human being, which is murder by God’s standards; and, looking at it from Mamma’s point of view, an innocent child has been killed, a family has been devastated, etc. Evil has occurred, and on that point there should be agreement all around. And second, God was somewhere when this evil occurred. God is not a concept, He is a being. The incarnation is real, the resurrection is real, we’re not Gnostics, and we’re not atheists — God was somewhere when this evil occurred. The question before us now is where was He.

Now if we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is omnipresent, then we must answer by saying that God was right in the middle of it. He wasn’t a distant bystander, a sideline hand-wringer, a horrified spectator in the nosebleed cheap-seats — no, He was right there. This means He wasn’t just in the car with the little girl (like the sappy evangelical platitudes remind us), He was also in the other car sitting next to the drunk. And a half hour earlier He was both at the bar and in the garage watching Mamma buckle her baby into the car seat. That’s what omnipresent means.

If we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is also omniscient, then we must also conclude that God knew what was going to happen before it happened. As He watched the two cars leave the respective driveways, the rest of the evening was already known to Him. There was no mystery there, from God’s point of view. He knew this would happen.

Before we account for God’s omnipotence, let me turn aside into an anecdotal cul de sac. In one of my wife’s classes at the aforementioned Christian college, the professor was discussing the problem of evil, and in order to defend God against liability He used an illustration that went something like this. Imagine you’re standing on a street corner, and you see two cars approaching the intersection. You can see that, based on their speed and orientation, they will collide in the intersection. You can see this ahead of time, and in this way your situation roughly mimics God’s foreknowledge; yet, you cannot be held responsible for the cars colliding. Likewise, the argument goes, God cannot be held responsible for evil, even though He knows exactly how and when it is going to happen.

But this illustration is fatally flawed for one fundamental reason: it completely fails to take into account the omnipotence of God. As my wife pointed out to her professor, the person standing on the corner is free from liability in spite of foreknowledge precisely because he did not set the cars in motion, and anyway he has no power to stop the cars once they’ve started. Yet we can hardly say that about God, so the professor’s argument doesn’t work.

So if we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is omnipotent, we must face the fact that God, at the very least, had the power to stop the evil from happening, but chose not to. Chose, you say? Yes, chose. If God is all powerful, this means that when He was omnipresently with the drunk in the car which He omnisciently knew would kill the little girl, He omnipotently had His hand on the wheel. Now just forget about foreordination for a moment — the kicker is that God didn’t turn the wheel, even though He had the power to do so. This is the big white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, and when I finally admitted to noticing it, I found myself to be Calvinist.

Of course there are several retorts to this from the restorationist side of the isle (I know, I used to argue them), and I plan to discuss some of them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with this spoiler. The retorts fall into three categories: 1) Functional denials of the biblical attributes of God, 2) Explicit denials of the basic tenets of restoration theology, 3) Accidental arguments for other elements of Calvinism.

Anabaptist Lite

August 26, 2008

I spent a couple years in a private college near Tampa, Florida — a small Christian college, the theological leanings of which could be roughly described as Anabaptist Lite.  It is influenced heavily (and operated almost exclusively) by heirs of the Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell Movement) of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I attended this college because I was raised in this kind of church, as were my parents, my wife, her parents, and so on.  I mention this here because there are certain presuppositions that drive restoration theology, and these presuppositions have an impact on how one approaches the problem of evil.  And since I’m personally familiar with them, I’ll discuss them first.
Back in my restorationist days, if you were to ask me to explain how a good God could preside over a universe in which evil occurred, my answer would have been shallow.  Now this shallowness isn’t the fault of restoration theology — I just hadn’t thought through it as far as I should have.  However, what I’ve since discovered is that the only way I could remain restorationist in my thinking while continuing to affirm biblical attributes of God (omniscience, omnipotence, foreknowledge, etc.) was to stay in the shallow end of the good God/evil world question.  And that is a legitimate criticism of restoration theology.   Those who do drift into the deep end either end up denying some of the attributes of God, or abandoning some of the basic pillars of Anabaptist theology.  This is one reason why we have so many open-theists and pseudo-Calvinists running around.

Let me illustrate.  A drunk driver plows through a red light and t-bones a Geo Metro, killing the two-year-old baby girl inside.  Where is God?  Did He notice?  Did He even try to stop it?  What kind of God lets little girls get killed?  These are all valid questions, and they do come up when something like this happens.  But for the purposes of our discussion now, the important question is this: Can the Anabaptist answer these questions in accordance with his fundamental theological presuppositions without denying one or more of the scriptural attributes of God (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, foreknowledge), and without denying the scriptural doctrine of creation ex nihilo?  I say no, he cannot, and in the next post I intend to show the math.

No Stops

August 25, 2008

I’ve recently encountered the argument that there are no stops between Calvinism and atheism, and I’d like to unpack some of the constituent parts of that here.  Since the argument is really couched in the question of the problem of evil, I’ll start there.  Basically, the problem is this: God is here, and so is evil.  Not really a big deal at this level, but the plot really thickens when we borrow attributes of God from orthodox Christianity and start plugging them into the equation: An omnipotent God is here, and so is evil.  An omniscient God is here, and so is evil.  A sovereign God is here, and so is evil.  
If God is all of those things (and He is), and He is also a good God (and He is), then certain questions naturally follow.  Why doesn’t God stop the evil from happening?  In our haste we may find ourselves unwilling to say He doesn’t stop it, and start coming up with thinly veiled ways to suggest that He can’t, although that one requires an artful touch so as to not sound like we’re really denying His omnipotence.  Of course we can’t deny God’s omnipotence, but on the other hand we also cannot have God be the author of evil, because scripture is clear on that as well.  The rabbit hole just goes and goes. 
There is of course a scriptural approach to this question.  Now this is not to say that there is an answer exactly, if by “answer” we mean “a schematic diagram of God’s eternal secret decrees.”  After all, that’s not what the bible is for.  It’s not an owners manual for the Creator — it’s much more like an instruction manual for the creation.  And as such scripture is sufficient to teach us how to approach the question, how not to approach it, and how to settle it comfortably into our faithful expectation of the resurrection.  What I’d like to do in the posts to follow is examine some of the more popular approaches to the problem of evil in light of scripture.  As I do this, it will be important to remember that any approach we take to this question will end up falling into one of two categories.  It will either be an eisegetical subordination of scripture to philosophical presuppositions, or else it will be an exegetical subordination of the mind to revelation.  In any case, how we settle the problem of evil has broad and fundamental implications on how we view the nature of God, and this fact cannot be allowed to escape unnoticed.

Take it

November 21, 2006

Thanksgiving.  Now there’s a holiday I can get into.  Food.  Fall.  Family and friends.  Food.  hunting season.  A week of the best leftovers you’ll have all year.  Day off.  Food.  C’mon Thursday!

Interesting thing about this holiday — it’s not nearly as theological as many on the liturgical calendar, yet it remains in many ways one of the most godly.  For some reason, it has managed to escape much of the commercial influence that has made such a mess of Christmas.  (Oh sure, a handfull of folks are making a killing on yams and farm-raised birds. But hey — that’s food, and the holiday is precisely about having enough food.  That  we’re blessed with an abundance of food doesn’t exactly spoil the mood now, does it?)  Of course, it helps that Thanksgiving doesn’t have the incriminating pseudo-history of being invented by pagans.  (Granted, pagans widely celebrate Thanksgiving, but I can’t remember ever hearing them talk about “taking it back.”)  And somehow it’s stayed pretty much below the PC radar, which is remarkable, considering that when we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are upholding a tradition of giving thanks to God because He has so graciously sustained us.  All things considered, it’s a wonder that no one’s chompin’ at the bit to call it “X-giving,” or “Wellness Acknowledgement Day,” or some other neutered, commie-femi-nonsense. 

There’s something about the giving of thanks that is just good for a man.  For Christmas and birthdays we give expensive presents.  For Easter and Halloween we give candy.  For Valentines Day we give sappy cards and more candy.  But on Thanksgiving, the only thing we’re really giving is the acknowledgement that we have taken.  That’s hard for pride to do.  It humbles us, and we need that on a lot of levels.  Giving of thanks is centering, too — it doesn’t go well with humanistic chaos.  In a way, it’s not unlike eating at the Lord’s table — in both cases we are coming hungry to a full table, and we are being filled.  We are taking what has been given, we are acknowledging both that we are taking, and that what we are taking has been given by God, and God is making us better for it.  This doesn’t lend itself well to either commercialization or pride.

But there’s another thing which, in our piety-turned-pietism, we tend to lose sight of:  God desires for His children to actually enjoy the things He has given them.  In Deuteronomy chapter 14, God tells His people to do a really unpietistic thing: He tells them to have a party before Him.  “…take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, for sheep, for wine or strong drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.”  Now if you didn’t know any better, you’d almost think God wanted them to buy whatever they wanted, eat it before Him, and rejoice as a family.  Hmph.  What about cholesterol?  The money? The inches?  The guilt?

 We’ve grown so accustomed to guilt that I think we’ve acquired a taste for it.  A sort of love/hate relationship has developed.  We desire to be free from it, yet we don’t truly know how to live our lives without it, and so it’s like this blankie that we’re still carrying around in 5th grade.  There’s a legitimate place for guilt — it belongs right up in your face when you rebel against your creator.  It is the means by which the  proud sinner is crumbled before his perfect Saviour.  (And it shouldbe felt by people who start playing nothing but cheese-ball Christmas music on the radio as early as November 1st.)  But for the child of God, there is no guilt inherent in the giving of thanks.  (If you think there is, chances are you’re only sorry you couldn’t do it all yourself.)  There is no guilt in the creature rejoicing in his Creator.  

So knock it off and eat.  Whatever your heart desires.  Eat before the Lord your God and be filled, you and your household.  Take what has been given, and embrace the humility that comes from the giving of thanks.  Rejoice in the Lord and in His immeasurable grace, by which we’re a lot better off than the guys who started this holiday.  God is good, and He gives joy.  Take it.

Hard to Contain

November 21, 2006

“In our pietism, though, we tend to insist that God is primarily Nice. Period. God is Nice and Nicer and Nicest. The chief end of God is to be Nice. I believe in God the Nice. Maker of Niceness. In heaven, we’ll all be Nice. Pilate wasn’t Nice. He was mean, and ‘mean people suck.’ This whole modern Christian litany is so tedious and tiny. Of course, other people—equally foolish—think the solution is to be rude and mean. Yeah, God isn’t nice; He’s rude. But Yahweh is neither Nice or Rude: He is dangerous and unpredictable. He is Trinity. He is Fire, and fire is hard to contain. Sometimes all the advanced firefighting technology gets overcome in a canyon by a storm of flames. Sometimes people freeze next to a tiny flame. Fire’s edges won’t stand still; its borders aren’t easily traced. ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac came right from the center of flame. As H. A. Williams notes, ‘Whatever God wants in our relationship with Him, it certainly isn’t respectability'” (Douglas Jones, Playing with Knives: God the Dangerous, Credenda Agenda, Volume 16, Issue 3: Thema).