Saturday, October 27, 2012

Providence, Part VII: My Position

This is part 7 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post are absolutely my own and not those of my church, my small group, or any other religious entity I am or have been involved with.
It's hard to believe I've now been wrestling with questions about God's providence for over two months. In the course of answering these questions I've read thousands of pages, written tens of thousands of words, and seen my faith tested like it hasn't ever been before. This post, and the four after it, are the first fruits of all of these efforts. I've been excited about this for a long time. Let's go.

I would prefer to keep my arguments strictly centered on scripture, but since thinkers over the ages have brought in philosophical constructs like modern thinking about free will or determinism into the debated on predestination, I will do my best to engage them on this front with what I think.


Calvinism holds that God determines and effects everything that happens. Arminianism would say that God knows everything that will happen, but is not the author of the actions of beings He has given free will to; He decides to permit them to act freely and knows what action they will take. So in Calvinism, God "foreordains"; in Arminianism, God "foreknows". In response to this, I am going to base my position on what may be the dumbest statement ever made on this blog:

"What happens, happens."

Here is what I mean. There is exactly one course of events that actually makes up the history of the universe. When we look back at the past, there is only one version of it. To us the past is determined, set in stone; it will always be the way that it was and is. In a minute whatever you are doing right now will be similarly determined to you by virtue of being in the past.

To God, who as I said last time has equally perfect knowledge of every moment in time, all of eternity is therefore determined. In fact, though, I would say that the future is determined even if you don't acknowledge the existence of any supreme being. Whatever is going to happen, which looks determined in hindsight, was always going to happen that way. I don't know and probably never will know exactly what time I'm going to fall asleep tonight (hopefully not too late), but that doesn't change the fact that it is a definite time, and it always would be that same definite time. Just because we can't know the future doesn't mean it isn't just as determined as the past. Whatever is going to happen is definitely going to happen.

In light of this, the more liberal Arminian view that actions performed by agents possessing "free will" are somehow undetermined or unknowable until they happen (as seen in open theism and Molinism) seems untenable. It assumes that the only way to view reality is from our temporal perspective in which we have no certain knowledge of events that haven't happened yet. From an eternal perspective to which nothing "hasn't happened yet", (as I think God has), only determinism makes sense--but determinism that doesn't obliterate free will, but encompasses it.

Free Will

In discussions on free will, it is critically important that all parties involved define what they mean by the term so they don't waste their time each arguing different things, like Erasmus and Luther. My definition of free will is as intentional in what it does not state as in what it does. I would define the "freedom" of the will as this: it is the quality of human actions and intentions that their only true "cause" is the will, the decision-making part of the mind, and nothing can be said to "cause" the will to decide anything. (Though many factors may influence it) It is for this reason that people can be said to be truly morally responsible for their actions: because their actions are caused exclusively by their own willing and decisions. If our actions (or the will that caused their actions) were caused by something exterior to ourselves, then that exterior cause would be responsible for them, not the performer of the action.

This view of free will is compatibilist in that I hold it alongside the deterministic view of the universe as described above: our "free" actions are determined to happen; we were always going to freely act in a definite way, known from eternity to God. God's knowing and, in a sense, determining our actions does not make them any less free. (More on that in a bit) However, it is not, I think, compatibilist in the same sense that Calvinism's view of free will is. Calvinism holds that people are always "free" to do what they desire most and God is able, by the irresistible process of regeneration, to make us desire Him instead of sin. In other words, our actions are caused by our desires and our desires are caused by God, so God is able to cause people, like all other created things, to act exactly in accordance to His will. This conclusion is strongly opposed to my view. To Calvinism, "free will" means the absence of coercion or "violence" on the will; to me, it means the absence of causation of any kind. Except for its compatibilism, this view of free will is really much closer to that of Arminianism.

Another definition of free will with which I would also disagree is the idea that it means the absence of some kind of constraints. I think this kind of free will is used more as a straw man than as an actual belief people have. I have heard my pastor argue against free will by pointing out that, unlike God, there are limitations to our agency; we can't create something from nothing, grow wings and fly, do any of the things in Job 38-41, &c. No one actually claims that free will necessarily means this. Similarly it doesn't mean freedom from moral constraints or the ability to be good without God, as Pelagius claimed, as Luther railed against in On the Bondage of the Will, and as Calvinists often try to pin on Arminians. Debates trying to precisely define the nature of "free will" seem to go on endlessly and, I think, tend to lead discussion away from the real issues having to do with God. For this reason I will not elaborate on my position on free will any more than I have.

With the philosophy out of the way, I'll begin putting together the three categories of statements from the last post.

Determination and Causation: The Two-Part Working of an Eternal God

A proper understanding of who God is is essential before we can begin to understand who we are. As I said in post 5, proponents of Calvinism and Arminianism both tend to confuse and conflate God's decrees with His actions. Or, more specifically, they tend to overly connect election and salvation so one causes the other. There is an underlying assumption that God's decrees are made temporally, like His actions. But if God is truly eternal, unchanging, and all-knowing, then how can His plan change? The Bible, in fact, asserts that God does not change His mind. (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29) God's will, or the sum of His decrees and plans for creation, is as eternal as God Himself. How this manifests in my theology of providence is that I draw a sharp distinction between God's eternally foreknowing and predestining of all things (hereafter referred to as "Determination") and those things actually happening in time (hereafter referred to as "Causation") with His direct or indirect involvement. These two levels of the unfolding of history are often confused and it would be good to clearly define each.


God is clearly said to foreknow all things, and to have a plan for all things. However, as we have seen, He does not cause or do all things, because that would make Him a sinner. Determination is my name for God's planning or "foreordaining" or all things. Like God, His determination (or "plan" as it is commonly said) is absolute, eternal, unchanging, and perfect; it is unknowable to everyone except God in advance except inasmuch as He chooses to reveal it to us. Determination is strictly monergistic; by His very nature as the only eternal, omnipotent, omniscient being, God is the only one who is able to work or think on this level.

It is important to keep in mind that God's determining something is not the same as His "causing", "doing", or even "desiring" it; as we have seen, God determines that many things will occur contrary to His manifest desire. (More on this in the section on His goodness) So what is it? As I argued above, there is exactly one determinate sequence of events that makes up how the world has been and will be. God's determination is, very simply, the reason that things happen the way they do and not in some other, equally plausible way.

It is the deciding of what will happen, separate from the factors that actually cause things to happen. It is not found anywhere in the complex network of causes and effects that makes up history; it is the origin of the entire network and the power that orders and focuses it towards the end of God's glory. Saying that something God has determined may not happen is like saying what will happen might not happen; it is a self-contradictory statement. Doing something contrary to God's "plan" isn't morally impermissible, it's logically impossible--this doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to live according to God's revealed desire. (Note that my terms God's "plan" and "desire" correspond to the Calvinist terms God's "hidden will" and "revealed will") Our total inability to know what will happen does not lessen its determinedness in any way.

Applying this to soteriology, the terms "election" and "reprobation" should be taken to refer to the parts of God's determination relating to who will and will not be saved. Election is not the cause of our faith or salvation, and is only indirectly the reason it happens. This does not mean our salvation isn't willed (or brought about) by God, only that it's unwise to draw as direct a link between election and salvation as Calvinism and Arminianism do.


The actual working out of God's plan I call causation. It is temporal, dynamic, and not just two-handed but many-handed; God, humans, angels, and other created beings all contribute to it. It encompasses peoples' idea of "reality"; it is what actually happens, not what will happen. When we think of correlation, causation, chains of temporally ordered events, agency, and responsibility, all of these concepts fall in the scope of causation.

God is, of course, still the primary actor and mover, doing everything that He predetermined to do as the main part (but not all of) His plan, which also includes the free actions of other beings. To repeat, God does not "do" everything that happens, even though it is all part of His determined plan. You could say that God's plan "depends" on our free actions happening as they do, except as stated above the nature of determination means they couldn't occur otherwise. (Where I break from the incompatibilist Arminian view)

Now, why it is important to think in terms of both determination and causation: explanations of the reasons for events can only work within the causation level. That is, you can't say something happened "because God predestined it". While that is true, it is not helpful because it is not the reason we are concerned with. This is a mistake I see a lot of well-meaning Calvinists make (or at least joke about); Calvin writes about God's sovereign will as the "primary cause" of all things, which is certainly false. Determining something is not at all equivalent to causing it to happen. The only thing caused by God's determining it is the working and acting of God Himself, in the same way that we cause our own actions when we decide to perform them. The difference is that God, being omniscient and eternal, has predetermined all of His actions from eternity past and doesn't decide anything "on the fly".

I have tried to avoid analogies as much as possible in my arguments thus far because I think they tend to introduce unwanted meanings and cloud the real meaning of the discussion, but here I have one that I actually consider the appropriate. God's relationship as the determiner and main actor and mover in His creation is surprisingly analogous to the relationship between an author and the characters in the author's books, except in this case the author also writes himself into the story as the main character and hero.

When you're discussing a good story, you never try to explain why someone in the story does something by simply saying "Because the author wrote it that way". This is technically true, but a truth unhelpful and unlooked-for. It isn't the answer to the question of "Why?" that we really want or need. This was especially easy for me to see as I was reading The Lord of the Rings. Why did Frodo have to destroy the Ring? Not "because Tolkien said so", but "because it was the keystone of Sauron's power" and "he inherited the ring from Bilbo" and many other wonderful reasons you have to read the story to understand. In the story of creation, God is both the author and the main character; created beings, whose actions are authored but not caused by God, act as supporting characters. I hope you begin to grasp the distinction.

The Goodness of God

With the spontaneous inclusion of my previous post/Old Testament class paper to this series, I won't need to write nearly as much here. Refer back to it for my current, balanced view on how God is always pursuing us for salvation, especially in the person of Christ, but is not afraid to harden and punish those who reject Him while continuing to offer them chances to repent. Make no mistake: God knows exactly which of those He hardens will return to Him and which will be lost. But His election is not the cause of their damnation, their freely chosen hardness is. The Calvinist view of cause/effect is critically different from the Arminian one of God influencing us while knowing the exact result makes all the difference for us because it means that God does not cause anyone to sin, but functionally they are the same to God.

Now is the time for a more thorough study of what pleases God. From the fifth post, here is a list of things God is said to "take pleasure" in:
  • His son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22)
  • Sanctifying us through "grace-driven effort" (Philippians 2:13)
  • Giving good gifts to His children (Luke 12:32)
  • Those who love and fear Him (Psalm 147:11)
  • Uprightness (1 Chronicles 29:17)
  • The wicked coming to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11)
  • The salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)
  • Predestinating the elect (Ephesians 1:5)
And things God takes no pleasure in:
  • The death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) or of anyone (18:32)
  • False/empty religion (Malachi 1:10, Hebrews 10:6,8)
  • Faithlessness (Hebrews 10:38)
The Greek word for what Calvinists refer to as God's "good pleasure" is ευδοκια (verb form ευδοκεο), which can mean will, desire, preference, or delight. These words are used a total of 32 times in the New Testament, which is few enough that I can go through them all:
  • God is well pleased in His Son, as revealed at Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22), transfiguration (Matthew 17:5, 2 Peter 1:17), and through the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 12:18)
  • Matthew 11:26, Luke 10:21: God takes pleasure in revealing Himself to those who seek Him earnestly like children, not those who are wise in their own eyes.
  • Luke 2:14: God's good pleasure/will toward men was manifested in the birth of Jesus.
  • Luke 12:32: God's takes pleasure in bestowing the Kingdom of God on us.
  • Romans 15:26-27: The churches in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece) were pleased to financially support the poor among the church in Jerusalem.
  • Romans 10:1: Paul earnestly wants Israel to be saved.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:21: It pleases God to reveal Himself through things that are foolish to the world instead of wise.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:5: God was not pleased with the Israelites who turned from Him during the Exodus.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:8: Paul and Timothy would prefer to be at home with the Lord rather than in their bodies.
  • 2 Corinthians 12:10: For Christ's sake, Paul delights in weaknesses, hardships, persecution, and difficulty.
  • Galatians 1:15-16: God was pleased to use Paul to preach Christ to the gentiles.
  • Galatians 1:19: "All the fullness" of God was pleased to dwell in Christ.
  • Ephesians 1:5: God takes pleasure in redeeming His predestined elect. (Or maybe He takes pleasure in predestining us)
  • Ephesians 1:9: God takes pleasure in revealing to the church His will.
  • Philippians 1:15: Some preach Christ out of good will, others out of bad will.
  • Philippians 2:13: God takes pleasure in working with and through us to achieve our sanctification.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:8: Paul, Silas, and Timothy were delighted to share with the Thessalonians not only the gospel, but their lives as well.
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:1: Paul and Silas thought it best to remain in Athens and send Timothy to the Thessalonians.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:11: God takes pleasure in the ultimate sanctification of His saints. (Or Paul is praying that God would fulfill every good purpose of the Thessalonians regarding sanctification)
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:12: All who do not believe the truth but take pleasure in wickedness will be condemned.
  • Hebrews 10:6,8: God takes no pleasure in burnt offerings and sin offerings. (Although they were required by the law)
  • Hebrews 10:38: God takes no pleasure in those who "shrink back" from faith.
Agreeing with John Piper, I think that God's ultimate purpose in all that He does is, in some way or another, His glory. But as I briefly mentioned in post 5, I don't think God's pleasure and His glory are always equivalent.

Example 1: God is certainly glorified in the working of His power, justice, and righteousness in the just condemnation of sinners, but as we read in Ezekiel 33:11, He takes no pleasure in doing this. From 1 Timothy 2:4 we read that He desires that everyone be saved (that He would not have to condemn anyone), but again, He has clearly not ordered things this way, according to His desire. But His glory is not in any way diminished by this.

Example 2: The crucifixion. Of course God took no pleasure or delight in crushing His innocent Son, in whom He was well pleased, and Jesus took no pleasure in the agony of the cross. But the crucifixion was still the climax of history as we know it, the ultimate display of God's love, mercy, power, glory--pretty much everything. It is because of the cross that we are who we are, and though God takes delight in bringing us into glory by the work of the cross, He took no delight in the work itself.

Another interesting one I noticed during that word study was the sacrificial system. God takes no pleasure in the Israelites' offerings, even though He commanded them to be offered. I can think of no clearer evidence that God does not always act to the pursuit of His own "good pleasure" than this. We see that though God is glorified in all that He does, He does not take "good pleasure" in all that He does or all that happens, except inasmuch as it brings Him glory.

This is my answer to the Calvinist doctrine that God sovereignly works all things, even the election of some to salvation and others to perdition, according to "His good pleasure". God's pleasure is not achieved in everything; His glory is. The distinction between God having two wills, and His having one will and one desire, is subtle but important. The fact that God does not take pleasure in everything is a reflection of the fact that the world we live in is fallen; presumably His pleasure and glory will be indistinguishable after He restores all things.

One should not assume from any of this, of course, that we can make God frustrated or sad or ruin His day by doing things that displease Him. Talking about God in terms of human thoughts and emotions is always going to be inaccurate. When the Old Testament talks about God "remembering" people and things, it of course does not mean that He had forgotten, but that He has deliberately begun actively working towards the welfare of whatever He remembers. In the same way God taking or not taking pleasure in things is an approximation in human language of a reality unimaginably grander.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not address the main appearance of ευδοκια brought up by Calvinists, Ephesians 1:5. With a bit of context, it reads:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
The ESV says "according to the purpose of his will" rather than "in accordance with his pleasure and will". But either way, it seems like a misreading to say the predestination was done according to God's pleasure. It says that He predestined us in love and will adopt us as sons according to His pleasure. This isn't to say that no connection between God's good pleasure and predestination can be drawn, only that if one is drawn (and certainly a connection between reprobation and God's pleasure), it can't rely on this verse for support.

Human Nature

As I have said, I think Calvinism and Arminianism both, to an extent, fall into the trap of only considering or discussing the will when treating on human nature. The discussion boils down to whether people are capable of choosing God/good themselves, and how much divine assistance they need to do this. similarly, in Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will he defines "free choice", which he says we have, as "a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them." Very intentional. From my understanding of scripture and personal experience, I disagree with this focus. While we are certainly morally responsible for the choices we make, there is much more to how God has wired us than just the will.

God's "common" grace for the world is already such that we are not as evil as we could possibly be, but even those who do not know God are capable of deeds that a Christian would consider "good" or "commendable". But though we can do good on our own, we can only become good inwardly through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. There can be many motivations for a morally good action, but only one (love for God) is acceptable in His sight. It is in this sense that Isaiah is able to say that our righteous acts are like "filthy rags" before God (64:6), because God does not look at our actions on the surface as we do, but at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) This is also the sense in which Luther says that our wills are not free but are always enslaved to either sin or the Spirit.

So though by the power of free choice we are able to choose to do what is good, even "put our faith" in  God, none of these decisions amount to anything from an eternal perspective unless God changes us on a deeper level. My friends in Cru always need to remember: the true evidence of saving faith is not a single decision, even one made for the right reasons, to put our faith in Christ but a whole life of faithfulness and fruit-bearing. The former can be done ourselves (with only common grace); the latter is impossible without God. It is for this reason that the Calvinist pillorying of Arminians for making faith a boast-worthy act of self-salvation baffles me. If you really understand faith, you see that there is absolutely no way to boast in it (Romans 3:27).

So you could say that while our wills are free, our identities are not. It may be noble and praiseworthy for a lost, rebellious sinner to decide to give of his time or treasure for the needy, but in the end he is still a lost, rebellious sinner. Our nature and agency go much deeper than our conscious will. While we are able to do good, we are unable on our own to love God or to make ourselves love Him. Only a relationship with God can transform us into something truly acceptable to Him. We only have control over one instant of our lives at a time, but God sees them as wholes and (quite mysteriously) weaves our individual, freely chosen actions, attitudes, and thoughts into His plan for our lives.

So, this is the theological-philosophical framework underlying my response to the soteriology debate. It is between Calvinism and Arminianism in many ways, though the conclusions it leads to will fall closer to Arminianism as you will see next time.

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