Can God intend anything without predetermining everything?

In his post A definition of Scripture that conforms to the realia of the text John Hobbins hides some nuggets about God and predestination, which deserve to be repeated in a post where they are not a digression (John’s own word). This is the central one:

an all-powerful, all-knowing God cannot intend anything without predetermining everything unless that same God is all-loving.

The argument seems to be that only an all-loving God, like the one we read about in the Bible, is able to

not allow what he knows will happen in the future to predetermine everything he does in the present.

John illustrates this as follows:

like God, since I am a loving parent, I predetermine that I will not completely determine, for example, my son Giovanni’s choice with respect to where to go to university.

This is of course a completely biblical way of looking at the matter:

Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.

Psalm 32:9 (TNIV)

That is, God does not want to control our every decision as if “by bit and bridle”, but wants us to make our own choices based on understanding.

This is true of the big decisions in life as well as the small ones. And that means it is also true of the greatest decision of all, whether or not to give one’s life to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Indeed we can only come to him if God draws us (John 6:44), but Jesus who is also God draws everyone to himself (John 11:32; I’m sure there is no real distinction between the Father and Jesus drawing people to him), so no one is left out. In this connection another equine proverb, although not biblical, is true:

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Similarly, God can lead lost human beings to the true living water, but he cannot make them drink, not without violating their humanity. He doesn’t want us to be “like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding”, so he allows us to make our own choices whether or not to accept his gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In his kingdom he wants not animals who are there by force, but persons who have decided for themselves to live with him in love for ever.

Does God know the future? Does prayer make a difference?

California pastor TC Robinson burst on to the blogging scene a few months ago with his blog New Leaven. (I assume he is male, and not a woman using initials rather than a first name to disguise her gender, because he admits to a wife and two kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much these days in California!) This is one of the most prolific blogs I read with an average of more than four posts a day. It is also one of the most consistently interesting and thought-provoking, as TC consistently finds subjects which are both serious and entertaining and very often lead to long comment thread discussions. I disagree with TC on a number of issues, but it is always good to discuss them with him and others on his blog.

When I call him TC I can’t help remembering the Top Cat cartoons of my childhood, in which the hero was known as TC. But I don’t recognise Pastor Robinson as the leader of the bloggers’ gang!

Among TC’s posts recently have been several on Open Theism, which is basically the idea that God does not predetermine the future or even know it in advance. So far he has written ten posts in this category. It was partly in response to one of these posts that I wrote my post God the Blogger, to which TC responded.

Meanwhile Jeremy Pierce has reactivated his extremely long running Theories of Knowledge and Reality series, which touches on the same kinds of question. He has also posted an interesting essay on Prophecy in Harry Potter (see also the comments on this one); now I am not much interested in Harry Potter, but in this post issues also come up of whether even God can prophesy reliably about the future.

Open Theism has been rejected by many evangelical Christians, such as Wayne Grudem, because of its apparent implication that not even God knows the future. If not, they argue, how can God fulfil his purposes, and inspire accurate prophecies about what will happen? Surely, these people argue, the future is predetermined by God. This is in effect the position of Calvinists, who believe that God has predetermined who will be saved, if not necessarily every detail of the future. Yet it is difficult to see how this kind of determinism allows for any kind of human free will. But the Bible seems to affirm that humans do have free will, as for example in Psalm 32:9, and as such are responsible for their actions.

A related question is whether Christian prayer can make a real difference to the future. Some may hold that the real function of prayer is to bring us closer to God – and that people should not ask for anything specific, even for God to provide for others’ genuine needs. However, Jesus, especially in Matthew 7:7-11, seems to present prayer as a real process of making specific requests and seeing them fulfilled. But how can this be if God has already fixed the future before we pray?

Now there are very many complex arguments here, into which Jeremy goes in depth, and this is not the place to repeat them. One possible answer is provided by “compatibilism”, which is basically the idea that there are two separate but compatible descriptions of the world, one from our viewpoint in which human decisions are free, and another divine one according to which God has predetermined everything. I can also recommend here a rather heavy book which I have only skimmed but would like to read in more detail: Providence and Prayer by Terrance Tiessen.

I will simply state here where I think I stand at the moment. I’m not sure it is where I will always stand – at least that part of the future is open, or in God’s hands. But this is my present position:

I believe that God is sovereign over everything and quite capable of determining everything that will ever happen within the universe he created. He is eternal and outside this universe, and not subject to anything within it.

I believe that God has freely chosen to allow a real openness about the future of the universe. This is because he has delegated many of the decisions about its future to intelligent created beings, both spiritual ones, i.e. angels, and humans. This delegation of authority was intended to be for his own glory. But for reasons which I do not presume to understand in detail some of these created beings chose to reject God’s good purposes and use their delegated rights to make decisions against God. God could have simply taken away their right to decide, but for reasons hinted at in Psalm 32:9 he chose not to.

Nevertheless God is not bound by the universe or by time and therefore he can see into the future. He knows what will happen. He generally chooses not to intervene to overturn the consequences of human bad decisions, that is, human sin. However, he knows his own long term purposes for his creation as a whole and for particular individuals and groups in it. So he works in generally subtle ways within his creation to bring about his purposes. This may include calling particular people to particular works; but if they refuse to take up their calling, or mess it up, God finds other ways to fulfil his purposes.

Among the privileges which God has granted to those people who are committed to living according to his will is that he has promised to answer their prayers, to give to them whatever they ask for (Matthew 7:7-8, John 14:14). He will indeed do this, in ways which do not conflict with the free will of others, although not always in quite the way his people expect. But if what they ask goes against his general purposes, he will not be pleased with the person asking and may choose to work through other people in future. However, those whose prayers are closely aligned with God’s will, because they know that will and truly want to see it done, will find that God is more than pleased to answer not just the basics of their prayers but to give them abundantly more than they ask. As they live and pray according to God’s purposes they will be able to do great things with him and for his glory.

This post has already turned into quite a long essay. So I will leave it there. I await comments!

God the Blogger

While commenting on TC Robinson’s Open Letter to an Open Theist, I realised that I had found an interesting analogy which might help to explain some of the complex issues of free will and predestination. Or maybe the whole thing is just far too simplistic.

It is an old analogy to compare the relationship between God and the created world with that between an author and the fictional world of his or her novel. On this analogy God is in full control of the whole storyline, of everything which happens. The characters in the novel may have free will within that fictional world, but in the real world they have no freedom, indeed no independent existence. As I understand it this kind of model corresponds quite well with Calvinism. It is consistent with the compatibilism which Jeremy Pierce finds in Calvinism in that the characters have real free will within their own world. It is hard to argue against such a model. Yet somehow it is not a compelling one because it reduces the dignity of humanity to a set of pawns in the mind of God.

I would like to put forward a rather different model in which God is a blogger! He can post what he likes on his blog, including stories of a world he has created and the people who inhabit it. But my model differs from the one of God as novelist in that human beings, spiritual beings like God, are not just characters described on the blog but also in the same world as God, perhaps “seated in the heavenly places”, and with real free will not controlled by God. As such they are able to read the blog, and, crucially, also have some input into it.

God as a blogger could of course make his blog entirely read-only, as for example Adrian Warnock has done. By doing so he would on my understanding make it not a blog at all. In my model this would correspond with a Calvinist position in which God decides everything, at least in the real world, with human freedom restricted to the world inside the non-blog. This is equivalent to the model of God as novelist. It is perhaps not accidental that non-blogs like this are popular among Calvinists.

But on my preferred version of the model God has chosen, voluntarily, to open up the blog so that others, humans, can interact with him on it. On a real blog that interaction is typically limited to commenting. But on my model the humans can also write the main text, within limits set by God which might include that they can only write or edit posts about themselves. Indeed God might let the humans do most of the posting at least about matters which concern them, getting involved himself only when the humans ask him to or to put things right when they go seriously wrong. Thus what happens in the stories on the blog depends largely on the genuinely free decisions of the humans in God’s world, and not just on what God determines. Actually perhaps a wiki is a better analogy here than a blog.

Nevertheless, God retains complete control of the blog. He can moderate and reverse any edits. He can withdraw access privileges from those who abuse them. He can also write people in and out of the story as and when he wishes. In the blog world he is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.

Crucially for the open theism debate, if he decides to do something on the blog, nothing can stop him doing it. This does not mean that he controls everything that happens on the blog. But it does mean that if he announces a plan to do something at a certain time and in a certain way we can be sure that he actually can and will do it, even if in order to do so he has to undo some things which others have done.

I’m not sure how good a model this is of the interaction between God, his creation and humanity. It is certainly not a perfect one. But it may be closer to the truth than the model of God as novelist. And it may address some of the issues which have led to Open Theism, the idea that God doesn’t exhaustively know the future, without following that path to its false conclusion of that God is not omnipotent.

Satire: Romans 9:13 Bible

Elder Eric of Tominthebox News Network has reported that CBD Introduces New “John 3:16 Bible”. I responded with my own announcement:

In a response to the CBD initiative, Crossway today announced the Romans 9:13 Bible, which includes just the text of this verse and only in the ESV version, together with comments on the verse from Calvin, Owen, Spurgeon and Piper.

A Crossway spokesman (no need to write “spokesperson” here) told us that this new product would give a double benefit. Firstly, this would be a convenient way for every good Calvinist to remember and carry around the only Bible verse and interpretation they need to know. Secondly, because the book is so small, only two pages, it can be sold for just 10 cents, and so will be a good follow-up to the success of the recent 50 cent New Testament campaign in pushing ESV towards the top of the chart of Bible sales by volume.

Two Cheers for the New Calvinists

The Calvinist blogger Justin Taylor has graciously allowed Thomas McCall to post on his blog from a Wesleyan Arminian perspective. The resulting post, Two Cheers for the Resurgence of Calvinism in Evangelicalism: A Wesleyan-Arminian Perspective, was brought to my attention by McCall’s fellow Wesleyan Arminian Ben Witherington.

McCall describes similar phenomena that I have done in various posts on Calvinism on this blog. And I must say he has shown more gentle wisdom than I have done in some of those posts. He does what I have failed to do, but perhaps should have done, in first affirming the good things about this resurgence of Calvinism. It is indeed good that young Christians are passionate about theology and about holiness.

But McCall also makes some important criticisms of these New Calvinists, which I think are right on the ball concerning the ones I have had contact with, mainly but not only through my blogging.

First, he accuses them of misunderstanding Calvinism by taking it as implying determinism. As I am sure my commenter and fellow blogger Jeremy Pierce would be quick to point out, Calvinism properly formulated is by no means incompatible with human free will. But the teaching of the New Calvinists often seems to rule out any human free will in its insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God, a doctrine which is usually considered more Islamic than Christian.

Then McCall criticises

the unhealthy reliance of some of these New Calvinists on what might be called the “Neo-Reformed Magisterium” (the small group of theologians and conference speakers who are sometimes quoted as the final word on any theological topic at issue …)

– a group among whom he names John Piper. This ties up precisely with what I have observed among so many Calvinist bloggers and commenters on blogs.

McCall’s third charge is arrogance:

No theological tradition has cornered the market on arrogance. I have been accused of it (sometimes, I fear, with very good reason). Yet there seems to be – though I’m sure that what I say here is highly fallible – an amazing quantity of it among the New Calvinists.

Indeed. Like McCall, I am certainly not completely innocent of arrogance. But the amount of it so often seen and even boasted of among these New Calvinists is highly disturbing. They, and I, need to remember these verses:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but shows favour to the humble and oppressed.”
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

1 Peter 5:5-6 (TNIV)

Decisions on Earth Ratified in Heaven, and $3 worth of God!

Two great posts from Ben Witherington.

First, Decisions on Earth Ratified in Heaven- the Opposite of Predestination, in which he explains how Matthew 18:18-19 shows that

decisions taken on earth, have eternal consequences. … human decisions matter tremendously, … God is said to respond to the human decision making process.

This biblical teaching shows how wrong is the doctrine of some Calvinists that everything, including human salvation, is predetermined by God.

Then, on a lighter note, read Ben’s post Quote of the Day– $3 dollars worth of God. This is far too true of too many so-called Christians today.

According to Piper, does God love anyone at all?

Yesterday I posted “God hates sinners”: John Piper does believe this. In a comment Jeff, “Scripture Zealot”, noted that I had taken this from a sermon 23 years old and wondered if Piper might have changed his mind. Well, that is possible, but I have been offered no evidence for it.

However, we do have up-to-date evidence for something almost as shocking which Piper explicitly states today, or at least he did yesterday. If we can trust Adrian Warnock’s report (which is not certain; thanks to Henry Neufeld for the tip), Piper, speaking yesterday at the New Word Alive conference in Wales, said:

Someone might argue, “Sin was condemned, but not Christ.” Piper then explained: Imagine I got you on stage and said, “I’m going to hit you in the face, but it’s not you I’m hitting, it’s just your attitude.” NO! It was the will of the Lord to bruise him. God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we could become the righteousness of God. He was wounded for us. His punishment set us free. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He struck him. It was God the Father who killed Jesus. It is considered today to be appalling to teach or sing this. Piper said it is not appalling to him, it is his very life!

To this, I will simply say that “bruise” (Adrian’s double emphasis) is not the same as “kill”, and where in this is the united will of the Trinity? But this quotation should really be checked from the audio and video expected soon.

To return to Piper’s 1985 sermon, on the same chapter, Romans 8, as last night’s, I noticed something strange here.

When I have objected in the past to statements like “God hates sinners” and its apparent contradiction with John 3:16, Calvinist commenters have claimed that in this verse “the world” in fact means “the elect”. There is in fact no exegetical justification for this at all, but it does make for a consistent, although unbiblical, system of doctrine, according to which God loves those whom he has elected to eternal life, and hates those whom he has not elected.

But the strange thing which Piper said in 1985 was with regard to himself before he was a Christian:

But it wasn’t always so for John Piper. … God hated me in my sin.

Now I am sure that Piper considers himself one of the elect. But here he seems to teach that God hated him before he repented and became a Christian. In fact, if we read on, it would appear that, according to Piper, God still hated him as he

contemplate[d] me in Jesus Christ—chosen, loved, and destined for glory … [and] fulfil[led] his predestined purpose for me by appeasing his own wrath and acquitting me of all my sin and conquering the depravity of my heart.

In other words, Piper’s view seems to be that God continues to hate humans, except for the only one he actually loves, Jesus Christ. And if he does love Jesus, he showed that in a very strange way, by killing him. Also, in this case, as Polycarp asked in a comment here,

If God hates sinners, then why Christ?

If God loved Jesus and hated Piper, why did he kill Jesus and save Piper? This just doesn’t make sense!

Now maybe Piper has some way of making this into a consistent system, but it is different from the Calvinist system I described before, and even more different from the truth revealed in the Bible:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8 (TNIV)

Note the first “for us”: it is not just Jesus, but us sinners, whom God loves, and he loves us before we repent.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (TNIV)

I shouldn’t really have to quote this, but it seems that at least in 1985 Piper was not aware of it. For these words make it clear that God did not love just the Son, nor even just the elect, but he loved the world, that is everyone.

What I don't like about Calvinism

Nick Norelli is not a Calvinist, but in his post What I Like About Calvinism he writes:

I like the logic of it all.  The way that the 5 main points of T.U.L.I.P. interlock is something to behold.  And it is this logical consistency that has me convinced that there can be no hybrid system of Calminianism or Arvinism (or whatever other strange concoction of a theological buzz-word you can think of).  If any one point falls then the system falls.

But this is just what I don’t like about Calvinism: not so much the individual doctrines (although I reject 3½ of the 5 points) as the way they are presented as an unquestionable complete system of doctrine. This is not the biblical way of presenting doctrine. It is not the traditional church way. Come to think of it, it is not even Calvin’s way. But it is the way of people who have made their own logic, or the logic of their theological heroes, judge over the word of God, even over God himself.

Instead, such people should humbly accept that they don’t know the whole truth, that the God whom the heavens cannot contain (1 Kings 8:27) does not live in a box of human making. They should stop relying on systematisations like the Westminster Confession as standards of doctrine. Then they should go back to the Bible, to listening to God speaking to them, and to seeing what he is doing in the world. They need not stop doing theology, but their starting point should be the Bible rather than what old preachers and confessions of faith say, and they should not expect to get many definite answers from their theologising.

Satire: Election in Texas

Elder Eric of Tominthebox News Network posted on Obama Explains Election Process. His satirical post is hilarious but also reveals his Calvinist presuppositions.

Here is my take on the same subject, originally written as a comment on Eric’s post – perhaps the start of a series of satirical posts here:

In this election year Texas voter, and fringe member of an evangelical church, John Doe is puzzled. He sees that he has the opportunity to elect Obama or Clinton, McCain or Huckabee as President. And he sees all the campaign materials from them. But then he hears in church that God may or may not elect him to eternal life. So he has decided to mount his own election campaign. He is having leaflets printed and TV adverts prepared with the message, “O God, vote for Doe!” He is not sure yet of the most effective method of delivering his campaign message. One technique he is trying, suggested by a friend who had read Revelation 8:4, is to burn some of his leaflets along with incense. He plans to broadcast his TV ad upwards into the sky. But he is also targeting his leaflets and TV ad, recorded on DVD, at people he thinks are especially close to God, of whatever religion to hedge his bets, in the hope that they will put in a word for him with the one Voter who counts in his race for eternal life.

Calvin: "God shall cease to be the Head of Christ"

This is a follow-up to my recent post on the doctrine of eternal subordination within the Trinity and the related discussion at the Complegalitarian blog. This doctrine has recently become popular among complementarians, many of whom also call themselves Calvinists and so presumably value the teaching of John Calvin. Recently at the CBMW Gender “Blog” (in fact not a real blog because there is no opportunity for discussion) Calvin was listed among ten theologians who, it was claimed, held to this doctrine. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology (as quoted by Molly), takes this further, claiming that

the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, … it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicea (A.D. 325).

But can this claim be substantiated? I will not attempt to discuss all the ten theologians’ views. But in a comment on Complegalitarian Suzanne (apparently not Suzanne McCarthy) found a quote from Calvin which clearly shows that he did NOT believe in the eternal subordination of the Son. I have verified the quote from my own copy of Calvin’s Institutes, 2.14.3 (vol. 1 p. 486 in my copy, in the translation by Battles), and here I quote part of what Suzanne quoted with some additional text to introduce it, with my own emphasis:

That is, to [Christ] was lordship committed by the Father, until such time as we should see his divine majesty face to face. Then he returns the lordship to his Father so that – far from diminishing his own majesty – it may shine all the more brightly. Then, also, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as yet it is covered in a veil.

In other words (and this is confirmed by reading the context), it is clear that to Calvin the distinction in honour between Christ and God the Father is only a temporary one which will cease when Christ has “discharged the office of Mediator”, that is, completed his saving work by bring his people to glory. Thus Calvin clearly shows that he believes in the temporary rather than eternal subordination of the Son.

If, as Calvin teaches, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, that means that 1 Corinthians 11:3 is only a temporary teaching. So, if this verse is given the weight that many complementarians put on it, the “headship” of a husband over his wife (whatever that might mean) is also only temporary and will no longer be applicable in the eternal kingdom of God.