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and Human Freedom
The Nature of Assumptions
One of the greatest difficulties in discussing theological issues is
recognizing and understanding the assumptions upon which any particular
theology is built, as well as the questions, perspectives and points of
emphasis that give shape to how it unfolds. Those are almost always
influenced by the needs of a community of faith in particular historical
circumstances. The logic of a theological system is rarely the source for
contention, nor is the fact that particular communities formulate theology
based on the kinds of questions they ask from a particular historical frame
However, the way those questions are formulated from that historical
situation is almost always a function of the assumptions that support the
theological system, sometimes even more so than the theology itself. That
gives rise to a great many points of contention, especially if the
theological system is built on ways of thinking in one group or at one time
that are not shared by another group or at another time.
That leads to the observation that theology is not an objective
equivalent of Truth. Theology is constructed as the best way, given a
certain community in a certain context and within certain parameters of
assumption, philosophical framework, and logical coherence, how to
communicate what we understand (or has been revealed) about God. Theology is
an expression of a certain community. Thus, it is a logical construct. That
construct may be more or less reliable, but it is not itself the Truth. Too
often theological discussion ends up debating issues of Truth on one side or
the other without this recognition that the debate is actually about how
best to talk about the truth given certain assumptions
This suggests that an examination of those assumptions might provide a
basis for understanding some of the issues in the perennial debate about
predestination, free will, and God’s foreknowledge. I am under no illusion
that this discussion is going to solve those problems, or even to raise
issues that have not been raised before. Hopefully, however, it will give
some perspective for others to discuss the issues on a level that goes
beyond simply asserting competing truth claims.
"Philosophical Categories" and Ways
"Philosophical categories" in a broad sense are simply those fundamental
ways of thinking that we use to make sense out of our existence. Another
term might be "world view," although that includes many aspects besides
philosophy such as history, culture, social context, ethos, etc. In a more
specific sense, "philosophical categories" involve the ways of thinking,
usually established by a dominant philosophical system in a culture, that
define the kinds of questions we ask of our world and ourselves, and thus
what we seek as "truth" for how we live. That is, these categories define
what is important in the thinking of a people or culture.
For example, the Western world since the 4th century BC has been
dominated by questions and perspectives raised by the classic Greek and
Roman philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle. While coming at the
issue of the meaning of human existence from different directions, they were
both concerned with the primary question of "what is real?" or "what is
absolute?" Plato answered this question with an idealistic dualism that
pushed ultimate reality beyond physical existence, and left the physical
world as only an imperfect and corrupted shadow of the absolute. "What is
real" only existed on a metaphysical plane.
One of the fundamental assumptions arising from Platonic and Neoplatonic
philosophy is the acceptance of a basically dualistic view of reality in
which there are understood to be two (thus "dualism") levels of existence.
The "top" level (a logical metaphor, not a spatial term) is "ultimate
reality," and consists of ideas, such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice,
perfection. In other words, ultimate reality is non-corporeal, or
non-physical. It is the level of "spirit" and "deity."
The "lower" level is the physical world in which we live. It is the
opposite of ultimate reality, thus it is not "real" in the sense that it is
not ultimate. It contains the imperfect physical manifestations of the ideas
that exist in the perfect plane, so by definition it is characterized by
falsehood, ugliness, evil, injustice, imperfection.
So, for example, I can have an idea of a perfect chair. That idea
is the ultimate reality of "chair," because it is perfect in every way.
However, any given chair that exists in physical time and space is only an
imperfect attempt to copy the ultimate reality that only exists on the level
of idea, since any given physical chair cannot be "perfect" in every way. A
physical chair is therefore false, ugly, evil, etc., since it only crudely
approximates the ideal or the ultimate reality of "chairness." The result of
this conceptual model of reality is a view that, by definition, sees
everything that exists in the physical world, since it inhabits that level
of reality that is imperfect and evil, as itself imperfect and evil.
As this is applied to human beings, it has interesting results. On the
one hand, human beings are viewed much like the physical chair. Since they
exist in the lower level of reality, they are by definition evil, imperfect,
and, to introduce a value term, sinful. However, since human beings also
exhibit the capability to think and contemplate the ideal level, to
conceptualize ultimate reality, they must be something more than purely
physical and totally evil. So, the idea is introduced that human beings also
have a "spark of the divine" within their physical body.
This spark of the divine, usually termed "soul" or "spirit," depending on
the system used, is what allows human beings to conceptualize the ideal
plane, and is also the part of humanity with which God can communicate. But
this small flicker of the ideal is trapped in a physical body that is
totally a part of the lower level of existence, which is to say, is totally
evil. Therefore, while the "real" us can have communion with God on some
primitive level as a function of God’s grace, the physical body remains evil
and sinful. It cannot ever be anything other than that because that is the
nature of physical existence.
So, there is constant struggle between the physical side and the
"spiritual" side of human beings. But the "soul" can never master the
"physical," so the only final solution to the struggle is to shed the
physical body and move to the ideal plane of existence, which for human
beings is death. Thus is born the concept of the immortality of the soul, a
"spirit" trapped in an evil physical body that needs to be shed so that the
"real" us can move on to that ideal level of perfection that we can never
reach as long as we are trapped in physical existence.
This has implications is many areas, such as thinking about how God works
with humans. In this view, humans can never be transformed into anything
other than sinful beings as long as they live in a body that is by
definition sinful. They cannot really obey God, so God does what is
necessary on their behalf in Christ. Since Christ was righteous, God in His
grace has decreed that the righteousness of Christ is to be counted as (the
technical term is imputed) the righteousness of humanity.
Continuing the logical metaphor of "top-bottom," as God looks down at
humanity, he would see their evil and sinfulness. But Christ serves as the
mediator coming between God and sinful humanity, so that when God looks at
humanity, he sees the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of Christ
is counted as human righteousness. People are not really righteous
and cannot be, since they still live in evil, sinful bodies in an evil,
sinful world. But, drawing heavily on legal metaphors, they are pardoned
even though they remain guilty and sinful.
This view has many other implications for how we think about
Christianity, such as thinking we have to shed the physical body to be with
God (immortality of the soul), rather than the biblical view that God
actually redeems his creation (the physical world), with the model of
death and resurrection. Interestingly, it is that same model of death and
resurrection that the early church used to talk about salvation, especially
in the baptismal liturgy (buried with Christ, raised to new life).
This view also leads to the practice of "mortification" of the body,
attempts by various means to subdue the physical aspect of human existence.
Throughout church history it has come out in various ways, from living in
monasteries isolated from the physical world, to vows of celibacy, to very
restrictive ideas about sexuality (it is sinful for any purpose but
The Nature of God and Humanity
For our purposes here, one of the areas in which this conceptual model
applied to Christianity has had the most impact is in formulations about the
nature of God and, as a result, how we think about humanity in the world.
Platonic philosophy, especially as later recast by Plotinus (Neoplatonism),
helped shape the kinds of questions being asked in the church by the 2nd
century AD. This had tremendous implications for how some of the early
doctrines of the church were formulated. Some of those doctrines were
intended to address the specific (metaphysical) questions being posed via
those "philosophical categories." Thus Augustine developed his doctrine of
"original sin" under the influence of Neoplatonism and as a reaction to the
Pelagian controversy, both of which shaped what he said and how he said it.
The same factors were at work in the Christological controversies of the 4th
century. Some of these "philosophical perspectives" that have as their
primary question "what is absolute?" led to the development of theologies
that emphasize the sovereignty of God and took a very low view of humanity
as part of the corrupted physical world.
Most of the history of Western thinking until this century has been
dominated by these categories and questions. To some degree, the development
of modern scientific rationalism that focuses on knowledge can be traced to
this via Aristotle. Even the kinds of questions that we sometimes ask of the
Bible (what really happened?) reflect this mode of thought. And much
of our "classic" systematic theology is cast in these terms.
During the twentieth century, there was a radical shift in the
"philosophical categories" operating in Western culture. For a variety of
historical and social reasons, the old idealistic categories and the "out
there" (metaphysical) orientation collapsed. That’s not necessarily good or
bad, just the way ideas developed. For whatever reasons, the shift has been
back toward human beings and humanistic concerns (here we should note that
"humanistic" does not necessarily mean anti-religious; there is a
considerable "humanistic" strand in Scripture, most of which was written
before the domination of largely ontological categories).
The philosophy in a general sense that lies behind this shift is
existentialism. In a very simplified way, existentialism asks a different
set of questions. The primary question is no longer "what is real?" or "what
is absolute?" with the answer pointing away from humanity (metaphysical
ontology), but rather "what should we do?" or "how should we live" (or in
relation to Scripture, "what does this mean for us?"). These are very
this-worldly questions, and concern immediate existence (thus, existential).
The shift has been rapid in our culture, and I am convinced that nearly 100%
of young people growing up in our culture today have this new perspective.
The new philosophical orientation is not in itself bad. Some existential
philosophers have been atheists, and have used it to say that "God is dead."
But then, Plato wasn’t exactly a "Christian" either! On the other hand,
there have been some very good Christian existentialist philosophers, such
as Søren Kirkegaard (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing), or those
who have used the categories without swallowing wholesale all the
implications or extensions of the philosophical perspective itself.
Our purpose here is not to debate philosophies, simply to observe that
one reason we can begin asking different kinds of questions than those asked
throughout much of the history of the Western Church is that some of the
assumptions have changed enough to allow different questions. When the basic
"philosophical categories" are different, not only are the questions posed
then different, the answers will likely be different as well. The issue here
is not "which one is True?" That is simply another question that arises from
the idealist model. The better question is, "which one can best express how
we understand God?" always working with Scripture as the basis.
Rather than try to develop a systematic treatment of this topic, I will
simply touch on several areas that are points of contention between those
who are asking different sets of questions from different bases, and hope
this will stimulate further thought and dialog on the issues.
The Problem of the Absolute
Foreknowledge of God
I think there are problems with how we tend to formulate the
"foreknowledge" of God, especially when we define that foreknowledge in
absolute categories and tie it to ultimate reality. Let’s use the four
principles that Albert Outler distilled from John Wesley’s theological
method to examine this issue, realizing that the first three were already
well established aspects of doing theology in the Western Church.
1) From the perspective of Tradition:
Throughout most of the history of the church, the "standard" position has
been that God knew the future, that it was simply an unfolding of the
divine plan. However, that view was rooted deeply in a certain world view
built on certain philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality.
The kinds of questions asked in the early church, especially following
Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries, were metaphysical ontological
questions about ultimate reality. And those questions were rooted in the
Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies that saw God and human existence in
absolute or idealistic terms. God was defined by asking logical questions,
and reaching logical answers. Basically, a view of
God was developed whereby God was defined in terms of what a god ought to be
to be God. While the results may not be totally invalid, they are
obviously limited, and a departure from Scripture and God’s own revelation
about himself in human history.
I think this became a circular argument, because then it was assumed that
God was exactly like we had logically described Him to be, and then that
"nature" or "essence" of God was used to construct ideas about His work in
the world. The "omni-" doctrines that arose from this were all logically
consistent, and reinforced one another (omni mean all, so that
God is all knowing, all
powerful, etc.). Since the questions that were being asked were about
ultimates (what is the all?), the definition of God was given in
terms of those ultimates. He was omni-everything, that is, the absolute and
ultimate of any category about which one could think or speak.
I simply do not think these formulations are at all adequate, simply
because they are our
definition of what we want in a God or what a god by our definition should
be, which does not necessarily define God very adequately. They are far too
limiting, at the very point that they claim to be all encompassing!
In other words, God does not have to be what we say he is, no matter how
"big" or "omni-" we try to make what we say.
The same thing can be said for other categories, like "perfect" or
"infinite" or "immutable" that we impose on God as if we really knew that
they were adequate, or even accurate. It is just that those are the
"biggest" terms we can come up with in order to answer the questions about
ultimate reality and absolute existence.
The idea of the "perfection" of God is one of those Platonic
philosophical categories that we have tended to accept as absolutely
necessary. It is our definition of what God must be. That very idea, when
played out logically, has created some very difficult problems of its own,
primarily in relating a "perfect" being to the existence of evil in
creation (see The English Term Perfect
and The Problem of Natural "Evil"). Plato’s idea
of perfection was the idea of perfection (thus, idealism), because
nothing in physical existence could conform to the idea. Thus, all
of physical existence was imperfect and corrupt, which, of course, led to
the development of a radical metaphysical dualism. While on one level,
that may be satisfying intellectually to our sense of order, it does not
necessarily tell us anything about God.
God may or may not be "perfect" or "infinite" in whatever way we want to
define that. We do not know. How would we, being less than the ideal or the
perfection or, as Plato called it, "the beingness" or pure existence,
understand the ideal, the perfect? How can we define perfection unless we
are ourselves perfect? How can we who are finite define the infinite, except
to say that it is beyond us? Do we just define it as what we are not?
Interesting, that this is exactly how the Bible talks about God; He is other
than humanity! However, the biblical term for this is "Holy" (cf. Hos 11:9),
not "perfect" or "infinite."
2) From the perspective of reason:
One way that we have tried to maintain the logical coherence of the
omni-doctrines is by retreating to paradox. This simply asserts that the
apparently contradictory logical conclusions that we have reached about
God, that he is perfect yet the creator of an obviously evil world, or
that He is all powerful and good yet horrible things happen, or that He
knows everything that will happen yet does not cause events to occur, are
really somehow consistent on a level beyond what we can understand
logically. But, if it is a valid observation that while truths about God
may not be totally logical, they will not be illogical, we have problems
at this point.
Paradox may well be an option here. But if we do not resort to paradox,
the logic of the omni-doctrines will not stand. The biggest problem for the
foreknowledge of God is the relation of foreknowledge to human freedom. If
God knows that something will happen, then it will
happen. That is, if God knows the event to be a historical reality,
then that event
must occur; it is predestined. If it does not occur than God did not
If God knows that when I leave the house for Wednesday evening
Bible study, that at exactly 5:58 PM CDT (running late, as usual!), at the
intersection of NW 42nd and MacArthur, a car will run the red light, strike
my car as I turn onto MacArthur, and I will be killed, then it will
occur. I have no choice in the matter. No matter what I do, it will happen.
It may appear that I chose, but that event is determined to occur regardless
of what I decide. I will only choose the courses of action that will allow
that event to happen. It doesn’t matter that I never drive to church through
that intersection, or that I usually go an hour later, or that I actually
decided to get around on time for a change. My freedom is dissolved into
God’s foreknowledge. Human freedom is only the illusion of freedom.
Some want to respond at this point that simply because God knows
something does not mean either that it must occur or that he caused it to
happen. Usually the example is given from human experience in which
knowledge is not related to causality. However neither of these perspectives
There is a great deal of difference between a human being "knowing" and
God "knowing." Our knowing is influenced and conditioned by a myriad of
factors, not all of which we are even aware or understand if we are aware of
them. So our perceptions, even of ourselves, let alone others, or the world,
or God are always limited and flawed. That’s why Paul can say that we see
through a glass darkly. However, God’s "knowing" about Himself, and about
His creation is not hindered by those things, so that what he knows is an
accurate and complete knowledge of whatever is the object of that knowledge
(which I’m not sure we can totally define).
Relating this to causality is not the answer. Yet it doesn’t really
matter whether we introduce the idea of causality into the equation or not.
The point is that because of God’s complete (but not necessarily absolute)
knowledge, if indeed He "knows" something, then that’s the way it is,
whether or not He directly caused it to be that way. If God "knows" a future
event, that event must occur, whether or not He directly caused it.
It is still predestined, even though we might think from our perspective we
were exercising our freedom to choose (a classical argument from
determinists and predestinationists). Our freedom is still only an illusion
of freedom. And if that event must
occur, and not just be a possibility, then either God was indeed the cause
of the event, which results in theistic predestination, or God is not the
cause of the event, which results in a form of naturalism (historical
positivism) or at best deism, which is a theistic naturalism.
That is part of the difficulty with the whole idea of foreknowledge; God
is locked into a system over which He does not have the freedom to act. My
understanding of the sovereignty of God says that He does have that freedom.
And perhaps an exercise of that sovereignty is that he has chosen to give up
absolute sovereignty for the sake of human freedom and soteriological
sovereignty (relating to salvation and relationship with humanity)
While the doctrine of predestination is not a necessary outgrowth
of the absolute foreknowledge of God, it must have it in place to work. That
is, there cannot be eternal and absolute decrees of God unless he has
absolute foreknowledge. So, the classical articulation of "foreknowledge,"
especially as it is related to the concepts of the decrees and
predestination, interferes with and indeed precludes the concept of
authentic human freedom. Unless, of course, we resort to paradox and try to
maintain logically incompatible ideas by this method.
One irony here that is interesting. While these doctrines have their
origin in logical formulation, today when there is a difficulty in getting
the omni-doctrines to fit with modern ways of thinking or with Scripture, we
usually resort to paradox to explain how they can work. That is, we say that
we cannot really understand how God can know the future and human beings
still have any genuine freedom. The doctrines that came into existence as
logical descriptions of God are thereby touted as non-logical assertions,
which is inherently illogical.
One assertion at this point is often that, since God is infinite, he
exists outside of our time and space. Because of that, he can see the past
and the future all at once; in other words, there is no time for God since
he exists in the eternal "now" apart from any restrictions of time and
space. This begins moving into areas that range far beyond what we can
really discuss here. But this objection continues to illustrate how
thoroughly the metaphysical categories have permeated our thinking about
God. All of this assertion is built on logical inferences about the nature
of ultimate reality based on the assumption that the Greek philosophical
models represent ontological reality (the way things really are). Just some
reflections here for further thought.
The past and the future are not the same thing, unless we invoke a
theory of time in which space and time are the same thing (this gets
complex very quickly). There are such theories, which are the basis for
many of the older science fiction stories about time travel. But they are
also rooted in older philosophical ideas about the fixed and immutable
nature of reality, ideas which are currently being challenged not only by
new philosophical paradigms (existential and process philosophy), but also
from new perspectives in science (quantum mechanics, genetic
indeterminism, and the idea of random event).
It is interesting that most science fiction now focuses on travel to
parallel or alternate realities (e.g. the television programs
Sliders or Seven Days) more than it does on time travel (e.g.
H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine). That’s because the older theories
about the unity of space and time are no longer acceptable in light of newer
scientific theories and thinking. The newer perspectives all emphasize the
contingency of the future based on various variables. Theologically, one of
those variables is human decision, as well as God’s interaction with that
As far as we know from our viewpoint, the past no longer exists, but it
is "real" because it has existed in a way that the future is not real simply
because it does not yet exist. We cannot affect the past, but we can affect
the future; the past is a closed book, while the future is still contingent
upon the present.
Stephen’s King’s story The Langoliers is a modern expression of
this perspective. It is based on a theory of time in which neither the past
nor the future actually exist. The past exists only in memory and the future
exists only in possibility. This has interesting implications for how we
talk about what God knows. Why do we need to affirm that God knows that
which does not yet exist? From this perspective, we could say that God knows
the possibilities of the future, but that human beings create the future by
their decisions. That is part of human freedom that God has granted to us.
That suggests a much more incarnational model for God than earlier models
built on metaphysical ontology have allowed. In all of this, we must recall
that the only way that we know anything about God is what He has revealed to
us within the constraints of finite time and space (unless, of course, one
is a proponent of natural theology, which I am not). All of God’s relation
to humanity has been incarnational.
One of our major difficulties that lies behind all of our "omni-"
doctrines is that we have mistakenly assumed that the Incarnation was a
single act of God in history, rather than understanding the Incarnation to
be revelatory of God Himself. That is, Incarnation is not just something God
did in Christ, but is how he has chosen to relate to His creation, of which
the Incarnation is the best example. In fact, creation itself is an
incarnational act, in that God by creating chose to enter into finite time
and space. The fundamental faith affirmation of the OT is that God reveals
Himself in human history, in finite time and space. That is why we cannot
know God beyond that incarnational dimension, except by speculation.
If we could ever come to conceptualize God as incarnational, and history
as the arena in which an incarnational God reveals Himself to us, it would
help us address a lot of the logical problems we have created for ourselves.
We have tried to distance God from His own creation by placing Him in some
abstracted way outside and apart from that creation. Yet, if we
conceptualize an incarnational God, then we can go one step further and
conceptualize an incarnational model for history. We would find, I think,
that the Bible makes a lot more sense, and far more readily, than it does
when we try to impose other philosophical models upon it, as we have tended
to do through most of Christian history.
3) From the perspective of
Invariably, of course, this is going to lead to a discussion of the nature
of prophecy. And here is where people tend to get passionate when we start
"messing with the Bible." The fact is, this whole scenario is also tied up
with circular reasoning related to Scripture. The omni-doctrines were
not developed from Scripture, but from logic. Yet, they have become
near absolute statements of fact in approaching the interpretation of
Scripture. The logical positions are assumed to be true, then assumed to
be in Scripture, and then Scripture is interpreted through the lens of
these doctrines. This is especially true in talking about Old Testament
prophecy, which we commonly assume to be prediction of the future governed
by the omni-doctrines, especially God’s foreknowledge usually reduced to a
subcategory of omniscience (all-knowing).
If, and this is a big if, we leave out the omni-doctrines, and look at
biblical prophecy through a different lens, say the lens of history itself,
OT prophecy takes on a whole different dimension. Old Testament prophecy is
a very diverse type of activity and writing, of which prediction of the
future is only a tiny fraction. The prophets were doing very different
things than simply predicting the future, especially if we take seriously
the perspectives about the foreknowledge of God discussed above. Sometimes
they were wrong about their "predictions" (see the article:
Ezekiel and the Oracles Against Tyre). Sometimes they had to change
them. Sometimes the community reapplied them to events that the prophet
himself would never have envisioned (as in the last chapters of Amos). All
this simply says that our understanding of Old Testament prophecy has been
unduly influenced by our acceptance of a basically deterministic model.
There are other ways to understand Old Testament prophecy as
A prophet’s primary role was to communicate the truth about God, to warn
His people of their accountability to God and of the impending consequences
of their actions whether positive or negative. Prophets did speak of future
events even in the category of "prediction." But that "prediction" was not
done solely for its own sake, nor is it the primary category in which to
understand the prophetic message. The primary purpose of prophetic
prediction was as a vehicle to call the people to faithful response to God.
Even when the prophets warned of judgment, that judgment was not absolutely
decreed as a predetermined and therefore necessary event, as evidenced by
the numerous calls to repentance scattered throughout prophetic judgment
speeches (there are even hints of them in Amos, which contain the most
unmitigated judgment speeches in the Old Testament). So the primary category
for prophetic literature should not be "prediction of the future."
A prophet was given insight (inspiration) into how God works in the world
and what God’s people needed to do to respond faithfully. It is itself part
of the "response" to God’s self-revelation. However, the prophet then
translated that understanding about God into the historical arena in which
he lived, using the circumstances, language, metaphors, cultural allusions,
poetry, nearly anything available to communicate that message (including
some rather unusual actions, such as walking around naked and barefoot for
All those things became the vehicle for the message. The heart of the
prophetic message, then, is not those details. The message is about God and
the people’s faithfulness, or lack of faithfulness, to Him. The historical
and cultural details are the medium of the message. The historical
aspects are not totally incidental to the message, because they are the
arena in which the message is understood, proclaimed, and heard, even the
for the message in many cases. But finally, the historical circumstances,
even the predictions, are not the heart of the message. The prophets speak
about God; that is, they speak theology, cast in the
circumstances of historical event.
That leaves the possibility that sometimes the prophets got the details
wrong. I am not at all suggesting that the message of the prophets,
what they understood about God, His work in the world, and how His people
should respond to Him is ever
"wrong" in Scripture. That is a function of inspiration and, I think, is the
only way that "inerrant" can legitimately be applied to Scripture.
But I am suggesting that sometimes, when they translated that
message into specific historical predictions, they were wrong about the way
they read history, and they were wrong about their specific predictions
about future historical event. They could be wrong,
because history is not predetermined. If history is not
predetermined, then there is no future already in place to predict, only the
possibilities that arise from human decision. History is contingent
upon human decisions and moves in dynamic ways that cannot always be
predicted. And there is more than adequate biblical evidence to support this
Some have suggested that the predictions of prophecy actually had a
double meaning, one meaning for the short term, and another prediction
for the long term. However, it does not solve the problem inherent in
assuming absolute prediction of the future. The whole idea of "double
meaning" or "short term-long range" distinctions has been, I think, an
attempt to deal with the obvious problems of a pure prediction
understanding of prophecy. That became a logical necessity when
faced with the conflict between a prediction model that cannot hold up
under close scrutiny, while at the same time trying to retain the idea,
even if modified, that the Bible is indeed predicting a
predetermined future. It is an easy matter to look at a prediction made,
for example, by Micah concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the
Assyrians and, because in fact Jerusalem was not destroyed
by the Assyrians in Micah’s time but by the Babylonians some 130 years
later, say that Micah’s "prediction" was of a dual nature (it was
really about the Babylonians).
That approach can be applied to most any prediction. I suppose that it
will work for many prophecies, if we assume: 1) that the
intent was to predict a future historical event, 2) that God absolutely
predestines some if not all historical events to occur, 3) that the Bible is
a inerrant record of historical events, 4) the real message of the
prophets was not for their own time but for times in the future about things
that they could not possibly understand, and 5) the only real sense that can
be made of prophecy is from that future perspective looking back from the
"fulfillment" (else how would we know to what the "second" meaning
In this view, the historical connection between the past and
future (or the Old Testament and New Testament) runs forward
in the model of "prediction-fulfillment." As a result, the theological
connection must go backward because it is only from the future
perspective, after the "second" level event has occurred that the prophecy
reaches its "true" meaning (as is often asserted about the New Testament). I
would suggest just the opposite. That is, it is the theology
forward in a trajectory. In this case, the
OT prophets understood something about God (revelation, inspiration) that
they then projected into history, their own present history since that was
the only historical perspective they had. Sometimes it worked out like they
thought, sometimes it did not.
But the important thing was not the historical events into which they
projected their (revealed, inspired) understanding about God. The important
thing was just that understanding about God, no matter how history
tracked, because history could take different tracks depending on the
decisions human beings made in history. History was
neither directly related to nor dependent upon the truth about God; it was
only the arena in which that truth worked out.
So, Micah was writing about the consequences that would unfold in the
life of the nation because of their social oppression, injustice, and
faithlessness to their relationship with God. That is the message, I
believe, God inspired him to understand. But he translated that into the
historical events of his day, the rise of Assyria as a world power. So he
envisioned the consequences of the nation’s sin working out in catastrophe
at the hands of Assyria. And I think he was right!
But it didn’t happen. Not because it fit into some grand historical
blueprint that God had drawn up. It didn’t happen because the righteous king
Hezekiah came to power and led the nation in a renewed commitment to God.
They tore down many of the Baal altars. They prayed to God for forgiveness.
Hezekiah listened to the prophet Isaiah. Because this man, and the people,
obeyed God, the foretold destruction at the hands of Assyria did not come
about. History changed because of human decision!
There was no predestined event. There was no "second" level of historical
prediction. But there was a truth about God in
Micah’s prophecy. And that truth would later be applied, even
quoted, by Jeremiah in his message. Same truth. Same translation of that
truth into the historical arena. But in Jeremiah’s case, there was no
repentance. There was no king like Hezekiah to tear down the Baal altars and
call the people to repentance. And so the historical scenario that Jeremiah
envisioned played out.
Was Micah wrong? In his historical prediction, yes! In his truth about
God, absolutely not! He wasn’t predicting the future, as we on this side of
the idea of predestination and the debates about the sovereignty of God
understand. There was no secondary level of the historical scenario
that he painted, knowingly or not. That was simply his way of translating
into real-time historical reality the truth he had come to understand about
God. He was telling the people about God! Yet that theological truth
worked out in the time of Jeremiah in a totally different historical
scenario. That is the theological
trajectory that works forward
Now, after the exile, it is easy to look back through Jeremiah straight
to Micah and collapse the two into one. Both predicted the destruction of
Jerusalem, and that happened. But it did not have to happen,
even with Jeremiah’s prediction, else why would he spend a significant
portion of his book pleading "Return to me, and I will return to you?" Was
the destruction of Jerusalem inevitable just because Jeremiah "predicted"
it. No! No more so than it was 130 years earlier when Micah predicted
it. Or 50 years before that when Hosea predicted it.
Looking back, the straight line of the historical
that we draw artificially because we know how history has actually tracked
easily ties the history together in a seemingly neat, unbroken sequence that
all makes sense. That’s easy to do looking back. But that straight vector
that tracks the historical sequence through history can only run
backwards. That’s why it always looks so neat; it simply levels out the
vagaries of history into a straight, neat line, when in fact the actual
track of history was anything but straight and neat going forward. And the
prophecies can only have any "secondary" meaning as the new events in
history confirm the theological truth of the prophecies, not
the historical "prediction." It is the theological
trajectory of truth about God that ties them together forward, and the
vector of historical
sequence that ties them together
backward. But remember that the level of historical vector is
constructed backward after knowing the result.
That moves the issue of "prediction" out of the categories of the decrees
of God or any category of predestination, and places it firmly within the
concept of human freedom and a God who chooses to respond to that freedom
out of his sovereignty.
4) From the perspective of Experience:
I think the idea of the absolute foreknowledge of God and the accompanying
predestination model leads to the formulation of the idea of the "perfect
plan of God." While this is a popular way of talking about humanity in
relation to God, the idea raises all kinds of practical and real problems
for people in how they live out their Christian life. It affects people in
what I call the "second best" scenario, in which people think they have
missed the perfect plan of God and live their lives in God’s second best
(rather devastating when the "second best" is a marriage because you
missed getting God’s first choice!). It also works out in asking why God
has done certain things in the world, like kill a child to get a parent’s
attention, or bomb a building killing 168 people. If we are not careful
with how we express this, we set people up for all sorts of difficulties
in relating ideas about God to how life actually works.
The concept of the perfect plan of God is soundly rooted in
predestination thinking, which is likewise rooted in absolutist, idealist
Greek philosophy. Apart from those categories, the biblical perspective as
well as other theologies that are not rooted so heavily in the absolutist
categories, are much more compatible with the concept of making responsible
choices, and understanding that God is with us even when we make bad
On a purely practical or functional side, if there is only one "correct"
choice, one "perfect" path in life to walk, then there is absolutely no one
who walks it. We simply do not always make the right choices, and even one
wrong choice would disrupt the "perfect" plan and invoke the "second best."
So, for all practical purposes, in that view no one lives out the "perfect
will of God" in their lives, which fits very well with theologies that view
humanity as irredeemably flawed as long as they exit in this
less-than-perfect physical existence.
In some traditions a slightly modified version of this view is described
as "the center of God’s will," implying the same single course of action or
choice as the "center" and any other course of action as moving away from
the center. It is the same "perfect plan (or will) of God," which in
predestination thinking is conceptualized as a single line through history,
visualized in more static or "state of being" terms.
I don’t think we have ever, at least on a popular level, taken seriously
enough with all of its implications the idea of human freedom (or more
correctly, God’s free grace enabling human will). We have been heavily
influenced by predestination thinking, especially as mediated through
certain views of Scripture and prophecy.
I think a better perspective would allow a large place for human freedom
to make choices, and for God’s ability and willingness to work with us as we
make those choices. It would also compel us to take responsibility for our
choices without viewing human existence in absolute either/or terms, and
without invoking some external power that caused us to mess up the bad
decisions we make. It would also affirm that God works in our lives, both in
helping us make the best choices, when there really is a better and best,
and in helping us deal with where we are in life no matter what choices we
have made. I don’t especially use the "permissive will of God," simply
because it still implies (at least to me) overtones of control that does not
allow human freedom a large enough role. But it is probably a better
term than either "perfect" will of God or the idea of the "center" of God's
If metaphors would help, try these. The "perfect plan of God" is like
walking a tightrope. God is the coach at the far end of the wire calling us
to keep our balance and warning us to make no mistakes. All of our energies
go into staying on the wire without falling off. One wrong choice and the
"perfect" will is lost.
However, if we can exercise genuine human decision that affects how
history tracks (some like to call this the "permissive" will of God,
although that idea has other problems), then we can say that human
existence under God is like a journey in a broad river. God is the pilot
on the boat with us, pointing out dangerous currents and sandbars, and
also sights along the way. There are many ways to navigate the river, but
as long as we are in the river the journey continues. We can stop and
explore islands and have a picnic, we can speed up or slow down, or we can
just sit on the deck and enjoy the trip. The only serious problems arise
when we no longer want God as the pilot, when we no longer listen to his
instructions and warnings, or when we no longer want to navigate the river
Another aspect of this issue is that we tend to defend the omni-doctrines
by projecting God beyond our level of existence. I have no doubt that there
is some aspect of God beyond us. But by definition, we do not know what
that is. We can affirm all day that God is infinite. But what exactly
does that mean to us? As noted earlier, how can a finite creature define the
infinite!!? How can we talk about what God is beyond what He has revealed to
us about himself. And that revelation has always been within the confines of
human experience. We have never known an infinite God. We have only known a
God within our human history, within time and space. Whatever else He may
be, we only know THIS God. Maybe we need to stick to what God
has revealed about Himself (as witnessed in Scripture), rather than creating
new categories for Him that, in the final analysis, are our ideas of what He
ought to be.
If we are going to talk about God’s knowledge, probably the question
should be focused on what God knows, and how He uses that knowledge, rather
than assuming what he knows as if we really knew what God knows. And maybe
we should deal with those questions in modes of thought that do not assume
the answer from the beginning.
God’s Sovereignty and Power
One way to begin thinking about the nature of God in terms of what he
knows or what power he has, is to make the distinction between what God
can do and what he actually does do. While I agree that God
does know what He will do in terms of how He will act in relation to human
beings (Scripture seems to support this idea solidly), I think it is quite
another thing to say that He has determined ahead of time what He will do
in terms of specific actions, and that "will" is irrevocable (certain).
This still leaves the future predestined and removes human freedom.
If God must "force" human beings to certain actions to accomplish His
will, even if that means working out a predetermined divine plan, then human
beings have no freedom. It is not a matter of a percentage free, in that
most of the time we are free but are not at the crucial times when God
wants to accomplish His will. Either we are free moral agents with the
responsibility that entails, or we are not. For whatever reason, God has
chosen to persuade us to work out His will in the world, not force
us to accomplish it.
Also, to some degree, the idea that God must force human beings to
certain actions in order to accomplish his will (predetermined plan)
removes the sovereignty and freedom of God. In this case, God is
bound to His own predetermined will and does not have the freedom to act
in relation to human circumstances. If God is locked in to His own
predetermined will, and that will is irrevocable, then God is not
This is an aspect that most predestinationists have not really
addressed. In this sense, God was actually only sovereign at the moment he
issued the decrees and decided on a predetermined plan, because now he is
bound by that decision no matter what other circumstances might exist. Of
course, if the system is logically coherent, it could easily be countered
that God does not need any further freedom since he already knew all of
the outcomes anyway because of his decrees. But that is precisely
the point. This reduces the sovereignty to a single instant rather than
being a characteristic of God.
Now I would quickly add that God may, and has/does enter human history
in non-contingent ways, such as the Exodus or the Incarnation. But even
then, it is not in a forcible way that interferes with human freedom. It
is still an invitation to respond, not a coercion. This leaves us with the
conclusion that God’s actions in history are not unilateral, God imposing
his divine "plan" apart from human beings, but that God actually is in
interaction with humanity, and that in some sense his actions in history
are contingent on human response (see
Torah As Holiness: Old Testament
"Law" as Response to Divine Grace).
I think Scripture addresses this very issue in numerous places. There are
many times in the Old Testament where God specifically states that He will
do something, but then changes His mind based on human decision. A few
examples, which deserve more detailed attention than I can provide here: 1)
Ninevites in Jonah, where God said He would destroy the city in 40 days, but
changed His mind when the people repented; 2) the city of Jerusalem, which
He said through Micah and Isaiah that He would allow to be destroyed by the
Assyrians, but then delivered because of the reforms of Hezekiah; 3) the
reign of the Davidic dynasty, promised as eternal in 2 Samuel 7, but which
ended with Jehoikim, which 2 Chronicles interprets as a result of the
people’s sin; 4) the Israelite possession of the land of Canaan, which
Jeremiah and Isaiah say God had promised forever, but which they lost twice,
once to the Babylonians and later to the Romans. There are many other
examples we could use.
In other words, God’s expressed will in history still seems
contingent on human decision. While God, sovereign God that He is, can
do what He wills, we are brought back to the idea of what God chooses
to do in relation to his commitment to His creation and to humanity (Genesis
6-9, the Noah story, is instructive here). I would still affirm that God
knows what He will do in response to any given human decision, but that
"will" is not absolute, in that He will not forcibly impose that will on
humanity; it is always in relation to genuine God-enabled human freedom.
A question that some would raise here is whether God is limited, and if
he is, does he have room for growth? Again, this is only an issue if we have
already accepted the idea that God is immutable, based on the definitions
that God exists on that level of reality defined by certain categories as
perfect, infinite, etc.
And again, that is an idea that comes from Greek philosophy, not from
Scripture. There are a few passages in both Testaments that seem to suggest
this (e.g., Mal 3:6, 1 Sam 15:29; Num 23:19; Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). But the
context in all of those passages is the stability and faithfulness of God in
history, not a statement about the absolute essence of His being
(ontological). And there are other passages that make it clear that the
immutability of God is a category alien to Scripture.
The fact is, the only way we have ever experienced God, and from which
our revealed knowledge of God comes, is his revelation of Himself in our
time and history. And that revelation does not lend itself to categories
like "infinite" or "immutable." I don’t know if "growth" is the proper term
or not here to describe God, but if we reject the idea of the immutability
of God, which is tied to the Greek idea of "perfection," it certainly raises
the possibility that God may be much more dynamic in relation with his
creation than the previous categories have allowed. It would certainly be
compatible with the idea of a contingent future that is not totally
As far as God being limited, the same factors apply. This is only an
issue if we have a priori assumed that for God to be God he must be
without limits of any kind. In other words, we have defined God in a certain
way, and then assumed that our definition is the way he really is, and then
concluded that any way of thinking that does not affirm that definition is
somehow taking something away from God. In reality, the only thing that
loses anything is our own definition with which we began!
That’s why I see no reason to use the term "limitation" in this context.
This implies that the "limitation" of God is somehow a negative thing. This
is still operating from the paradigm of "perfection" and therefore anything
less than absolute perfection is somehow "limited." Therefore, "limitation"
somehow lessens God, because it reduces His perfection. Actually, I see what
some want to term "limitation" of God (in allowing human freedom) as a
positive category, an expression of His sovereignty and freedom as God. He
is free to respond in love and mercy to a humanity to which He has granted
the freedom to make their own decisions.
It is not a limitation, it is a freedom that is not to be found in
any predestination or deterministic system!
Another aspect of this is the issue of the nature of God as a personal
being, rather than as a cosmic force. Classical Christian philosophy,
concerned as it was to define God in terms of absolutes, left God with few
of the characteristics that we associate with a personal being.
“Attributes” such as infinity and immutability (negatives of human
experience), along with the rejection of any idea that God could suffer
(called Patripassianism, considered a heresy until a couple of centuries
ago), were appealing from a worldview that wanted to emphasize the
transcendence of God by asking questions of ultimate reality. But those
definitions left God virtually incapable of any meaningful ongoing
interaction with his creation.
When those ideas were processed through Enlightenment rationalism,
Deism emerged. This is the idea of God as the master clockmaker, who
created the world as one would make and wind a clock and then left it to
run on its own.
Yet this is not the God of the biblical testimony. However we struggle
with defining it in human terms, the idea of God as personal, a God who
loves, suffers, and interacts with his creation in meaningful and genuine
ways, is an unambiguous and essential feature of the biblical witness.
While some have challenged the idea of God as personal (reacting to a
system of metaphysics called personalism), it is difficult to understand
the biblical testimony to God’s self-revelation without some concept of
God as personal.
If we take this idea seriously, it considerably shifts the basis of
discussion about God from absolute categories and ultimate reality to the
ongoing interaction of God with the world. While that certainly cannot be
encompassed by human terms and imagery, nor reduced to the limitations of
human experience, neither can it be totally apart from them. Since
God’s self-revelation to humanity has always been within human time and
space, if we are going to take seriously the biblical witness to God we
are left with the necessity of conceptualizing God in terms of his
commitment to his creation in ways that allow him to respond to it.
From many of the biblical narratives, for example the flood story in
Genesis 6-9, we are confronted with a God who is portrayed as responding
in new ways to situations that human beings have created by their
decisions. That suggests that, in spite of problems that might be
associated with speaking of God as personal, to be faithful to the
biblical testimony we must incorporate this dimension of interaction and
even change, however defined, in our concepts of God.
Another question is often raised here. If God is not all of those
“omni-” things, and gives genuine freedom to humanity, is there room for
failure on God’s part? There is some biblical evidence that human beings
have made decisions that took God’s creation in different directions than
he wanted it to go, or took events in a different direction than he
intended. Again, the Noah story might suggest this. Or the appointment of
Saul as King. Or the establishment of the Davidic dynasty. Or the
establishment of the Israelite people to be a blessing to the nations. Or
even the Eden story.
This really boils down to how we define "failure" and how we think
human freedom could interfere with the work of God and cause human history
to go different directions than he intended. There are numerous biblical
examples of human beings thwarting God's work in the world by their
decisions. For example, Matthew (13:58) tells us that lack of faith
prevented Jesus from doing "many deeds of power."
The biblical witness portrays human beings with a tendency through the
exercise of their God-given freedom to pervert God's intentions and
purposes for them and to ignore his instructions (torah) for living
in his creation. The consequence is a perversion of God's creation from
what he created it to be. This sense of deterioration in creation as a
result of human decision is a central feature of the macrostructure of the
Torah and Former Prophets, and on a different level and in different
conceptual categories, is also central to Pauline theology in the
Yet God is presented as responding to this deterioration, often
expressed in the culturally specific metaphors of chaos and dis-creation
(see Speaking the Language of Canaan), in
deliberate and purposeful ways in order to restore (re-create) that which
human beings have perverted (note Paul's comment in Rom 8:19-23).
The Incarnation itself might be a good example of God's response to human
decision (see Did Jesus Have to Die?
and The Death of Jesus: Historically Contingent
or Divinely Ordained?).
It is common for some who try to preserve the idealistic model simply
to respond that God knew that the failures would occur. Since he knew
that, he simply included in his decrees the solution so that history would
unfold with no "bumps." While this attempts to preserve the
classical position of the absolute foreknowledge of God, it still falls
under the problems discussed earlier, that we cannot really separate
absolute foreknowledge from determinism.
This leads to the logical problem that, since God
knew about human failures and actually planned for them, God is somehow
implicitly, or even explicitly, involved in human failure. It presents a
nearly duplicitous God who goes through the motions of interacting with
humanity while knowing that such interaction will not succeed, and will in
fact be destructive. While this may seem to be a defense of God's justice,
since we can have him say, “I tried,” it presents insurmountable problems
both from the perspective of the biblical narratives and in terms of the
integrity of God.
For example, in the appointment of Saul to be king,
God appears to choose Saul. He offers him promises, knowing that he will
fail and that David will really be king instead. Without resorting to the
parachute of paradox at this point, we are left with God directly involved
in creating a situation that he knows will result in the destruction of
Saul. Saul's failure is a necessary prerequisite to the ascension of
David, since God has already decreed that David should be king in Saul's
place. Once again, human freedom is illusionary. Only in this case,
God has no redemptive purpose for Saul, only for David, since he knows
Saul will fail.
This presents us with an even greater logical and
theological problem. At worst, this puts God in the position of creating
the failures of humanity so he could provide a solution. At best, it
allows God to accept human failure as part of his “plan,” without any
redemptive effort in dealing with that failure directly (what one writer
called the “dilemma of the inevitable”). That would mean, for example,
that the appeals of God through the prophet Jeremiah for the people to
return to God were perfunctory and meaningless, since the failure of the
people was a necessary part of the decrees of God that had already assumed
that failure in providing a longer range solution.
I think that is far more illogical, bordering on the
ludicrous, than trying to understand God’s sovereignty as he responds to
genuine human freedom that he has granted as the exercise of his
sovereignty. Here the biblical narratives, if taken seriously, provide a
far better picture of God than do the classical theological formulations
that stress categories of absoluteness, immutability, and divine
God’s Control and Human Freedom
I think I understand what most people mean when they say "God is in
control." It is a way to affirm the sovereignty of God over His creation,
without necessarily affirming all the baggage that might go with that or
without making fine theological distinctions.
However, if we push it very far, the concept of "control" raises huge
problems on both a theological and practical level. I have dealt with too
many people struggling to come to grips with tragedy in their lives (e.g.,
the Oklahoma City bombing) for the idea of God being in control to have much
meaning. The same can be said of the well intentioned formulation that "God
had a reason for doing this." One Oklahoma City area pastor made that
statement on TV the afternoon of the bombing. That puts an awful burden on
God. I just don’t think God was "in control" of the bombing, and I certainly
don’t think He did it for any reason, no matter how noble we might want it
to be as we struggle to given meaning to such suffering.
I think the bombing, as most "evil" in the world, was the product of sin,
a product of human beings’ capacity to bring unspeakable horror and pain
into the world. I want to affirm just as quickly that God can take the worst
that sinners can do and create good from it (Rom 8:28). But that does not
mean that He somehow orchestrated the evil act for some larger good. It may
be a subtle distinction but I think it is an enormous one for how we develop
our ideas about God and how He works in the world.
The same problems of the "total control" way of thinking work out in many
other aspects of life. M.V. "Bud" Scutt, in the article
Renewing the Pioneer Spirit, put it this way:
Lamentably, some [Wesleyans] now (perhaps innocently)
hold to a doctrine of predestination through absolute sovereignty. This
doctrine embraces the idea that the predetermination of God is engineering
every event in life, individual and collective, inside the church and in
the world. That doctrine diametrically contradicts the Wesleyan theology
of free agency by a view of God creating humanity in a dilemma of the
inevitable. It says, "God is working out His purposes, so why bother."
When calamities come or difficulties arise, you may hear, "God has a
purpose in it." . . . It is a doctrine that literally destroys vision,
because it leaves the final responsibility for God's purposes with Him
alone. Remember, God did not just choose Abraham; Abraham chose God! When
Abraham packed up his belongings to obey God in an adventure that had no
logic for its basis and no known destination, it was called "faith," and
God called that faith "righteousness." [see
Divine/Human Synergism in Ministry]
So, I don’t use the idea of "control" in talking about God. I use the
idea of God working out his purpose in history. That purpose is the
reconciliation of all of his creation to himself. Paul does not say that God
will work out all things ahead of time so that they are good. The
implication of his statement in Romans 8:28 is that God works in all things,
no matter how bad they might be, to bring good from them "according to His
purpose." The testimonies of countless people affirm that, including the
pastor whose 6-year daughter was killed by a lady speeding through a school
zone. He now writes and gives seminars on how to deal with grief, and
operates a foundation that has a similar ministry via radio in several
countries. He would never say that God killed his daughter. But he would
quickly say that God brought good out of that tragedy, enabled him to have a
larger vision of ministry, and used it for His purpose in the world.
We sometimes want God to be "in control" to give us some stability and
meaning in a world that too often seems out of control. But our security is
not in having a predictable and stable world. We will never have that. We
simply have to admit that sometimes sin dominates our world and can have
devastating consequences even on the innocent. We cannot rationalize that
away simply because we don't want it to be so! Our only security is in God
who has promised that He will always be with us, and that He can take the
worst that anyone can do and work good from it. That’s frightening
sometimes. But it is faith.
This invariably leads to a question about what God’s will really is for
our lives. If there is not a "perfect plan" for us to follow, what is God’s
As I suggested earlier, I think our popular religious thinking has been
unduly influenced by assumptions about "finding" God’s perfect will, meaning
a certain specific course of action to follow in all the details of life. As
a result we have continually expanded the idea of God’s will to include
virtually everything we do. I have heard people say that they pray for God’s
guidance to know in which space to park lest they somehow miss an
opportunity to fulfill God’s plan about something.
I think God’s will, in the sense of "those things that are definitely
God’s will for us," should probably be left in the general area of
salvation, discipleship and Christian growth, and perhaps God’s call into
specific ministry (although in many cases I think this would fall into the
area of decision making). The rest of life is lived out under God’s
presence and leadership in our lives as we make decisions and allow God to
work in those decisions.
Why not just identify God’s will for our lives as our salvation and
sanctification, God’s grace and our response to it? God’s will, remember, is
the entire river in which we journey, with a great deal of freedom left to
us as to how to navigate it. I would question why we need to add any
adjective like "perfect" to "God's will." That implies that there is a
will of God that is less than perfect (“permissive will,” or whatever we
name it), which in turn, leads to the idea of a "second best" will of God. I
simply, and totally, reject the idea of a "second best" will of God.
Otherwise forgiveness and transformation by the work of the Holy Spirit has
little meaning, especially since, as I said earlier, all of us without
exception live in the "second best." If we did not, then we would have
somehow managed to live a sinless life.
There is simply no second best for Christians who are following
Christ! As soon as we accept God, then we are in God’s will. That is
the nature of forgiveness, grace, and God’s presence with us. There are
certainly consequences to wrong decisions with which many have to live
their entire lives. Grace does not erase the past. But I just don’t think
those consequences should be termed “God’s will,” no matter how we try to
modify it with adjectives like permissive. It is NOT
God’s will for us to be second best Christians! We are either in God’s
will having accepted his grace, or we are not.
So how do we go about making decisions, and how does what God knows
relate to our decisions? Let me return to the illustration used earlier.
Suppose I leave home at exactly 10:00 PM this evening to run to the store to
buy something. God knows that at exactly 10:04 I will be involved in a car
accident at the corner of NW 63rd and MacArthur Blvd., and I am killed. Now,
if God absolutely knows that historical event, then it is already a
predetermined event, and nothing anyone does can change it in any way.
It makes no difference whether God caused it to happen or not; that event
will occur in precisely the way that God knows it will occur. It is
"determined" in the sense that there is no alternative to that happening. It
does not matter what I will or what God wills, the event will unfold
precisely as it is known. It does not matter that there are half a dozen
other stores to which I could go; this absolutely known event means that I
can only go the WalMart on NW Highway, passing through that intersection at
that time (which eliminates catching the previous two lights red), and
hitting a certain car that must also be at that particular spot at that
exact instant. One of us is predetermined to do something wrong that causes
that accident, and no medical heroism can save me.
Functionally, I have no choice in the matter, because I must be at that
intersection at that time. I may have the appearance or the illusion of
making choices, but I can only choose a course of action that will cause
that event to occur. I have no actual freedom, but am only living out what
must be because it is absolutely known by God to be. The same would apply
for the driver of the other car. Or for the people who might have been at
that intersection at that moment if I did not have to be there. The world
must always work precisely in a determined way to conform to what God
Now, if I have real freedom and there are real alternatives, then God
did not absolutely "know" the exact sequence of events that would unfold.
If I have real freedom, I could choose to go the other direction to the
WalMart on Reno Street because it is closer, or stop by Walgreens to see
if they have the item, or swing over to the new Eckerts, or even drive up
to KMart and check out the late sale they are having. In any of these
cases, if I have real freedom, then God does not know the specific event
occur. He may know what all of those options might be, and the
corresponding consequences of them all interfaced with the decisions of
everyone else on the road (or not). But that suggests a considerably
different definition of knowing than is presented by the idea of absolute
foreknowledge. I think real freedom is a much more consistent conclusion,
because there is simply no way to get around the idea that if God does
indeed know, then that event must occur.
Now, none of this limits God. If I know the possibilities of decisions,
I think God knows those possibilities as well, and probably an infinite
number of others. It is not a specific future history that God knows,
since that future does not yet exist and will be created by people making
decisions. But God does know people! I think that is the only
answer that provides any consistency to this issue, that God knows the
possibilities inherent in people. He not only knows the possibilities of
my own actions, he also knows the possibilities of the actions of everyone
else. And he not only knows the possibilities now, he can likely
calculate the consequences of those possibilities in my life compounded
with the possibilities of everyone else’s decision. If I am to have real
freedom, then by his own act of sovereignty God does not know exactly what
we will choose or what future we will create by those decisions (e.g.,
Abraham in Gen 22:12), and so the world is not determined but contingent.
But by that same act of sovereignty, God knows me.
If the world is contingent, that places a great deal of responsibility on
us as human beings to live well and make good decisions. That emphasis on
responsibility and accountability seems to be much more compatible with
Scripture than any foreknowledge or predestination view. The idea of "free
will" (or more correctly "free grace" that enables human freedom), that
human beings have genuine freedom and not just an illusion of freedom, and
that their freedom has ongoing consequences that flow directly from that
freedom and not just from the will of God, is a central feature of
Scripture. That is, the idea of accountable human freedom emerges from
Scripture itself and is not imposed by asking philosophical questions about
ultimate reality. "Free will" or "free moral agency" may have been
systematized by theologians like Arminius and Wesley, but it is thoroughly
biblical, beginning in Genesis 3.
If we bring this whole issue back around to prophecy from this
perspective, it puts the whole issue in a different light. I simply do not
think prophecy predicts predetermined historical events with absolute
precision. Of course there are prophetic predictions. But they are not
absolute predictions of predestined events; they are predictions of
events, that relate both to human decision and God’s purposes in relation to
human decision. God can tell what He will do. And he knows what we
can do. But He can also change His mind in response to what we
do! That is not arbitrary or whimsical, but is in response to and
interaction with humanity. History can be predicted to go a certain
direction. But human decision can take it in a different direction because
of how people make decisions.
Contrary to how some have tried to distort this position, it does not
eliminate any predictive element to prophecy, per se. It does
seriously challenge the logic of saying that a specific event can be
absolutely predicted, and yet the event not be predestined. Either it is
predicted and therefore predestined (must occur). Or it is not predestined
(contingent), and therefore not absolutely predicted.
An Incarnational God
I will conclude by returning to the idea of an incarnational God. I think
this is a far better way of understanding God and his work in the world than
trying to define him in logical abstractions.
One of the most important affirmations about God in the Christian
tradition, as well as in Judaism, is his sovereignty, and finally that is
the question to which we return here. The real issue in most discussions is
not whether God is sovereign, but how
he exhibits that sovereignty. In philosophical terms, it is the distinction
between ontological reality and existential encounter.
Now certainly John Wesley did not conceptualize the issue in those
specific terms. But he did make the same distinction in a different way. For
most Christians in the traditions that closely followed Augustine’s
formulations, the primary question was: "What is the nature of God?"
(ontological reality). That led to a great deal of effort being focused on
proper definitions of God (which is one reason the Reformed tradition has so
many creeds). So, in that system, theology is worked from the top down,
beginning with certain definitions of God, and then working other aspects of
theology around that (eternal security, predestination, etc.)
However, Wesley operated with a different primary question: "How do I
reach heaven?" That led him to focus on the relationship between God and
humanity, how God actually meets human beings and transforms them into His
people (existential encounter). For Wesleyans, theology is worked from the
bottom up. That does not mean at all that it is totally humanistic or that
it ignores God as the sole source of that relationship; only that Wesleyan
theology is primarily soteriologically orientated (having to do with our
salvation/relationship with God) rather than ontologically oriented (having
to do with ultimate reality).
Understanding that fact shifts the focus of most theological discussions,
including the sovereignty of God. That is why I think when we try to say the
most about God, defining him with all the "omni-" words we can think of and
putting categories like "infinite" on Him, we may be saying the least! Not
only do we not have any reliable way to know those things, they really do
not impact us very much on a human level (in Wesley’s terms, they don’t help
us get to heaven).
All this is to say that for Wesleyans, the whole issue is dealt with on a
different level than trying to preserve some logical construct about the
sovereignty of God as an absolute category of His being. The question would
be: How does God demonstrate His sovereignty to humanity? There in specific
reference to the issue of human freedom, I would respond that God
demonstrated His sovereignty in an act of grace by granting to humanity
their freedom to choose (Wesley called this "prevenient grace"), knowing
that that freedom to choose could be used to choose something other than
Him. In our human understanding, there is no greater expression of love than
to grant another person the freedom to choose, as any parent who has raised
a child understands all too well.
We cannot grant something that is not ours to give. And yet God chose to
give away part of His sovereignty for the sake of authentic and real human
freedom. For me, logically, if God (or the Devil!) is "in control" then
humans are not authentically free, and therefore are not accountable or
responsible. That does not eliminate God being able to work out His purposes
in the world, or to bring about an ultimate and final reconciliation of all
Creation to Himself, as Paul eloquently expresses in Romans. Nor does it
interfere with His providential care for humanity. But it does mean that
human decision can thwart God’s purposes in the world, and we can choose the
creature over the Creator. That choice is not without consequences, but it
is a genuine choice.
Could God have taken a different course of action? Of
course. But he didn’t. Could He again take control of the world and
eliminate human freedom? Yes, I think so. But He would not be the God that
we affirm revealed Himself in Jesus Christ! Again, the issue is not what God
can or could do, but what he actually does, and has done.
This also means that in a very real sense, the act of Creation itself was
an act of incarnation, as God chose to work with human beings within the
confines of time and space, the only arena in which we can exist as humans.
And He chose to allow them to choose their own way in the world, as He calls
them freely to respond to the One who gave them the freedom to respond. That
gift of freedom, which in a very practical way was then a limitation that
God imposed upon Himself, is the ultimate act of divine sovereignty.
Psalm 139 and Predestination
God's Immutability: A Proof Text?
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