A topic that has been the stuff of thousands of years of discussion is not going to get very far in a short article from me. So let me narrow things down right away: here I want to just look at one aspect of this immense subject, and look at it in terms of how we do theology.
Frequently I find believers putting their particular theological position ahead of the plain teachings of Scripture – at least some of them. Sure, they will insist they are being quite biblical, but so often I find that they are willing to ignore clear biblical texts simply because they do not fit in with their favourite theological system.
For example, in response to some recent posts I had written – also about God and his attributes – I had some folks insist that God can do anything. They were adamant about this. Never mind that Scripture teaches that there are some things God cannot do: He cannot lie, He cannot deny himself, and so on.
So too with the issue of God’s sovereignty. This is admittedly a huge and complex topic, especially when discussed in relation to human responsibility. How exactly we are to understand human free will is the subject of much debate, but it, and the sovereignty of God, are both fully affirmed in Scripture – hard as it may be to reconcile the two.
Some believers on the theological spectrum will of course heavily emphasise God’s sovereignty, almost to the exclusion of human freedom. Others will highlight human choice so much, that God almost ceases to be God. As one example, I used to belong to a Christian organisation which at the time was very much steeped in certain types of Arminian theology.
These folks were quite insistent that God never interferes with our free will. They were sure that God could never coerce anyone or cause humans to do anything. These teachers insisted that if something is caused by God, then there is no longer any moral worth in it, because it was not freely chosen or performed. An action is only morally praiseworthy if it is freely chosen.
They also tended to deny divine foreknowledge, and stated that if God does foreknow something, then he causes it to happen, and there is no moral value to it since it is not freely brought about. I had some problems with this way of thinking, and I shared some of the concerns I had.
I pointed out the fact that the most morally-praiseworthy event in the universe (the death of Christ on our behalf) was foretold in numerous prophecies. Thus it was certainly foreknown. So according to the theology of these teachers, it could not therefore be morally meritorious. They never could give me a good response to that objection!
But let’s look at some of the biblical data on this. Is it true that God never intervenes in any way with humans and their choices? While God usually respects the freedom he has granted us, and while we are indeed responsible for the choices we make, there are many passages which speak of God in one way or another intervening in, or even overriding, human choices.
We have plenty of texts which speak about God bringing about his desired ends while the persons involved are still fully responsible for their own choices. They are morally culpable yet God is still achieving his goals. This is certainly made clear in the Joseph story. When he is with his frightened brothers in Egypt, he tells them that God was behind it all. As he says in Genesis 45:4-8:
I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.
And as he famously said in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives”.
The crucifixion of Christ is another case of what we call compatibilism: the sovereign purposes of God are somehow very much compatible with human choices. Here are just three of the key texts on this:
-Luke 22:22 “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.”
-Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
-Acts 4:27-28 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
But it goes even further than this: there are quite a few passages which strongly suggest that God at times turns or overrides the hearts and spirits of individuals, or actually causes them to act or think in certain ways. Consider for example the story of Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20. As it says in verses 1-7:
And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar. Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.” And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
God somehow kept Abimelech from sinning. Now that sounds like some sort of interference with his free will. We could also spend some time on a more controversial matter: Pharaoh and his hardened heart. While this warrants an article on its own, suffice it to say that of the many verses on this, three aspects are repeatedly stated: his heart was hardened; Pharoah hardened his heart; and God hardened his heart. Here are just three of these passages:
-Exodus 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said.
-Exodus 8:19 But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said.
-Exodus 9:12 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses.
How all three aspects of this hardening fit together is not fully clear, just as the broader issue of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility fit together is not fully clear. But once again we have some sort of compatibilism going on here.
Many other passages speak of God causing people to do things. Consider some of the verses which speak about the attitude of the Egyptians to the departing Israelites:
-Exodus 3:21 And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed.
-Exodus 12:36 The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.
Let me offer just a few more such passages without commentary:
-Deuteronomy 2:30 But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the LORD your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.
-1 Kings 8:58 May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep the commands, decrees and regulations he gave our fathers.
-1 Chronicles 5:26 So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day.
-Proverbs 16:7 When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way,
he causes their enemies to make peace with them.
-Proverbs 21:1 In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water
that he channels toward all who please him.
-Isaiah 19:2 I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—
brother will fight against brother,
neighbor against neighbor,
city against city,
kingdom against kingdom.
-Jeremiah 24:7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
-Jeremiah 51:1 This is what the Lord says:
“See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon and the people of Leb Kamai.”
-Haggai 1:14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God,
-Revelation 17:17 For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled.
There are many other passages like this. To be fair, we would need to look at each one more closely, checking if all the relevant terms are properly translated, and so on. But one certainly sees a lot of talk about God making or causing people to do things, or turning their hearts, and so on.
I say all this to highlight the fact that often people can let a particular theological grid determine how they read Scripture. It is as if they just cannot see certain passages because it does not fit in with their pet theological stance – be it Calvinism, Arminianism or whatever.
We must let the Scriptures speak, even when it seems there are paradoxes involved, or problems in reconciling various biblical truths, and not force everything into our particular theological straightjacket. The issue of God’s sovereignty is clearly one such topic where plenty of theological grids are being draped over the biblical material.
Better to let the biblical data inform our theological packaging than the other way around.
by BILL MUEHLENBERG