Monday, November 26, 2012

A Divine Sovereignty Worthy of God

The title of the Sunday sermon was “If God is in control, then what?”  It was the last sermon in the liturgical year, the next Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent.  The pastor thought it a good sermon topic for ending the liturgical year.  The topic was Divine Sovereignty.  The pastor’s aim was to reconcile three issues with a notion of Sovereignty: unexplained catastrophe, undeserved prosperity of the wicked, and human free will. The key verse for the sermon was Psalms 103.19: The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.

I don't have a problem with Divine Sovereignty, at least how I understand Sovereignty.  My conception of Sovereignty fits exactly, it seems to me, with Psalm 103.19.  I don't understand it in the way that is typical for Calvinists.  Calvinists seem to think that Sovereignty requires, in addition to God ruling over all, that God be in detailed control of every event.  That is, they equate Sovereignty with predestination and foreordination.  Indeed an online encyclopedia of Christianity, Theopedia, defines Sovereignty of God as “the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  Get that?  It is “the biblical teaching,” as if there is only one biblical teaching about God’s authority, such that any other notion of sovereignty is non- or un-biblical.  The definition also adds the notion of “control” whereas biblical texts end at “rule.”

Yes, there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is in control of some details that we usually think of as under control of humans: perhaps Romans 13.1 The authorities that exist have been established by God.  But that is ambiguous between referring to individual rulers and referring to the notion of human rule and authority: which did God establish, individual rulers or the notion of human authority?  We usually think that determining who is in charge is a matter of a ballot or an appointment by a superior, not a matter of divine control.   And there are places in the bible that make it appear that God is not in such control: perhaps Psalm 2.1-3 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles’.  They conspire, plot, rise up, and band together against the Lord.  All this is in vain not because it is really God who is controlling everything; it is because God rules and they are supposed to serve God (with “fear and trembling” it says).

Why should anyone think that the notion of Sovereignty also requires God to be in control of everything?  And why should Calvinists be able to dictate what any other Christian should believe about the Sovereignty of God?

A Sovereign is a ruler, one whose law is law over a domain or region independently of whether a subject agrees with or accepts that law.  A Sovereign is not someone who controls every event that occurs within his or her kingdom.  A Sovereign is one who is the lord of that kingdom.  No Sovereign controls her or his subjects, determining every event that happens to them.  If a subject disobeys the Sovereign, or violates a law set by the Sovereign, the subject is subject to sanction.

With such a notion of Sovereignty, now applied to the Christian God, I see no conflicts between Sovereignty and human free will.  I also have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) wicked people from prospering in what seems a great unfairness.  As well, I have no need to blame God for causing (or not intervening to prevent) great amounts of pain and suffering seen in some unexplained catastrophes.  Why?  Because Divine Sovereignty does not require God being the cause of, or in control of, every detail of every event.  All Sovereignty requires is that God rules over all and God’s kingdom is authoritative over all other realms.

Some of the great amounts of pain and suffering are just due to there being a material world that operates with considerable regularity, following (what we call) laws of nature.  There are some things God cannot and could not do.  God could not make a material world perfect (whatever that means), at least if you hold a standard theological view that God only is perfect.  Maybe to say that some original pre-fallen creation was "perfect" simply means that it was full or complete, that it didn't need anything added to it; it cannot mean "perfect" in the sense that most folks think of God as perfect.  God also cannot make a material world with material persons who acquire a good deal of their knowledge of the world by means of the senses, of nerves, synapses and brains, and make it such that material persons could not sense pain.  If we have material bodies, they will be capable of over-stimulation.  Even if there was an Adam living someplace before a fall, if he stepped on a sharp rock he felt a pain.  I could follow a similar line of reasoning to explain how God designed a world in which benefits sometimes come to various undeserving individuals.

So I don't believe God is in control of everything.  Nor do I think God can do everything.  Nor do I think God knows everything.  And I still think God is Sovereign.  God sets the way for how humans should interact with and relate to God and their neighbors.  God may even have set the way that the universe would develop and run.  God may even enter time and space to act in special ways, the ways we call "miracles."  Sovereignty requires that God is the final, ultimate authority.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Lastly, at least for now, while I think God doesn't know everything and isn't in control of everything, there is no event, no human choice or human tragedy that catches God so off-guard that God has to feel helpless and wonder what in the world to do.  An image I use is of chess playing (I don't know how to play chess, so this is hearsay).  It is as if we are playing chess with God.  God lets all of us make our moves (well, maybe for some or all of us there is a measure of prevenient grace so that some or all of us can freely chose to side with God who, through Christ, was reconciling himself to the world).  Whatever moves we make, even those moves that cause great pain and suffering to others—those things that I believe cause God sadness—God always has the capacity for a counter-move.  God can always win the game in the end.  When naturally caused or humanly caused evils occur, God can make things whole again.  I think that to be God, God does not always need to make things whole again.  But God can.  Or maybe God always does make things whole again, but some of those whole-makings are so far down the road that we never experience it.

If most people would think a few minutes about these matters, while they might initially feel very uneasy and even unwilling to say so aloud, I do think they would tend to agree with me.  On the one hand, they want to mouth the mantra "God is in control of everything."  After all, on a list of good and proper things for contemporary Christians to affirm, “God is in control of everything” is about the same status as “God communicates to us through the Bible” or “God loves everyone.”  Nonetheless and on the other hand they (at least secretly and in their private moments) think that God does not control everything, that they really do make choices, that bad and wicked things are not controlled by God.  I think they'd be better off dumping the mantra "God is in control of everything" and instead just stick with the mantra "God is Lord over all."  And Lords, as we all know, do not control their subjects; yet the subjects have to answer to the Lord and should Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling (Psalm 2.11).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Inerrancy: Who Cares?

I’ve heard from Peter Enns, Ben Witherington, and Roger Olson (do a google search to find their blogs) how evangelicalism seems to want to hold onto inerrancy as a dogma (not just doctrine or opinion).  To hold it as a dogma is to claim it is essential, a “must believe” in order to be a properly right-believing (i.e. orthodox) Christian.  It is of the same status as, for example, the Apostle’s creed.

 Yet in actual practice inerrantists kill it by a thousand qualifications, sometimes resulting in a claim "inerrant in all it teaches (or taught) in its original autographs."  In other words, we get to determine what the inerrant teaching is.  We do that by applying interpretive principles to try to divine the author’s original intent, or try to divine what God (who is regarded as having inspired the writing, and is taken by some to be the ultimate author of the text) intended to teach.  And that sort of move, I can imagine, can be used to defend whatever teaching one wants to dogmatize.  For in the end the interpreter often claims about that interpretation, “this is not what I am saying, this is what God is saying.”  And sometimes, maybe too often, it gets used as a club to beat others into submission. Such a strategy fuels the Nietzscheans among us who claim that “truth” is nothing more than power and domination in disguise.   Can't we imagine someone (maybe they need to have some sort of scholarly credentials)  taking some passage that states what strongly appears to be a falsehood and divining what the original autograph (or God) might have said or meant such that it (the original) expresses something true or correct or factual?  They have to save the bible we have from falsehood.

Then, too, it seems they will need to save the Jesus we have from falsehood. In  Mark 2.25-26 Jesus is recorded as stating that David and his companions took consecrated bread and ate it, during the time when Abiathar was the high priest.  Yet in 1 Samuel 21.1-7, Ahimelech is recorded as the high priest.  Lots of options here (at least five I can think of), two of which are a) the writer of Mark put a falsehood into the mouth of Jesus, b) Jesus stated a falsehood and the gospel writer reports accurately what Jesus said.  Much has been written on it, some of it I find very entertaining.

Rather than having to save the Bible (or Jesus) from error, why not just hold the view that Jesus stated a falsehood?  Does Jesus have to be a know-it-all—not in the negative sense that that term is often used?  Does the doctrine (I think it is a doctrine, not a dogma) of the sinlessness (the theological term is “impeccability”) of Jesus entail that he made no mistakes?  Should I think that whenever Jesus was playing the first century equivalent of baseball, he batted 1.000, never made a fielding error, always made it home without getting called "out"?  Or that when he was learning how to spell, or do mathematical calculations, he never made a mistake?  Or that when he was cutting a board for his dad, he never forgot to “measure twice, cut once” and never made a wrong cut?

If you are willing to accept that Jesus stated a falsehood, you don’t have to think that Jesus told a lie (at least not in the Mark 2.25-26 claim).  I define a lie as "a) intentionally communicating what you believe to be a falsehood, b) when the person to whom you are communicating it expects or deserves what you believe to be the truth, c) in order to gain some advantage for yourself against that person."  Let me give a couple of weird examples; I state the weird ones to show some of the qualifications in the definition I gave.

The first example is one in which I knowingly tell a falsehood to gain an advantage for myself but it is not a lie. Two dozen years ago on a warm January night, I was in a city park with two friends enjoying 60 degrees in January and a six-pack of beer.  We were breaking the law by being in the park after dark and by having alcohol in the park.  [Side note: I loved it in St. Paul where the city and county parks had signs posted stating “No alcohol, except beer and wine.”  I guess that is shorter or clearer than “Alcohol permitted, just not the hard stuff”].  I saw a police car driving into the park by where my car was parked and where we were standing under the clear but warm January sky enjoying our conversation and beer.  I told my companions, “put your open beer down, at least six feet away from you.”  Three of the six-pack were unopened in the carton at my feet.   When the policemen pulled up with their flashlights out, one asked what we were doing in the park.  I responded “enjoying the beautiful, unusually warm night.”  He asked if we knew the park was closed at night.  I said no.  He told us it was a safety issue, and we shouldn’t be in the park at night for our own safety.  He then asked if that beer was ours, and I said no.  He then asked if we’d pick it up and put it in the trash can nearby.  I said sure, and when I picked up the carton with the unopened three, I said “officer, these three aren’t opened; is it okay if I put them in my trunk?”  He responded “sure.”

Now, according to my definition, did I lie?  I say no; I intentionally said what was false but not a lie.  How so?  The officer believed that we were not trouble-makers.  If I had responded truthfully, he might have had to issue a ticket, or even arrest us.  That would have created a lot of work he did not what to do, taking time that would be better spent on other matters of public safety.  He did not expect the truth; indeed he did not want the truth.  He wanted us to get our stuff and leave the park.  According to my definition, no lie.

The second example is fictional, in which I tell the truth but in doing so I tell what counts on my definition as a lie.  Suppose that on September 11, 2001 at my 10 am class I want to see if I can get the students to want to cancel the class because I was lazy and hadn’t prepared well.  So I make up a story, saying that just before I left my office I saw on an internet news site that some planes just crashed into some buildings in New York, killing all passengers.  One of the buildings has collapsed, and the other is expected to.  This is a horrible disaster.  The news report said that this is believed to have been carried out by terrorists, that we should be on the alert, especially if we are in a building with a large number of people.  The students panic, they want to get out.  Class ends.  I chuckle to myself that they bought my story.

In this case, while the truth was told, it was a lie.  How so?  I intentionally communicated what I believed to have been a falsehood (it was, coincidentally true, unbeknownst to me) to people who expected what I believed to be the truth, and I did so in order to gain an advantage for myself against them.

Given my definition of a lie, I don’t see Jesus as telling a lie in Mark 2.25-26.  He tells a falsehood probably believing it is true, but he isn’t doing so in order to gain any advantage over others.   It wouldn’t shock me if Jesus told a lie or two sometime during his life.  It would shock me if he hadn’t lied a few times as a child.  It is similar to my claim that the impeccability of Christ does not require that in the first century version of basketball he never missed any shot he took.  Even I could beat Jesus in arm wrestling.  I think I can believe that without having to accept some version of an Arian view that Jesus was a mere human who became the Son of God at the baptism by John the Baptizer, symbolized by the Spirit like a dove descending on him (after which, on this theory, he would have been incapable of lying, even if still capable of being beat at arm wrestling).

An inerrantist might accept that Jesus stated a falsehood (but no lie), and still maintain the inerrancy of Mark 2.25-26 by claiming that it is inerrant in what it teaches.  The inerrantist then has to employ interpretive principles to claim that the intent of the passage is not to teach about David, or about who the high priest was at some specific point in history.  The intent is to teach about some deeper significance of the Sabbath.  To me, that version of inerrancy does sound like a death by a thousand qualifications.  Furthermore, I can get that interpretation (that Jesus is teaching something about what the Sabbath is for) without having to accept inerrancy.  And at that point, why not just give up on inerrancy?

Why not?  Because it is a boundary marker.  It marks where all members of one's theological club stand, thinking only they have orthodoxy on their side, with anyone not in the inerrantist club standing on the errant, almost certainly heretical, heterodox side.  It is, in my view, inflating an opinion, or perhaps a doctrine, into a dogma.