Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Fictitious Dialogue Between Paul Helm and John Sanders (Part 4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

PH: John, I think your criticism is based on a misunderstanding of my position. Believe it or not, my understanding of divine guidance is not that divergent from yours. While I do believe that God has a detailed plan for each of our lives, I don't believe that the Scriptures instruct us to try to discover this plan before it unfolds so as to bring our lives in conformity to it. What God has decreed is only known before it happens in the event that God makes it known by means of prophecy. Otherwise, we don't know what he has ordained except as it is worked out in history. What we ARE responsible for is our obedience to the revealed moral will of God. It's from this that we are to seek guidance for life. We are to apply God's commands and revealed principles to our specific situations and on that basis make our decisions. The leading of the Spirit, as I understand it, is the Spirit's work of inclining our wills and enabling us to walk in the ways of God's law. I conclude this on the basis that the two instances where the apostle Paul writes of being "led by the Spirit," Galatians 5:18 and Romans 8:14, are in the context of sanctification.

KP: I'm glad you brought that up, Dr. Helm. It reminds me of another important biblical theme I wanted to discuss. Clearly, the concept of covenant is prominent throughout the Bible. God makes covenants with individuals like Noah, Abraham, and David. He enters into a covenant with the nation of Israel to which they are repeatedly disloyal. And through the prophets, he promises a day in which he will make a new covenant with Israel which will be far better than the Mosaic Covenant.

Dr. Sanders, I was disappointed that you failed to make any mention of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the New Covenant because I wanted to see how you saw them fitting in with your model of providence. The passage that I kept hoping you'd interact with is Ezekiel 36:27 where God says, "And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." Jeremiah 31:33 is, of course, a parallel text in which God promises to write his law upon human hearts. My question to you, Dr. Sanders, is given your view of human freedom, in what sense can God cause anyone to walk in obedience to his statutes?

JS: I'd have to examine the text in question more thoroughly before giving a definitive answer. Offhand, I'm not sure of the Hebrew word translated as "cause" in the version you're quoting. I doubt seriously though, that the intended meaning is that God will cause people to act in some mechanistic way. God interacts with people as persons, not billiard balls involved in some chain reaction.

PH: John, this biblical theme is very pertinent to our discussion because I think it addresses a number of the objections you raised to the no-risk model's understanding of salvation. You say that sin is a broken relationship as opposed to a condition. Certainly sin results in severed relationships but I don't think that they can be equated. The Bible does depict sin as a corrupt condition of fallen humanity. In fact, the promises of the New Covenant recorded in the Old Testament focus on the heart's need to be renewed and transformed by the gracious activity of God. Our hearts in their natural condition are unresponsive to God which why the Lord promises that he will remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh in Ezekiel 36:26. The corrupt condition of the heart is described throughout the Bible.

God's promise of a New Covenant, in which he will so act in the hearts of his people that they will obey him, also appears problematic for your view of omniscience. You allow God to have certain knowledge of what he intends to do in the future yet deny that he can have such certainty regarding the free acts of human beings. However, in this case, we see God not only declaring what he will do, but also what humans will do as a result of his action. It's as if their actions will somehow be guaranteed as a result of his own. How could this possibly be according to your model? Are we to take this divine prediction as nothing more than an educated guess on God's part? I don't think so.

It's because of what the Bible says about the efficacy of God's grace that I reject the idea that providence is "risky." If humans have the kind of freedom you propose, and God cannot ensure that anyone will trust in Christ for redemption, then promises such as these are meaningless. This, not my loyalty to Plato, is why I believe that we must understand those biblical passages that describe God as repenting and being ignorant of certain things as instances of accommodation on God's part.

JS: Paul, you and Keith have raised some very challenging topics that I'll have to give further thought to. Nevertheless, I fail to see how what you're suggesting differs from puppetry or rape on God's part. There is no genuine responsiveness in what you're saying. God may be personal in the model you're presenting but we are not.

PH: Perhaps we need to ask whether our understandings of what it means to be a person in relationship with another originates from the Scriptures or from some outside source. 

KP: That would be very interesting, I'm sure, but I think we'll have to draw our discussion to a close. Gentlemen, thanks again for making time to talk about this very important doctrine. There are so many more related topics I'd like to discuss with you. You've both obviously spent a long time thinking about and researching this issue. For my part, I have to say that I find Dr. Helm's case to be most persuasive because I believe it more comprehensively and coherently accounts for the biblical data.

I'm sorry we never got back around to the problem of evil in more depth but perhaps that's something we can devote an entire discussion to in the future. I know all of our schedules are quite full but perhaps we'll be able to meet again to pick up where we left off.

JS: Who knows? That just might happen.

PH: Lord willing, it shall.


Meph said...

Hey, KP.

Hope everything's going well for you on this 4th of July weekend. Anyway, I wanted to toss a thought your way and see what you think. First of all, I have read a signficant amount of the openness material out well as the rebuttals. It appears to me that both parties seem to assume that it must be an all-or-nothing type of deal. Either God cannot predict or control ANY aspects of human choice...or God predicts or controls ALL aspects of human choice. I submit to you (and others) that this simply need not be the case. It is possible to posit an reality where God can significantly choose WHAT God wants to control or predict exhaustively and what God does not. Basically, this is an "open view" worldview that takes very seriously the biblical claim that God can orchestrate certain humanly choices according to God's ultimate will in a compatibilistic fashion...while also taking seriously the biblical idea that God is genuinely responsive to God's sentient creature. What this means is that it is very possible for God to ordain and manage things providentially such that God can predict that certain historical events will come to pass. It would be possible for God to establish and keep covenants, for God to predict Cyrus's ascent, and for Jesus to predict Peter's denial. The end result, from the perspective of theodicy, is to say that it is possible that NOT ALL specific instances of natural or moral evil have an immediate divine purpose. This is all philosophically possible within the open view framework.

Another thing. It is possible that God's main telos for Creation was this: God wants His glory to be perceived, received, internalized, enjoyed, and reflected back to Himself by relatively autonomous sentient beings? When I speak of "relative autonomy" here, I am speaking of sentient beings whose existence is continously supported by God and under God's ultimate authority...yet who have the ontological distinction from God such that self-created, self-determined, self-consummated rational development is possible. (Note: I kinda dig John Piper's "Christian hedonism" idea....or at least some aspects of it)

One more thing. Some people say that God wants sentient creatures to have a "reciprocal" relationship with God. To some, this has the rhetorical force of saying that God actually wanted the creatures to have a "buddy-buddy", peer-like relationship with God. I would use a different term. I would say that God wants to have an "asymmetrically influential" relationship with sentient beings. In other words, God wanted to create reality such that God would be able to genuinely respond to agent causation outside of Himself, but where God was still the ultimate source and authority of all.

I know these statements are bold and without any substantiation, but I honestly didn't have time to demonstrate all my thinking for these things. I would like to know your thoughts on my suggestions in general, though.


KP said...

Hi, Meph

Thanks for taking the holiday greetings as well as for your thoughts.

My initial response to your proposal is that our primary concern should not be what we believe to be philosophically possible but rather what the totality of Scripture communicates about the nature of the relationship between God and his iamge bearers. Of course, we can conceive of a reality such as you describe but that in itself doesn't help us determine what is true. For that answer, we must look to the Bible. As you've probably already gathered, I don't think it's going far enough to say that the Bible claims that God can orchestrate human cnoices. I believe the testimony is much stronger. God does orchestrate human choices in order to accomplish his will. His sovereignty is comprehensive in scope and meticulous in detail. Since you're familiar with both sides of the debate (and since I'm short on time) I won't try to make a case beyond that offered in the posts to which you replied.

I think it's mistaken to assume, as you do, that in order for God to be "genuinely" responsive to human actions, those actions cannot be divinely determined. In case it's not one you've read, I recommend John Frame's No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. He has a helpful chapter on the relationship between God's atemporal decrees and his interaction with his creatures in time.

Thanks again for taking time to read my thoughts and sharing yours.


Anonymous said...

Hi guys, nice discussion. Although I am not Splitting God's will in two is also a nice dodge.