Friday, July 01, 2005

A Fictitious Dialogue Between Paul Helm and John Sanders (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

KP: Dr. Sanders, your understanding of the nature of God's divine project obviously plays a crucial role in your thinking. Dr. Helm, do you agree with Dr. Sanders about God's ultimate purpose?

PH: Well, I don't deny that God is desirous of loving relationships with His creatures (though John and I certainly don't see eye to eye concerning what constitutes a genuine, personal relationship). However, I don't see the Bible presenting this as the ultimate end of all that God does. Rather, I see God's utmost purpose as displaying his own glory in all its fullness: His goodness, mercy, grace, and wisdom, as well as His justice and wrath. God Himself is uppermost in his own affections, as Jonathan Edwards was fond of saying. And He does all things for the sake of his own name and glory. This was his reason for creating the nation of Israel as is stated in Isaiah 43:7 and this is his ultimate aim in redemption as well. 

Keith, a little while ago you mentioned the first chapter of the book of Ephesians. This wonderful doxology is emphatic that God's purpose in redeeming us is the display and praise of His glory. In verses 5 and 6 we read: "....he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace...." Again in verse 12, Paul gives the reason for God's choosing us: "so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory." Finally in verse 14, the apostle says that our redemption is "to the praise of his glory." 

If I may, though, I'd like to return to something John said earlier.

KP: Please do.

PH: Thank you. John suggested that my reason for believing in specific sovereignty has to do with the imbibing of extrabiblical philosophical categories. That's not the case. I'm not beginning with some abstract idea of the most perfect being and superimposing it on the Scriptures. My reason for believing as I do about the relationship between God and the world is that I can't make sense of much of the biblical narrative given the model that John is proposing. There are a number of biblical accounts in which human agents make uncoerced decisions for which they are held morally responsible although the divine intention is offered as the ultimate cause for their actions. Moses says the reason that Sihon, King of Heshbon was unwilling to allow the Israelites to pass through is land was because "the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your had, as he is this day" (Deut. 2:30).Those cities which refused to make peace treaties with Joshua, acted as they did, according to Joshua 11:20, "For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction." Eli's' wicked sons refused to heed his rebuke concerning their immoral behavior "....for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death" (1 Samuel 2:25). 

John does not even acknowledge these references in his book and I imagine the reason for such an omission is because they are completely unintelligible in terms of the kind of freedom he insists we have. However, all of these are perfectly consistent with compatibilism and it is because of biblical data such as these that I hold the view I do.

JS: Paul, it wasn't my intent to provide an exhaustive biblical exegesis of every relevant text. I did acknowledge what I consider a problematic text for my position, namely God's inciting David to number Israel and then punishing him for it. That's in note 170 on page 298.

PH: Yes, I recall reading that but you failed to offer any explanation as to how that is at all compatible with your indeterminism.

JS: I'll have to give some more thought to that as well as the other passages you cited.

KP: Related to that, Dr. Sanders, I had a question about your treatment of other passages that at first glance seem to teach that God's sovereignty extends to the acts of humans. I'm thinking about texts such as Proverbs 21:1 and 16:9. You call it "hermeneutical malpractice" to universalize particular statements like these, right?

JS: Yes. I think these have to be taken in context of the overall purpose of the book, which is to instruct in wisdom. God eagerly desires that his people not rely on their own understanding but that they rely on his wisdom and truth. Understood in light of the whole, all these verses are saying is that God gives direction and guidance to his people when they seek him for wisdom.

KP: OK, I can understand how a case might be made for that in the case of those verses, but what of verse 4 of Proverbs 16? It says, "The LORD works out everything for his own ends - even the wicked for a day of disaster." Now, the wicked wouldn't be seeking God for wisdom, would they?

JS: No, they wouldn't.

KP: Then how could God make sure that even they will accomplish his purpose?

JS: He can't. And I don't believe that the verse in question is intended to be understood as a blanket statement about God's control of the evil actions of people. Keep in mind that the book of Proverbs is filled with general principles and maxims, not all of which are to be taken as universal absolutes that are applicable in every particular situation. God cannot ensure that evil people will conform to his purposes but this is not a mar against him since it was his sovereign choice to create a world filled with authentically free, personal beings, capable of giving and receiving love, affecting, and being affected.

Though he can't guarantee that every little detail works out as he would like, God is nevertheless very wise and resourceful, adopting his plan in response to our actions - including our wicked actions.

KP: Thank you, Dr. Sanders.

Dr. Helm, I have a question for you. If, in fact, God exercises meticulous control over all that he has made, then doesn't it follow that even the intentions and motives of men's hearts are directed by him? And if so, is it really fair or just to hold people responsible for desires and intentions that have their ultimate cause in God? I see the force of the biblical case you make for compatibilism yet there's something that still doesn't sit right with me. Take Isaiah 10:15-19, for example. Here, God says that he has sent Assyria against Israel for her ungodliness but he also pronounces woe on Assyria's king because he didn't intend to serve God but rather sought only to destroy Israel for his own gain. Now, if what you're saying is true, isn't it also true that the king's intentions were under God's control?

JS: Exactly my point! If God controls everything that happens, then nothing can thwart his will. He gets everything He wants and there is no reason for him to be angry. Paul's view leads to the logical conclusion that God intends sin and is therefore not fundamentally opposed to it - a blasphemous thought! Furthermore, this kind of doctrine suggests disunity between the members of the Trinity. If God, the Father, actually intended the sin and disobedience that exists in the world and made sure that it was actualized, then Jesus has come into the world to clean up after what his Father wanted to happen.

To be continued....

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