Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Fictitious Dialogue Between Paul Helm and John Sanders (Part 3)

Part 1 Part 2

PH: Keith, the answer to your question is complex but I'll give it a shot. Yes, I believe that even the thoughts and intentions of the human heart are under the sovereign direction of the Lord. Concerning God's justice in holding us responsible for those intentions, I think it's necessary to refer to the Bible to see what it has to say about the grounds for our culpability. I think John and I agree that a necessary condition for moral responsibility is knowledge of what is required. Furthermore, it's necessary that we consent to an action in order to be responsible for it. In other words, we have to be acting voluntarily and not under compulsion. I know John thinks that my view involves God's "forcing" us to act in certain ways but in this he is mistaken. Finally, it must be within our power to produce an outcome at will.

There's a need to make further distinctions, though. God does ordain both good and evil in order to accomplish his purposes. However, God does not intend evil as evil in the same way that the human agent does. That this is so is evident from the Isaiah 10 passage you mentioned. It can also be seen in Joseph's words to his conniving brothers in Genesis 50:20: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Notice that the same verb is used with respect to God and Joseph's brothers. What the brothers intended for evil, God intended in order to accomplish his good purpose. So, God does not intend evil as evil. He cannot, because he is the absolute measure of goodness. He finds no pleasure or delight in evil as such, but ordains it in order to accomplish the ultimate good, namely, the manifestation of his glory. His relationship to evil acts, then, is not symmetrical with his relationship to righteous acts. Although he ordains both, he does not cause evil as he does good since he is the source of moral perfection. This we must affirm in order to be faithful to his revelation in Scripture.

As for your interjection, John, I think you're being woefully inconsistent.

JS: What do you mean? I've never suggested that God has ordained what is clearly contrary to his will.

PH: Well, you claim that if God does indeed control all that comes to pass, then there is no reason for his being angry with those who disobey his commands. yet, in your book you cite a biblical example of that very thing, namely the Lord's inciting David to number Israel and then becoming angry with him for doing so.

JS: As I say in the book, this is a problematic text. However, I believe that the mercy of God as well as his covenant love for his people is evidenced even in that passage.

PH: John, that's not being disputed. My point is simply that here we have at least one case in which God is said to be angered by an act that he caused to come about.

JS: Point taken.

KP: Dr. Helm, in your book you write about the need to distinguish between different senses of what is meant by "God's will." Is that at all relevant here?

PH: Most definitely. You'll notice that throughout John's book he speaks of God's intention or will univocally. He regards the distinction I make between God's will of decree and will precept as unnecessary and contrived. However, I think that it's biblically warranted and that unless we recognize this distinction, we have no choice but to conclude that the Bible contradicts itself.

KP: Can you give us an example?

PH: Sure. In Romans 9:19, the apostle Paul anticipates an objection to his teaching about God's sovereign right to dispense mercy and compassion to whomever he desires as well las to harden whomever he so chooses. To paraphrase, the objection sounds something like this: "If God's sovereignty is as exhaustive as you claim it is, then why does God still hold us responsible for our actions, for who can resist his will?" As an aside, this is exactly the kind of objection that John and other "relational theists" raise against my understanding of the extent of God's sovereignty. Such an objection would never arise if Paul had been advocating libertarian freedom.

Anyway, the will of God referred to here cannot be a reference to his moral precepts. The force of the anticipated objector would be gone if that were the case, because people break the law of God all the time. So, what is in mind here is God's sovereign will by which he ordains whatever comes to pa ss, including the actions of men and women. You find the same idea in James 4:15 where the author rebukes those who boast of their future plans as though they were the ultimate determiners of what will be. "Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.'" Again, this is a reference to God's sovereign will, which is incapable of being thwarted. Elsewhere, however, the term "God's will" is used with reference to God's moral statutes and commands, that which he enjoins upon us and which we are responsible to obey. First Thessalonians 4:3 is an example of this: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality." Taken in this sense, God's will is violated all the time. So, we have some passages that declare that God's will is incapable of being violated and others that identify God's will with his law, which we know is violated all the time. Unless we make the distinction I'm defending, we're faced with the conclusion that the Bible is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

JS: But Paul, if what you're saying is true, then however we interpret our circumstances at any given time, is exactly how God wants us to interpret them. Even if our conclusions about what God is up to in our lives are faulty, they are exactly the conclusions that God wanted us to have. We couldn't be sure about what God was leading us to do since even our misinterpretations of God's guidance would be divinely ordained. When David's men sought to persuade him that God had delivered Saul into his hand to kill, David denied that this was the case. But if everything turns out just as God wants it, including my misguided notions about what God wants me to do, then how can I ever discern his leading with assurance?

A related difficulty that I see for your view is that it allows me to excuse my sinfulness and lack of holiness by appealing to god's will. After all, he's in control of everything. If I'm not making efforts to grow in my relationship with him and to resist temptation, then it must be because that's what he wants for the time beginning. Isn't that a lot like Adam saying, "The woman you gave me....?"

Part 4

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