(Originally posted July 31, 2009)
Since I won’t be writing much while I’m on Spring break this week, I’ll be posting some of my previous articles. I’ll be back at it on Monday, March 29th.
An email from my favorite theologically minded friend started this post. Recently, Craig Blomberg, a well-known New Testament scholar whose work on the historical accuracy and reliability of the Gospels has been of great help to many a student, pastor, and layman, wrote an article explaining why he is a “Calminian” — a jokey riff on the “Why I Am/ Am Not a Calvinist” books of recent years. Blomberg is basically trying to put himself clearly outside the Reformed mindset once and for all. I’ve read a few expressions of disappointment, and an article agreeing with his position, which is basically what I’m going to attempt to respond to today.
First of all, let me point out that Craig Blomberg is way smarter than I am. I don’t pretend that I can tangle with him intellectually. Despite that, I still think he’s wrong. Second, let me point out that Craig Blomberg is also a brother in Christ, in spite of what I think are his mistakes on this front. I’m not denigrating his faith or his commitment to the body of Christ, nor am I trying to write off his contribution to the Christian community. One of his books sits on my shelf, and it’s staying there! *does not throw baby out with bathwater*
At one point in his article, Blomberg refers to the story of Joseph’s brothers coming to him in Egypt for help during the great famine. Joseph’s famous line, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good,” Blomberg insists, is not a declaration of God’s sovereignty, but a mere statement of fact. He says: “Two separate agents, two separate wills, at cross purposes with each other, neither described as logically or chronologically prior to the other. Neither is said to cause the other; they occur simultaneously.” What’s really happening, he says, is that both wills operate at the same time, without one being over the other.
Well, hold up. Joseph says to his brothers, “You sold me into slavery out of a wicked intention, but God’s power trumped your evil desires!” In fact, God’s purposes to preserve his people included the brothers’ evil plans and actions. God is so powerful that he can even use human evil — the condition of our fallen nature! — to accomplish his purposes. That’s comprehensive sovereignty! Blomberg’s a great guy, but he just does NOT want to be in the “God is totally sovereign” camp AT ALL. (Plus, calling himself a “Calminian” is cute, but the fact is that there isn’t a responsible Arminian on the planet who wouldn’t totally acknowledge God’s sovereignty in human history. So he’s really a Cal-Open Theist-ian. Which isn’t quite as cute.)
Moving on to broader arguments about God’s sovereignty, I often encounter people who point to the word “relent” in the Scriptures and say, “See? That means that God goes back on his word! If he really is completely sovereign over everything, how can he appear to be influenced by the prayers of his people?” I used to use this argument myself! Well, yes, “relent” means that he will not do what he said he would do, out of a gracious desire to preserve and defend his people. But a couple things:
1) This DOES NOT MEAN that God changes his mind or that he’s fickle or doesn’t know what he’s ultimately going to do. The problem with the argument here is that, while they’re trying to just draw a line around the Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty, they END UP basing their whole view on the idea that God actually changes his mind. Listen up: this is where guys like Greg Boyd and Clark Pinnock got started, and where they end up is saying that God takes risks, that he doesn’t even KNOW the outcome of certain events, and that in some cases WE have more sovereignty over circumstances than the creator of the universe. That’s a pretty stupid place to end up and still call yourself a Christian. It’s just like how the Mormons use the theories of 19th century German liberal philosophers (especially the evolutionary view of history — that all history moves from the simple to the complex and that doctrines aren’t revealed but evolve over time) to convince people that the Book of Mormon is true. That argument might convince people, but you’re cutting off the branch you’re sitting on!
2) Check out this article. There’s some uncool argumentation happening here, and this isn’t the only place I’ve heard this line of reasoning, not by a long shot. You ever hear of “weasel words”? They’re little words or phrases that a speaker or writer slips in, sometimes without even knowing it himself, that unfairly denigrate the other position — it’s like straw man + ad hominem all at once. The one that popped out to me was “real relationship.” Yates and others imply that, unless God limits his own foreknowledge or sovereignty in some way, it’s impossible for him to enter into “real relationship” with his creation. This is nonsense. We don’t get to make up the rules for how God interacts with us based on our experiences with each other. The scriptures are full of the truths of God bringing the dead back to life both literally and figuratively. But does that one-sided interaction, that ultimate demonstration of total sovereignty, mean that God has some kind of counterfeit relationship with those he raises to life? Did Jesus have a more or less “real relationship” with Lazarus when he raised him, single-handed, from death?
3) There’s also some plain old ridiculousness that gets shoveled around. To quote Yates, who is taking up a common anti-sovereignty argument: “The statements that Yahweh will harden the Pharaoh’s heart at the beginning of this process (cf. Exod 4:21; 7:3) are an expression that Yahweh’s purposes will ultimately prevail in this struggle but not that he dictates or determines the Pharaoh’s responses.” Uh… what? What part of “I will harden his heart” is the tough part to interpret? “I will” meaning it’s gonna happen… right? And “harden his heart” meaning that’s what he’s gonna do… Yup. You have to do some pretty sexy contortionism to get around the plain meaning of that sucker.
4) The kicker is the “only a really sovereign God could accomplish his purposes in a universe where he has limited his sovereignty,” also known as the “it’s true because it ain’t” argument. A God who can accomplish his purposes in such a give-and-take, unresolved universe that anti-sovereignty folks try to set up, is truly sovereign? Huh? So only a God who is truly sovereign and omniscient could operate in a universe where some things are outside his sovereignty and beyond his omniscience? Yeah, that makes sense. What’s the purpose of prayer if the God we’re praying to has chosen this event to be one of the hands-off parts of world history? How are we to know the difference? Or does he wait until we pray and then decide to re-institute the sovereignty he’s chosen to put on hold?
Unlike Blomberg and lots of other people who use these kinds of arguments, I’m happy to live knowing that my choices are BOTH really choices that I really make with my time-bound will and mind AND are mysteriously part of God’s plan. It’s called paradox, and we have to embrace it, largely because our finite brains can’t fathom the depths of God’s will. Let’s not try to eliminate paradox by making God more like us. That’s a pretty dumb Bible study method. Dig?