Following on from my last post, I want to pursue the idea that God is somehow sovereign over human decisions, even though man is endowed with a libertarian will and is held accountable for his actions. It’s the toughest cookie in the free-will debate. But I want first to remind you that my standpoint is what the Bible teaches, not what philosophical reflection would necessarily conclude. As I said in the last piece, an Evangelical objection must be to find a better explanation for the Biblical data, not simply cry “unfair”.
Let me start with a passage “at random”, since it happened to be my devotional reading for today – Isaiah 13. Isaiah, of course, was the prophet most quoted by Jesus. That chapter describes God’s future use of the army of Babylon to punish own sinful people. And “use” is the right word, for he describes “commanding” and “summoning my warriors to carry out my wrath.” “The Lord Almighty is mustering an army for war,” he says, for “the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the almighty.”
Is this an exercise in robotics? Not only does history tell us that the Babylonians were people like us, and even the political motivations that led to Nebuchadnezzar’s campaigns (it was apparently mainly an attempt to hold his empire together from division, rather than a Napoleonic desire to rule the world), but the chapter goes on (from verse 14) to describe God’s future punishment of the Babylonians themselves. I don’t think there’s any serious scholarly suggestion that Isaiah 13 has multiple authors – there is simply no contradiction envisaged between God’s control of kingdoms, their own free decisions and God’s punishment of those decisions.
Is this simply Old Testament theo-political polemic? If one dismisses Isaiah as an inspired prophetic work, then maybe. But the whole book carries on the same theme: what is happening, or is about to happen, is God’s own powerful activity, as contrasted to the idols of the nations who can’t predict the future because they can’t control it. But the New Testament, too, has its share in such a view of God.
Acts 4 describes, and condemns, the sinful actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the people of Israel in conspiring to put Jesus to death. The prayer of the apostles goes on, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” That’s quite a cast of characters to script for, but God is said to have done so. Neither is this a peripheral passage – it essentially sums up the whole early Christian explanation for the central event of the gospel: sinful men plotted, but God’s overarching purpose was in place even before they had anything to plot. The Passion was God’s unchangeable purpose to save mankind, and the means were part of the purpose.
A word here on God’s teleology. In Scripture, “wisdom” is the capacity to make a plan and choose effective means to bring it to fruition. If the means are miscalculated and fail, perhaps because they don’t take account of perverse human choices, the plan is not wise, and the planner is a fool. So this chapter of Acts is, apart from anything else, an assertion of God’s wisdom. His purpose could not fail.
Does this mean that God overturns human freedom – that he “coerced” Judas and the motley crew above into crucifying the Lord? There are, perhaps, passages that might suggest that. For example, Proverbs 21.1 says that the king’s heart is in God’s hand, directed like a watercourse wherever he pleases. But there are, as many wives and parents know, ways to get what you want without having to coerce someone’s will. You can make someone an offer they can’t refuse. If they are sentimental, you can tug at their heartstrings. If they are proud, you can feed their pride.
And if God is omnipotent and omniscient, there is literally no end to the means he might use to encourage people to want the same things he does, if not for the same reasons. This need not be in any way cynical – I met an evangelist converted through reading the page he tore out from a prison Gideon’s Bible for a cigarette paper. What would God need to do, physically, for that? Encourage the Gideon to visit the prison; stir up the prisoner’s nicotine-urge; cause the right page to fall open; whisper a suggestion to look at that particular verse…
It’s certainly the case that God need scarcely consider any interference with the human will to ensure the outworking of his purposes – provided we allow him knowledge, power, and his right to act within his creation rather than watch passively as natural law unfolds before his kenotic eyes. The story of Job is instructive (and I happened to comment on it at UD today). Here a self-determined supernatural being, Satan, challenges God over Job’s faith and is given permission to afflict him. At the end of thge book, though, the affliction is seen to have served God’s greater purpose for Job – Satan was merely his agent, though a freely volitional one. Job, of course, is more theological treatise than history, but one can see God playing to Satan’s predispositions in chapter 1, not just using but even creating an opportunity for the outworking of his still-mysterious purpose.
In my view, this view of God’s activity is consistent throughout Scripture, from Genesis (“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish wahat is now being done…”) to Revelation (“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”) But if it should turn out to be the case that there are places where the only possible interpretation implies God’s overcoming of human will directly, yet without negating human responsibility, this is one of those instances where genuine mystery must surely be permissible. We do not even really understand human will, let alone God’s relationship to it. Are we going to accuse the Holy Spirit of incoherent theology, or, in the end, let God be true and every man a liar?