Monday, December 27, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 3

Now that we've briefly canvassed divine sovereignty and human freedom, we will look at the implications of our sketch on the questions of whether or not we humans are responsible for our actions and also the problem of evil.

From my previous sketch of human freedom it should be clear that we are morally responsible for our actions. God works in and through our actions to bring about his desired purposes, but he never violates our will. We have the freedom to choose good or evil, however due to our fallen condition we persist in choosing evil. As an aside, while I do believe that the thrust behind the notion of irresistible grace is right, I don't particularly care for the name. God's electing purposes never fail. All of those whom he chooses come to him, but we do come freely. We don't have any desire to resist his grace.

I also think that my approach sidesteps some of the perennial problems surrounding the problem of evil. As we’ve mentioned above, God never wills evil. Usually there is some evil that attaches itself through our actions to the good that God wills, and in that sense one could say that evil goes back to God’s will. However, it would be unfair for God to be called responsible for that evil. Also, when one notices that God’s sovereignty is more about his power rather than his control (not that the two are always separable), it helps again deflect the unwarranted criticism that some may make that God causes evil.

Granted we are still left with the question of why God doesn’t prevent evil. Based on the conclusions we have drawn so far we can respond by saying that God permits it for a greater good. We may not know what that greater good is, but we must trust that the loving, omniscient, and good God knows better than we do. While God allows evil, we also see in Scripture that God uses his sovereignty to defeat evil and was willing to send his Son to the cross bearing our sin and our shame to free us from Satan’s grasp, defeating him in an act of suffering. God is not idly sitting by watching evil happen. He has actively opposed it at great cost to himself and will one day bring it to an end. Evil is not willed by God, but neither is it outside of his control.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Books of the Year: 2010

This year was a good year for me. I read lots of good books so picking just 5 is tough, but here are the five books that I liked best and learned the most from:

5. James by Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell

I read several good commentaries this year. My favorite was the inaugural volume of the ZECNT series. I'm a big fan of the layout of the series and the quality of the commentary is pretty good too. My understanding of James was greatly enhanced by reading it. (see review here)

4. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher Wright

Chris Wright is one of the great synthetic minds among Old Testament scholars. His treatment of ethics was rich, innovative, and Scriptural. I also appreciate that he allows the accents to fall where Scripture lays them. I never felt that he was forcing his argument or that the system overwhelmed specific texts. (see review here)

3. Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight

I read a few books on prayer this year, as it's an area that I need to grow in. What separates this book from other books on prayer is its emphasis on prayer as a means of practicing the communion of the saints both across time and traditions stretching back to the time of Jesus (along the way you get a nice accessible overview of prayer in church history). After reading I was propelled to start using the Book of Common Prayer in my personal devotions which has greatly enriched me.

2. Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer

I cannot even begin to describe the impact that this book has had on the way I approach and teach Scripture. This is the most challenging book on the list but it's well worth the effort. In his suggestion that Scripture is the script that we are to improvise upon, Vanhoozer avoids a lifeless, literalistic approach to applying Scripture without undermining biblical authority because his 'method' maintains deep roots in Scripture. This book should be required reading in every seminary.

1. Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman

I probably spent more time on this book than any other book I read this year, reading it and rereading and wrestling with Gorman's claims. I definitely came out the other side for the better, and I'll never be the same again (I hope). Gorman has a pastoral heart and it shines through in this book. The first chapter on Philippians 2:5-11 is worth the price of the book. (See review here)


Now for the top 5 books published in 2010 that I hope to read in 2011:

5. 1 Corinthians by Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa

If you read this blog regularly you know that I love commentaries. Out of all of the commentaries out this year, I am most excited about this one. Thiselton covers the Greco-Roman background of 1 Corinthians beautifully. Rosner and Ciampa should do the same for the Jewish background.

4. On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene by Ernst Kasemann

I gotta say that a big part of what gets me is the title. I love it. The word on the street is that this book is very good. I am intentional about reading books from outside of my theological tradition. I make sure I at least read a few each year. This will be my top choice for 2011.

3. Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson

I have to admit that I've never read a book by Peterson and I've heard a lot of good buzz about this book. Again, I like the title, so I'm hooked.

2. Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer

Vanhoozer is my favorite systematician and this is his first major work of theology (everything else he's written could loosely be logged under 'hermeneutics'). That makes it a must read for me.
1. Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison

This upcoming year I intend to read several books on the historical Jesus, and this will be on the list. His three volume work with W.D. Davies on Matthew is probably my favorite commentary on any book of the Bible and his book on the Sermon on the Mount is largely overlooked but very very good (and more accessible). I think he raised some very important issues in his little book on the historical Jesus from last year. I'm interested to see how he extends those thoughts in a fuller volume.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 2

This is the second post in a series of three looking at the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom which then will propel us to further discussion on human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first post in this series looked at the sovereignty of God. In this post we will discuss human freedom and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

Do human beings have a free will? The chorus of Scripture is univocal, whether it is from the Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom literature, or the prophets in the Old Testament; or the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles in the New Testament. Free will is rooted in creation. In the fall, Adam and Eve sinned against God in an exercise of their free will. They chose to eat the fruit that God commanded them not to eat (Gen. 3:1-6). Free will does not seem to have been completely lost as a result of the fall, either. Another clear text in the Pentateuch on the freedom of the will is Deut. 30:11-20 where God, speaking through Moses, presented the people with a choice (Deut. 30:19 explicitly uses the word ‘choose’). They could either choose to follow God and keep his commands or they could reject him. The whole system of the Old Testament law with its commands and punishments for disobedience seems to assume human freedom, otherwise it is hard to see how the law could be just. Free will also is a background assumption in many other Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen. 13:1-18; Josh. 24:1-28; 1 Sam. 15:1-35).

Again, the assumption of the freedom of the will is found throughout the rest of Scripture as well. The book of Proverbs opens in Prov. 1:8 with the call to ‘listen’ and ‘not forsake’ the instruction that follows in the remainder of the book. The prophetic literature in its narrative portions show individuals exercising free will (e.g., Dan. 1:8-16) and prophetic exhortations again often assume the free will of the people receiving the message (e.g., Ezek. 18:1ff). Demands of repentance along with reports of people accepting or rejecting the message of Jesus and the apostles are found throughout the gospels and Acts (e.g., Mt. 4:17, Ac. 2:41). In the epistles, ethical demands and warnings against apostasy abound (e.g., Heb. 3:12-15). Some particularly seem to assume the ability to make decisions, especially passages related to Christian freedom (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:36-38). The presence of options seems to assume some degree of human freedom.

Philosophy has approached the question of free will in different ways. It is considered one of the most important open questions, to which we are nowhere near a solution. Those who are materialists recognize that in our experience we do believe that we have freedom, but that it is an illusion. All of our actions are necessitated and rationality is reducible to brain states or other similar phenomena. Thus for materialists and other determinists, we have no human freedom. There are several reasons for rejecting this approach. One is that, as we showed above, Scripture seems to imply that we do have the real ability to make choices without compulsion. Human experience concurs with Scripture. In our everyday lives all of our interactions presuppose this ability. The notion of justice also operates on the assumption that we have the ability to steal or not steal; murder or not murder. Those who don’t are considered criminally insane. Given what we know about biology it also seems impossible that our free will is an illusion. As philosopher John Searle states, ‘The processes of conscious reality are such an important part of our lives, and above all such a biologically expensive part of our lives, that it would be unlike anything we know about evolution if a phenotype of this magnitude played no functional role at all in the life and survival of the organism’ (Freedom and Neurobiology p. 20) It seems very unlikely that God would create us and have such a central part of our experience be an illusion. Recognizing the validity of this argument, there are others who do think that we have free will, either of the compatibilist or incompatibilist sort. Compatibilism claims that both determinism and free will are compatible, while incompatibilism insists that they are contradictory. We will evaluate these below. First we must take up the question of the extent of human freedom along with the extent of divine sovereignty together.

One passage that relates the two is Is. 44:24-28. The passage opens in vv. 24-27 affirming the sovereign power of God by listing various things he is sovereign over. These verses could be read as affirming a meticulous sovereignty, meaning that Isaiah is saying that God controls everything that happens in the world, and thus since God decreed the result in vs. 28 it will happen because he is meticulously sovereign. That is not the only viable way to read this passage, however. Vv. 24-27 could be affirming the power of God as the sovereign creator king, and thus vs. 28 would be a promise of his future action that he is powerful enough to bring about. Somehow God is working through a means, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. God carries out his plan of redemption using human agents. This is consistent with how God works throughout Scripture and is rooted in his creational intentions. God created us in his image, with the intended function of being God’s representatives, the ones through whom God ruled the earth.

This passage provides support for the concept that in any action there can be primary and secondary causes. Both God and man can cooperate together in any action, though their participation is not identical. This concept has been heavily relied upon in the Calvinist and Thomist traditions. God is the primary cause and man is the secondary cause. Man, as the secondary cause, is unable to thwart God’s will. The way Calvin and Aquinas understand man as the secondary cause does have some differences. Calvin strongly emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He claims that God determines all of our actions and contingency is only from our perspective. However, that does not mean that we have no voluntary participation. You can also detect a dislike of the term ‘free will’ in Calvin, but he never does close the door on its use decisively (Calvin prefers not to use the term ‘free will’ because it could mislead one to believe that the unregenerate are not slaves to sin.). Aquinas is more explicit than Calvin on this question and seems to take a little softer stance. For him, some things are willed by God to happen necessarily and others contingently. Thus, even that which is contingent has God’s will as its source. Our acts fall under God’s providence, because our will comes from God. Our free will is a secondary cause that God uses to carry out his sovereign plan.

Our will, while free, is not completely unfettered, and apart from God’s intervention, his plan would not be carried out. We will look at the question of election as a paradigm, specifically at the the opening blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14, which contains perhaps the strongest statements about God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture. First, we must note in vv. 4, 5, and 11 the strong, repeated emphasis on God’s sovereign election of us, his determining that we would be saved. This is according to God’s plan which is executed without being stopped (vs. 11). God decreed it in eternity past, therefore it is sure. Clearly salvation is an act of God. We would be wise, though to see how God’s action is described. It’s described as an act of redemption or liberation, a forgiveness of sins. The condition that necessitated God’s sovereign act of liberation is enumerated in Eph. 2:1-3. We were enslaved to sin and under the dominion of Satan. Thus, God’s sovereign act is an act that liberates us and brings us under his rule. His exercise of his sovereignty is an exercise of his power to break us away from Satan. Our inability to come to him apart from his sovereign work is not presented as a metaphysical inability, but as a moral inability. God makes us alive (Eph. 2:5), freeing us from our bondage and enabling us to freely choose God, which, Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us, we will do. To sum up, God’s election of his people is a decision made before creation that he will move on our behalf to free us from the bondage that we have put ourselves in through the exercise of our will. God is so powerful that he can do this in a way that guarantees our free choice of him. That the result is guaranteed in no way diminishes our freedom.

Many within the Christian tradition have affirmed that divine foreknowledge does not diminish our freedom. God knows what we will freely do in any and every possible situation. To enact his plan of election all God need do is to arrange the situation so that we will choose him freely.

In conclusion, there seems to be two legitimate options related to the relation of divine sovereignty and human freedom, both of which are compatibilist in nature. One is congruism. God works together with man to bring about God’s ends and everything that happens is ultimately made certain by God’s will. This relies on some of the important distinctions that we discussed above, such as the distinction between primary and secondary causes. I believe, though, that this position does run into some difficulties. How does the congruist account for texts that suggest that God changed his course of action (e.g., Jon. 3:1ff.)? There is no room in the congruist account for God reacting to human action. Thus it seems that a partial compatibilist approach fits better. God is the involved, sovereign king who acts in history to bring about his purposes, and he will infallibly bring them about. While God and we work together to bring about his plan, he does not cause every action, which leaves room for him to react to our actions. God is the king who is actively involved in ruling his realm and is in the process of bringing it into complete submission (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22-28). Some things God renders certain, and others conditional. Graham Cole’s suggestion that it may be best to see God acting by writing a beautiful piece of jazz music that we perform in tandem with him is a helpful way of looking at it. [1] Our actions are generally guided. The piece only allows certain notes to be played, but there is interplay between God and us.

[1] “The Living God: Anthropomorphic or Anthropopathic” Reformed Theological Review v. 59 (2000) pp. 16-27 - I know most of you don't have access to this article, but the point Cole makes is so significant that I had to cite it. At the foundation of Cole's argument is that there is a huge difference between anthropomorphisms stating that God has a hand and alleged anthropopatisms which state that God has emotions or reactions. Clearly the statement that God has a hand can't be literally true because God doesn't have a body. On the other hand, there is no logical reason why God can't have emotions or reactions. Those don't require a body.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: James

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for providing a review copy and a slot in their blog tour. Make sure to check out the first batch of reviews here.

The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is a new series on the market geared towards pastors. I've heard excellent things about each of the volumes so I was looking forward to getting my hands on a Blomberg's and Kamell's work. I won't detail the features of the series in this review (you can see my description at the bottom of my commentary series overview post). I will say, though, that the layout is unique and very helpful. One concern that I had seeing the commentary proper split into so many sections, was that there would be substantial overlap of material. My fear proved to be unfounded. The authors and editors did a stellar job at fully utilizing the format. I also must say that they hit their intended audience dead on. The amount of technical information was just right. They don't bog you down with gobs of detail on minutiae, but there's enough to inform you on important matters, whether they be grammatical, lexical, or of cultural/historical background.

As for the contents of the commentary, again I was quite pleased, though, of course, certain elements of the commentary were better than others. The introduction was brief but helpful. It covered the usual topics, such as authorship, dating, and the circumstances prompting the letter taking traditional stances and giving reasonable defense for their positions. Blomberg and Kamell also spent several pages explaining the overall structure of James. I found this to be the most beneficial section of the introduction as I've always struggled to see an overall cohesiveness to the letter. They argue in the introduction (and defend in the commentary proper) that the entire letter focuses on three themes: trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty. These are introduced initially in 1:2-11, reiterated in the same order in 1:12-27, and then developed at length in reverse order from 2:1-5:18.

Of the three main topics of the letter, I most appreciated Blomberg's and Kamell's discussion of wealth and poverty. Much of what James says on this topic sounds so harsh that it's easy to say that he didn't really mean it that strongly. Blomberg and Kamell don't go down that path. They're not afraid to make the conclusions that many of us don't want to hear like, 'It may well be true that it is impossible to be both rich and a Christian unless one is generous in giving from one's riches' (254 - emphasis mine). This does seem to be the clear emphasis of Jas. 2:14-26. At the same time I liked the balance of their approach. They don't go overboard like some liberation theologians do. James is not advocating salvation by social class, but again, that shouldn't make us wealthy Western Christians any more comfortable in our shoes.

At a broad level, several aspects of the commentary stand out. One is the way in which Blomberg and Kamell colorfully draw out the meanings of the various metaphors and adjectives that are sprinkled throughout James. For a reader familiar with the text it can be easy to gloss over these, but Blomberg and Kamell help you understand how they would have been heard by the first audience. One example is in the sexual and reproductive metaphor in Jas. 1:14-15. Specifically, they point out that James is using the metaphor to show how difficult it is to stop the process of desire, sin, and death once it has started. 'Here James uses a more vivid metaphor, showing the reproductive process as difficult to stop once it begins...One can almost envision three generations here: desire as a "parent," sin as a "child," and death as a "grandchild"' (72). This isn't a mind blowing observation, but it's easy to miss this type of thing and Blomberg and Kamell consistently make the easy to miss, obvious, while presenting it in a fresh way.

I also appreciated the way in which the commentary matched James in tone. James sometimes is very cordial and at other times rebukes his audience. Blomberg and Kamell are not afraid to wear both of those hats. At several spots throughout the commentary they addressed the reader directly (I offered a snippet that I found particularly powerful here). This is often not done in commentaries. Many commentators are willing to write purely at the level of description (and granted this may be a necessity in most academic series). I am very glad that they were willing to confront the reader on several matters, especially in a series geared towards pastors and teachers. If one is going to teach the text, one must first live the text. It's easy to try to get away without applying the text to yourself, but Blomberg and Kamell do their best to keep that from happening.

My only complaint with the commentary is that too much space was allotted to the issue of gender-inclusive translation. I favor gender-inclusive language, and I personally use the TNIV and NRSV as my primary translations, so it's not as if I disagree with their translation. It just seemed like every word that could be translated in a gender-inclusive manner drew substantial comment. In fairness much of this was relegated to the footnotes, but I am a compulsive footnote reader, so I quickly drew tired of the same issue being rehashed.

Overall, I have to say that James is an excellent commentary that will both inform and nourish the reader. Every pastor, seminary student, and serious lay student should have this volume on their shelf. It will provide you with the literary, lexical, and grammatical help that you need while also furthering your thought on the implications of the text in the life and ministry of your church. 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Galatians 3:15-29: The Law, in Canonical Context

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

It's been a long time since I've written one of these posts, but we've come to a spot where I think it's critical to do a canonical reading of the text. Particularly from verses 17-20, one could get the impression that Paul had a negative view of the law. From passages like this some Christians also get the idea that the law has no function anymore in the life of the believer. De facto they say that it was the word of God to a people of a past age but it is no longer.

Besides the fact that I think that those stances go far beyond what Paul actually says (see my earlier post on this passage), there are other good reasons to reject that view. First, we should notice the high degree of intertextuality in Galatians 3:7-4:7. Paul constructs his entire argument on the Torah, especially on Abraham. Galatians 3:20 is particularly helpful in that Paul cites a portion of the Mosaic law approvingly.

The second problem for this view is the rest of the NT. Probably the most obvious spot to go to would be Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt. 5:17-20. There Jesus gives the law the strongest affirmation that he possibly could. It is eternal and its commands are not to be set aside. So if Jesus and Paul aren't in disagreement, how do we merge their views together.

It's helpful to recall what Paul is trying to do here. His argument is very specific; namely the Law is no longer the boundary marker defining who are 'in' the people of God. The Spirit is now the guide that keeps our behavior within the boundaries fitting for God's people. The law, though, can still have a positive function (and occasionally does for Paul - in addition to Gal. 3:17 also see e.g., Eph. 6:1-3). The Spirit can work through the law in our hearts, but it will be through the law understood as a picture of how God wanted people to live at a particular point in salvation history, a period we no longer are in. It's not a neat process. There's a lot of cultural translation required. However, we do need to have our imaginations inspired by the vision that God had for his people Israel (Christopher J.H. Wright's book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is indispensable). Thus, there isn't really a disagreement between Jesus and Paul on the law here. In Galatians 3 Paul is simply clarifying that the role doesn't have a constitutive role for the people of God (later Paul will state that the Spirit and the 'law of Christ' are the wellspring of Christian ethics which is in no way inconsistent with what is stated above, but we will look at that when we get to the relevant places in our study of Galatians).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 1

This is the first of a three part series on Divine sovereignty, human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first two posts will function largely to prepare us for the final post where most of the conclusions to the more difficult and controversial issues will come. I want to keep this initial post largely devoid of those matters to give the Scriptural contours the emphasis that they deserve and lot them be overshadowed by the later debates of church history and philosophy.

Divine sovereignty is a linchpin of the entire Bible. God’s sovereignty is rooted in his identity as the creator of everything. The tie between God as creator and king is clearly made in Ps. 145 (the analysis below is largely drawn from Goldingay). Vv. 1-2, 10, and 21 express commitment to worship Yahweh. In vv. 1-2, the psalmist commits to worship ‘the king,’ thereby expressing God’s sovereignty over the whole world. In vv. 10 and 21 all of creation joins in the worship. Taking the two emphases together, this psalm neatly draws out that God’s sovereignty over everything as its king is rooted in the fact that he made everything. Ps. 145 also provides a good basis from which to further investigate the nature of God’s sovereignty. Vv. 3-9 and 11-20 provide the reasons why the king is worshiped. It is because of a coupling of greatness and goodness. His greatness is unfathomable (vs. 3), his acts are mighty (vs. 4), and his kingdom is everlasting (vs. 13). He is no despot, though. Echoing God’s self revelation of Ex. 34:6-7 the psalmist proclaims, ‘The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ps. 145:8 NIV). The Lord also is good to all (vs. 9), righteous (vs. 17), and faithful (vs. 17). As we carry forward our study of divine sovereignty, especially as it relates to the problem of evil, it is critical that we remember that God’s rule is good and righteous, and benefits his creatures, and as God is the subject of our study, we must approach him with due reverence.

God’s rule is good and it is also extensive. In the Old Testament God creates the world (e.g., Gen. 1:1ff), rules over the nations (Ps. 22:27, 28), and moves the hearts of kings (e.g., Is. 44:24-28). History is determined by God, but he is not a distant king. God is actively involved in major events in history (e.g., Dan. 5:1ff) and in the lives of individuals (1 Sam. 1:1-20).
The biblical portrayal of God as the king greatly shapes the way it presents God’s sovereignty. He is the God who rules in favor of his loyal subjects (e.g., Rom. 8:28, Rev. 6:9-11) and punishes those who oppose him and his people (e.g., Exod. 6:3-8). Thus God’s judgment proceeds from his sovereignty and God exercises his sovereignty for his glory and our benefit.

The Bible closes in Revelation 20-22 with God’s exercise of his sovereign judgment reaching its apex in the defeat of Satan, the judgment of all of humanity, and new creation. In the moment when God’s sovereignty is most clearly on display, its purposes are to glorify Christ and vindicate God’s people. God’s sovereignty is that which makes sure the missio dei. This underscores what was mentioned earlier, that God’s sovereignty is presented in a positive light, and should draw us to worship. God is the sovereign king who rules and reigns over the whole earth. He is moving history towards the completion of his plan of redemption and reconciliation. The sovereign acts of God are for (at least) the twin goals of his glory and our benefit. Nothing in our lives is outside of his loving care.

How then do we deal with the fact that in the Old Testament it was common for God to bring judgment upon his people? This happened repeatedly during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (e.g., Num. 11:1ff., 21:4-9), and again frequently in the time of the judges (e.g., Judg. 2:10-15, 6:1). Judgment was even more severe during the monarchy, ultimately leading up to the exile of both the northern and southern kingdoms (cf. 2 King. 17:7-23, 2 Chr. 36:15-21). This led the people of Israel to cry out to God asking how he could bring it to pass, especially through evil nations (e.g., Hab. 1:12-17). As their God, they expected him to be on their side. As we mentioned before, though, God’s sovereignty serves to bring him glory. He is glorified when he is truly revealed. His judgment of his people revealed his holiness. The people’s own actions and sin necessitated his punishment of them in accordance with his promise (cf. Lev. 26:14ff, Deut. 28:15ff). So, while God did judge his people, his judgment was just and he was faithful to his promise as he preserved a remnant. It also is not fair to think of God’s punishment of the people of Israel as being purely for punitive reasons. It was still out of love and was a means to bring them to repentance. This logic seems to lie beneath Ezek. 18.

In Ezek. 18, the people are complaining to God about the injustice of being in exile because of their parent’s sin (Ezek. 18:1-2). God responds with the claims that he is just, that he punishes those who deserve punishment, and that, above all, he desires repentance. It seems legitimate to draw that at the macro level that the text is not only vindicating God but also urging the people to repent. God sent the people into exile to draw them back to himself.

At this point I think it would be helpful to go a little deeper and ask how Israel going into exile related to God’s will. Here we will utilize the tradition to formulate our answer. For Aquinas, God’s will is the source of all things, though he does work through secondary causes. While God’s will is the source of all things, God does not will evil. How can that be? Moral evil happens but there is a sense in which it is not willed by God. What is willed by God is some specific good, but often good cannot happen without having an evil attached to it. God neither wills evil to be nor wills evil not to be. This is necessitated by God being perfectly holy and righteous. He cannot will evil. If Aquinas is correct about God not willing evil, then I believe that we can say that God both willed for his people to return to him and also willed that his holy justice be upheld. The fulfillment of this will necessitated the evil and atrocity of the exile, but God did not will it.

Our portrait of God’s sovereignty is becoming clearer, but we still have some additional issues to work through. We have not yet addressed whether God’s will imposes necessity on all things, and related, the exact nature of human freedom. We will look at the latter in our next post. The key take home for this section is that God's sovereignty stems from the fact that he is the perfect king. His rule is a rule that is good for his subjects and that brings himself glory.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blomberg and Kamell on Honoring God

The very people reading this book may be among those most prone to deceive themselves into thinking they are obeying the gospel, precisely because they are studying detailed reference works like this one! They are probably scholars, pastors, teachers, or serious and committed lay people if they go into this much depth in their analysis of Scripture. But countless Christians with access to and interest in such resources often fool themselves into thinking that new insights, proclaiming God's word in their spheres of influence, or the good feelings that come from communing with God and others in the process of studying the Bible can substitute for actual obedience to Scripture's commands. By contrast, those whose devotion to God's word leads to greater obedience to his will not only demonstrate the reality of their faith, but find blessing in the very process of honoring God through their behavior (Blomberg and Kamell: James 98-99).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More Calvinist than Calvin?

I'm working on a paper on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Occasionally on this topic (or the subtopic of election) you will hear people through out the barb at strong Calvinists that they're 'being more Calvinist than Calvin.' After having read Calvin carefully on the issue I don't think that there's any validity to that charge. I don't see a material difference here between Calvin and say John Piper. Here are several quotes from the Institutes to prove my point.

'All events are governed by God's secret plan.' I.xvi.2

'Governing heaven and earth by his providence, he also so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation.' I.xvi.3

'Nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.' I.xvi.3

Calvin explicitly rejects a limited providence, 'one that by a general motion revolves and drives the system of the universe, with its several parts, but which does not specifcally direct the action of individual creatures.' I.xvi.4

'It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills! Indeed Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him.' I.xvi.6

Calvin tells us, 'when we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness...remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has willingly committed against us was permitted and sent by God's just dispensation.' I.xvii.8

I think it's fair to say that there is strong continuity between modern manifestations of Calvinism and Calvin's thought.