Providence Revisited

It is not surprising that my previous post requires a follow up. Tom Rogstad, whom I have not known long but already consider a mentor and friend (check out his blog here), has provided some feedback and questions regarding my statement of God’s providence. I wanted to continue the discussion here because I think he raises some important questions. Tom said,

When Paul says that God subjected the creation to futility, doesn’t that necessarily imply that there are some events that are futile and, therefore, meaningless? How do you reconcile that with the verse in Ephesians 1 that says that “He works all things according to the counsel of His will?” doesn’t that verse necessarily imply that all events are purposeful? So, events can be meaningless and purposeful at the same time? Do meaningfulness and purpose belong to two different categories, so that we are not affirming A and not-A at the same time? They must. Otherwise we would be violating the logical law of non-contradiction. But I can’t quite see how the two are distinct categories. Maybe you can help me with that.

These are certainly important questions. Paul indeed says in Romans 8:20-21, “He subjected creation to futility, not willingly but because of the one who subjected it, to the hope that the creation itself will be set free  from the slavery of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  The word translated futility is used twice more in the New Testament. First, in Ephesians 4:17, Paul says, “This then I say and testify in the Lord, to walk no longer as the Gentiles walk in the folly of their thinking…”; And second, in 2Peter 2:18, “for uttering boasts of folly they enticed by sensual lusts of the flesh those who were indeed escaping those living in error…” So, what I think we have here is an emphasis on the folly, or error, of the object. For creation, it was subjected to folly in that that which was once perfect lost that perfect state. Thus, the curse of Genesis 3, “cursed is the ground because of you…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…” So, the subjection of the earth to futility (or folly) perhaps has something to do with the ground, and creation itself, no longer performing the function for which it was intended, thus it is futile. I think this can be further confirmed in Romans one, where one of the clear effects of the fall is exchanging the truth of God for a lie. This is the ultimate futility. So Paul can also say that the Gentiles walk in the “folly of their thinking” since they refuse to worship the true God. So in Peter, the boasts of folly are made by those who have turned to idolatry (v. 15).

Having said that, I do agree that their are events in time which from our perspective are meaningless. We simply cannot see and do not know enough for this not to be the case. Yet from God’s perspective all things are worked according to his will, even those things which are futile. So we grieve with those who grieve, and long for the day when the curse is removed and even creation’s subjection to folly is removed, along with all “death, mourning, crying and pain…for behold all things are new.”

As to your statement on providence, I think you should add or modify two things. It strikes me that much of your statement relies on God being outside time, atemporal. Is He? He certainly can’t be confined to time because He existed before time existed. But isn’t His relation to time the same as His relation to space? His omnipresence means He is everywhere in space as well as outside space. Couldn’t God be omnitemporal as well? I think that’s Bruce Ware‘s term. I wrote a paper for him on God’s relationship to time and came to a similar conclusion.

I certainly do think that God has entered into time. What I want to highlight is that God’s eternal decrees took place before he brought time into existence, thus his decrees even include his own actions within time. I suspect that since we cannot fully comprehend the relationship between time and eternity, then we will not fully comprehend the relationship between God’s eternal decrees, and thus his purpose for all things, and actions that take place within time, including those which are “futile.” I think omnitemporal is a great term to use! Tom, do you still have that paper you wrote?

I also think you should add something about God’s providence over human decisions. By quoting Joseph’s statement about his brothers’ decisions you obviously believe that providence encompasses acts of human will, but I’d try to add it to your statement of faith itself. (Hint: if you get stuck on these things it’s always helpful to see how the Westminster Confession of Faith handles it. I say that as a confirmed, intransigent Baptist  🙂

I do believe that God’s providence extends to the human will. And I think Acts 4 and Genesis 50, and many others, confirm that. I’ll revisit my statement in light of this discussion. Thanks for your comments, Tom.

Statement of Belief: Providence

I’m continuing the series on my statement of belief I turned in for the internship at Clifton Baptist Church. In my first post, I discussed God as sovereign creator, who is perfectly holy in each of his attributes. In his sovereignty he sustains the universe and brings about his perfect will. In my second post on the Trinity, I talked about God’s nature: one eternal essence, three eternally distinct persons. These two both are important precursers to my next statement on God’s providence:

God’s providence is his meticulous care over all of creation. He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). When God spoke the universe into existence, his sovereign decree included all things that would take place in time, including his own actions. God’s providence means that nothing can happen to any of his creatures that is not known and ordained by him, thus he can promise that “all things work together for good unto those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God’s providence not only includes every aspect of our lives, but everything in creation as well. The winds and the seas obey him (Matt. 8:27). He sends the rains, winds, snow, and sunlight. Thus, God guides all things, creatures and creation, unto his pre-appointed purposes, for the good of his people and for his eternal glory.

Something I left out (thanks to my small group leader, Josh Stephens, for pointing this out to me) was how I understand evil and tragedy to mesh with God’s providence. I could spend a lot of time on this issue, but I’ll save that for its own post. But I will say this: nothing that takes place in time is outside of God’s eternal decree and providential control. At the same time, however, human beings are wholly responsible for their actions. God is not the author of sin, we who sin bare the blame. How do these truths fit together? I suppose part of the answer has to do with the relationship between time and eternity. God, in eternity passed decreed all things when he spoke into existence the very fabric of time itself. He did so in such a way as to uphold his meticulous sovereignty, as well as his impeccable holiness and thus human responsibility for sin.  I’ll give two texts which make my point, thought there are countless others:

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people[a]should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Here note that while the brothers’ intentions were clearly evil, and they are responsible for them; God’s intentions in the same act were for a good purpose. Did God or Joseph’s brothers send Joseph into Egypt? The answer is “yes!” One more text, a bit longer:

When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:23-28)

In this prayer, notice that the disciples clearly hold those involved in Jesus Christ’s death responsible for such a sinful action, yet all involved did “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Who killed Jesus? Was it Herod, Pilot, the Romans and the Jews? or Did God kill Jesus? The answer is “Yes!” God’s hand and plan had predestined all that these sinful people did to Jesus. He is sovereign, yet they are responsible for the intentions of their hearts. Is your mind spinning? Mine too…yet the Word of God is clear, and it does no good to fashion a God in our own likeness. I’ll end with a quote from Charles Spurgeon which I think demonstrates how we should respond to what God has revealed in his Word, even if we cannot fully grasp it:

If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. – C.H. Spurgeon

Free will debate: What does free will mean and how did it evolve?

Interesting discussion in the scientific world on whether or not humans have free will. I guess its not only a Calvinism vs. Arminianism thing! I found this section interesting:

Arguments about free will are mostly semantic arguments about definitions. Most experts who deny free will are arguing against peculiar, unscientific versions of the idea, such as that “free will” means that causality is not involved. As my longtime friend and colleague John Bargh put it once in a debate, “Free will means freedom from causation.” Other scientists who argue against free will say that it means that a soul or other supernatural entity causes behavior, and not surprisingly they consider such explanations unscientific.

These arguments leave untouched the meaning of free will that most people understand, which is consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

The definition of free will given, “consciously making choices about what to do in the absence of external coercion, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions,” is one that certainly even the most ardent Calvinist would affirm. In other words, to exercise free will is to do what we desire at any given moment. Another interesting statement is that “Other scientists who argue against free will say that it means that a soul or other supernatural entity causes behavior…” So for some scientists, to say that a supernatural entity causes behavior is to actually affirm free will, as opposed to our choices being simply a byproduct of our chemical makeup and reactions within our bodies. Anyway, thought this was quite fascinating…you can read the entire article here:

Free will debate: What does free will mean and how did it evolve?.