Monday, January 12, 2009

The Antinomy Of Sovereignty And Free Will

In J. I. Packer’s classic work, Evangelism & The Sovereignty Of God, he refers to two Biblical doctrines, God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, as an antinomy. As the infallible Oxford English Dictionary defines the word:

noun ( pl. -mies): a contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are in themselves reasonable.

Packer helps to draw out the “problem” by thinking in terms of two offices or titles of God; that of King and of Judge. As King, God directs the whole universe according to His will, including the actions of men. (Prov. 16:9, 21:1; Matt. 10:29; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 9:20-21; Eph. 1:11; etc.) But as Judge, God must dispense salvation or condemnation based on the moral guilt of free creatures. God’s sovereignty and man’s moral responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture, and as Packer points out, sometimes in the same verse! (see Luke 22:22)

Packer’s solution? Simple: accept the tension, don’t stray too far to one end or the other, and wait until the day when such mysteries are revealed. To stray too far to the side of man’s responsibility, endlessly attempting to map out the workings of the will in such a way as to guarantee that man is totally responsible for his actions, tends to trample on God’s sovereignty. Oh sure, these folks will admit that God could order all things, including human actions, exclusively by the pleasure of His will, He just doesn’t. But this fails to fully embrace the force of Scripture on this matter. To their credit, most people who err on the side of man’s responsibility do so out of a desire to make sure that God is fully justified and free of any possible blame for the existence of sin and evil in this world, but quite frankly God needs no justifying. And I’m a big fan of following God’s own lead on this one. Whenever God’s justice is questioned in the Bible, He never launches into a treatise on the free will of man (the subject is never even discussed in the full corpus of Holy Writ), rather He directs the questioner to His own nature, His goodness, faithfulness, and ultimately His justice. And His total sovereignty is always and effusively affirmed.

It is quite possible, however, to stress God’s sovereignty too much. Packer deals specifically with the problem that might arise in evangelism, where one might think, “well, since God is in control, I don’t need to do anything.” This is obviously contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, and is usually termed hyper-Calvinism. I have a feeling that I won’t need to expend much effort to convince my audience that one can err on the side of sovereignty, so I’ll leave it at that.

If you stop to consider it, every denomination or doctrinal system has an antinomy or two. At some point, everyone just pushes the ‘ole “mystery button” and is content to accept what seems to be a contradiction. Notice that it really only seems to be a contradiction, however. In principle there’s nothing logically impossible about the idea that God directs human activity, and yet that we are still morally responsible for many of those actions. We could spend a lifetime (and indeed many have) trying to flesh out the exact mechanics of God’s directing sovereignty and precisely what conditions must be met in order for man to be responsible for a given action, but in the end we are probably fooling ourselves if we think we will be able to fully wrap our minds around the complexities of this issue, at least in this life.

In a lot of ways this isn't any different from, say, how we think about the Trinity. There is no contradiction in “one being in three persons.” But what exactly does it mean to be a distinct person and not a distinct being? Again, the mystery is in how this interaction is possible, not simply that it is (as if belief in the trinity were irrational). Or perhaps the incarnation is a better example. We tend to think we understand humans pretty well (the Fathers certainly had human nature, will, etc. pretty neatly categorized). So how do we get fully man AND fully God? With the incarnation, the mystery is located more in God’s action of incarnating Himself. He remains fully in His deity, and yet becomes completely human. How? I dunno. Every attempt to neatly categorize Jesus’ nature(s) in precise philosophical terms has usually ended in heresy. The appeal to mystery seems to be the only safeguard, and it seems perfectly legitimate to me.

Whenever the ineffable God is acting, in any way, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect mystery somewhere, especially when He doesn’t reveal everything to us.

For now, the only proper thing to do is to fully affirm both doctrines, and in the midst of the tension between them, to trust in the good and righteous character of God, who works all the things for the good of those who love Him. (Rom. 8:28 ).

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