Ch.3: Is God in Control? Why Predestination Does Not Have to be Depress-tination
What Do You Mean By “Control”?
Is God in control of the direction and actions of history? Yes? No? Maybe? It all depends on what you mean by control.
-if you mean total control via a pre-scripted invariant plan drawn up by God before history began, No.
-if you mean that God is directing history to a preordained end through the real and responsible actions of creatures he has enabled to make their own actions and decisions, Yes.
The first is not love. Love creates new possibilities, growth, and futures. God’s love is both the expansive power of our growth toward new futures and that new future itself which brings each of us individually and as a whole to the fulness that is in Christ. Thus, the second option seems preferable. God establishes a good end for his creation and creatures and journeys with them in real relationships (in all their ups and downs) trusting his love to bring all things to that good end.
Because it’s love no causal or mechanical models will help us understand it. Love means relationship and relationship works on a different logic (if that is the right word) altogether.
“Here is God’s covenant with Abraham that is unconditional and unilateral. Here is God’s covenant with Moses and Israel that is bilateral and conditional. They are there together, and that interface of contradiction may offer us the most work to do but also the most honest disclosure of the truth of our life. The full tradition asserts that all of our relationships, including that with the Holy One, are an unsettled mix of unilateral and bilateral, of conditional and unconditional.”
Just the brew we find pictured in the Bible’s portrayal between God and humanity. God’s full unilateral control and power over all his creation is everywhere asserted. Yet human beings must respond and act properly for God’s creation to be what God wants it to be. Somehow, these two realities, both ordained by God, interact in sometimes surprising and volatile ways, all the time working out and leading us to God’s settled end for us. Nothing is prescribed for us in a way that renders us automatons or puppets.
The story of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in Exodus is instructive here. If we read the story carefully we learn that both God and Pharaoh are agents who harden Pharaoh’s heart, neither alone. God acts sovereignly, Pharaoh acts freely. God’s declared intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart is achieved yet without bypassing the responsibility and response-ability of Pharaoh. An incalculable quality attends relationships. And it’s that quality that keeps us from “smoothing out” it’s logic in intellectual terms. That is, neither determinism nor free will is appropriate to the reality it seeks to explain. Intellectually, there’s “white space” between the two realities scripture requires us to hold together. Instead of filling it in with explanations which distort, we best leave it blank and persist in affirming both parts of what scripture affirms. And allow the mystery of how that happens to remain the prerogative of God.
Predestination/Election/Providence (PEP) are not synonymous terms but do converge in that each of them deal with the relation of divine action and human action. Election is the primary term biblically but predestination is what most people usually call this issue. I call it PEP here.
And I claim there is no reason why we should consider it depress-tination or be frightened at it.
Three observations about the relation of divine and human action. First, PEP is not fatalism (a pagan Greek doctrine often confused with it). PEP has nothing to do with a pre-scripted history that unfolds as foretold and cannot be changed. Rid your minds of this notion if you hope to understand PEP.
Second, God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways: Just because we cannot imagine how God’s sovereignty and human freedom can both be real without one canceling out or overriding the other does not mean God cannot manage it!
Third, the relation of divine and human action in PEP is asymmetrical. Divine action is prior and primary, human action responsive to divine action.
My five rules for understanding PEP are these:
1. PEP is the most radical way we have to say “grace.”
From creation to consummation and at every step in between the Bible affirms and proclaims that God acts first in gracious, creative and generative ways towards us.
2. PEP is the most radical way we have to say “love.”
God is for us. From all eternity God has determined to be for us, not against us. What God is himself – an eternal communion of love given and returned between the Father and the Son in the Spirit – he is toward us.
3. PEP means “victory/justice.”
God will prevail. Somehow and in some way God will take this tale which so often seems “told by idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) and bring it a fitting and flourishing end. All things will be set right, judgment (however we envision it) will be executed, and shalom will reign throughout the ages of ages.
4. PEP means “gratitude.”
Our lives are gifts, received with gratitude and lived with thanksgiving and generosity. The primal human response to God is to say “thanks” (instead of the “You’re not the boss of me” our first parents offered their creator).
5. PEP means the “courage to live by the cross.”
All of this means that when the rubber hits the road we can and will “take up our cross” and follow Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he asks us to do.
Karl Barth calls the doctrine of election “the sum of the gospel,” the best of all words that can be said or heard! As such it ought to inform and undergird all we are and do. I hope some of my observations and rules help us recover the substance and vitality of this often wrongly maligned central truth of the Bible.