Thursday, November 12, 2009

Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and Middle Knowledge Calvinism

“God is comprehensively in control of the world, accomplishing purposes that he has determined in eternity. Because His will is always accomplished, it is evident that God’s creatures (human and angelic) do not have libertarian freedom” (“Providence and Prayer” by Terrence Tiessen. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, page 289).

I know that “Middle Knowledge Calvinism” is a subject that has NEVER been discussed here at the Center for Theological Studies. However, I stumbled across this article some months ago and added it to my desktop (as I do so many articles that it’ll take the next year to read!!). In any case, Tiessen was quoted in an article, and I find the quote from Tiessen’s own work to be one worth examining here.

First, see how Tiessen expands sovereignty and diminishes human choice: “Because His will is always accomplished, it is evident that God’s creatures (human and angelic) do not have libertarian freedom.”

Tiessen, however, has not read Genesis 1-2, where we find God sharing power with His creation. Terrence Fretheim explains:

“...readers have often suggested an image of the Creator God that is in absolute control of the developing creation, working independently and unilaterally. In fact, such an understanding has been the dominant image of the Creator God through the centuries in the religious traditions for which these texts are authoritative. But, is this theological understanding fully appropriate to an explication of the creation passages?
A closer look suggests that such a perspective needs to be modified. From a negative perspective, if this understanding of God in creation is correct, then those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms—power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, if nonhuman creatures are understood to be but passive putty in the hands of God, then the natural world becomes available for comparable handling by those who go by the name ‘image of God.’
From a positive perspective, the creation accounts make available another point of view regarding the Creator God. WHAT IF THE GOD OF THE CREATION TEXTS IS UNDERSTOOD TO BE IMAGED MORE AS ONE WHO, IN CREATING, CHOOSES TO SHARE POWER IN RELATIONSHIP? Then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Evidence for this understanding is more widespread in these accounts than is commonly suggested. One might cite, in particular, the way in which these texts speak of the mode in which God chooses to create. Four models may be suggested: God creates out of already existing materials (for example, the human being out of the dust of the ground, Gen. 2:7); God invites the divine assembly to participate in furthering creative activity (for example, the earth and the waters, 1:11-13, 20, 24); God invites the divine assembly to participate in the creation of the human (‘let us,’ 1:26-27); God draws the human being into further creative activity (for example, 4:1, where creating language, ‘qanah,’ used again for God in Gen. 14:19-22, is used with Eve as the subject). God’s approach to creating in these examples is communal and relational. In the wake of God’s initiating creativity, the Creator God again and again works from within the world in creating, rather than on the world from without—God EMPLOYING CREATURES AS GENUINE AGENTS, RATHER THAN WORKING INDEPENDENTLY. Certainly all creatures, including human beings, are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and continuing life. At the same time, these texts show that God has chosen to establish an INTERDEPENDENT relationship with them with respect to both originating and continuing creation.
This interdependent divine way with the world may also be observed in the command to the human: ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion.’ This action on God’s part, the first divine words spoken to the newly created human beings, may be considered a POWER-SHARING MOVE. God here chooses not to retain all power, but to SHARE IT WITH HUMAN BEINGS: I am giving you specific tasks to accomplish and, by definition, the power with which to carry out those responsibilities. GOD THEREBY CHOOSES NOT TO DO EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD ‘ALL BY HIMSELF’”
(Terence Fretheim, “Preaching Creation: Genesis 1-2.” From “Word and World,” Vol. 29, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 77-78.

As can be seen from Fretheim’s quote, humans have been given power by God; therefore, humans have true libertarian freedom. Genesis 2 also shows us true libertarian freedom, as Adam is allowed to bestow upon the animals whatever name he desires:

“Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and BROUGHT THEM TO ADAM TO SEE WHAT HE WOULD CALL THEM. AND WHATEVER ADAM CALLED EACH LIVING CREATURE, THAT WAS ITS NAME” (Gen. 2:19, NKJV).

In Genesis 2:19, the Lord doesn’t tell Adam what to name the creatures; He simply gives them to Adam and says, “You name them.” Up until this point, the Lord Himself has named creation (sun, moon, stars, water, earth, sky, etc.). At this point, however, Adam is allowed to operate with the dominion that God has given him.

Secondly, Tiessen’s notion of absolute sovereignty: “Because His will is ALWAYS ACCOMPLISHED...”

But is this really true? I would love to be able to admit that everything God desires done is always done. However, if I did that, I would be denying Scripture:

“And when all the people heard Him [Jesus], even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the PHARISEES AND LAWYERS REJECTED THE WILL OF GOD FOR THEMSELVES, NOT HAVING BEEN BAPTIZED BY HIM” (Luke 7:29-30, NKJV).

We see that the Pharisees and lawyers “rejected the will of God for themselves.” This tells us that, in at least one instance of Scripture (although there are more), that God’s will is rejected.

For another example, I’ll go to a passage that we’re all familiar with:

“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’‘and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?‘So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate’” (Matthew 19:3-6, NKJV).

The storyline here involves the Pharisees asking Jesus about the justifiability of divorce. The Lord tells them that from the beginning, man and woman were meant to never separate.

But then, Jesus says something else that should take us by surprise IF, as Terrance Tiessen tells us, God’s will cannot fail to come to pass. When asked about Moses issuing a writ of divorce, Jesus responded:

“Moses, BECAUSE OF THE HARDNESS OF YOUR HEARTS, permitted you to divorce your wives, BUT FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS NOT SO” (Matthew 19:8, NKJV).

When Jesus says that “from the beginning it was not so,” He is claiming something profound—that divorce was not in God’s original plan. When God made the world, He made everything “good,” according to Genesis 1. Divorce, however, according to Jesus, is “bad,” so divorce could not have been part of the original plan of world history.

There are only two ways to approach sovereignty and human freedom: either by expanding the sovereignty of God and eliminating human freedom...or by granting human freedom with the sharing of sovereignty, as Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 2:19 demonstrate. I will write more in the coming days.

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