Archives For Sovereignty

embryo

Presumably, the complaint I received in my inbox had to do with the number of posts on the blog about homosexuality. Maybe the complainer was worried about the platform in Cleveland.

Well, here goes:

That Christians continue to call abortion “abortion” and not “termination of pregnancy” is itself to make a moral claim. Language matters and because language matters it’s also important to note:

Christians do not believe life is sacred in and of itself.

Such a singular reverence for life could too easily become a form of idolatry. Instead, for Christians, life is sacred not because it’s life but because it’s a gift from God. The value life has is alone the value God gives to it. Every life and every potential life is a sign of blessing because it is grace. Life need not be given. If God so chose, none of us would exist tomorrow.

It challenges many of our assumptions to think of every life, potential or real, as a blessing. Clearly many lives come into this world under difficult or tragic-seeming circumstances. Christianity’s reverence for life does not compel us to naiveté regarding the trying circumstances of much of reality. Rather Christianity’s reverence for life calls us to attend to and minster to those difficult conditions, believing that one day even the most despairing of circumstances will be yielded God’s blessing. Another way of stating this is that the Christian’s vocation is not to be an arbiter of life; the Christian’s vocation is to be a steward of something that is given to us conditionally.

An important dimension to this conviction is that, for Christians, life never ceases to be a gift from God. This means that Christians are foremost grateful people, thankful for the blessing that is given them. In addition, it means that Christians are called to exhibit equal measures of reverence for all stages and manifestations of life. This is the critical point at which a true biblical ethic departs from political platforms and posturing. A genuine Christian ethic on the issue of abortion fits comfortably in none of the categories made available to us by our politics. If life never ceases to be a gift, then a Christian’s passion for the unborn, for example, cannot be to the exclusion of others’ lives. The conditions of the poor, for instance, or the treatment of prisoners or the care of the disabled are all evidence of how we steward God’s gift of life as well.

The Roman Catholic tradition has referred to this consistent Christian reverence for life as “the seamless garment,” taking the image of Christ’s seamless tunic in the Gospel of John, stressing that Christians are called to show reverence for and protection of life ‘from the womb to the tomb.’

Christians who advocate exclusively for the issue of abortion give witness to an incomplete Gospel.

The convictions that cause Christians to welcome the life of the unborn also call Christians to show compassion for, for example, impoverished children, the elderly and the powerless. As the Letter of James notes, the fruit of our faith is evidenced by our treatment of society’s least. In many ways, the “seamless garment” harkens the Church to more closely mirror the communal ethic of the church of Acts.

It challenges many Christians’ political categories to discover that the same conviction that motivates the Church’s historic opposition to abortion- reverence for life as a gift from a sovereign God- also lies behind the Church’s traditional opposition to such issues as the death penalty or, more recently, the state practice of torture.

Our reverence for life also teaches Christians how to treat one another in this debate.

The life of the one who disagrees with me is also a gift from a gracious God.

How I treat that person, in other words, is but a form of worship. Even on an issue as emotional and divisive as abortion, Christians are called to practice love, humility and patience. A Christian ethic that respects the unborn but condemns the living is incomprehensible to the Gospel. This is why the tactics of so many abortion protesters are both off-putting and unpersuasive.

The Samaritan parable, last Sunday’s lectionary gospel, is paradigmatic. For the “liberal” Christian the abortion opponent never ceases to be a neighbor deserving of mercy and reverence. For the “conservative” Christian, the abortion-rights proponent is never not a gift given to the world by a gracious God. If Christians allow the Samaritan story to serve in this paradigmatic way, then much of how the culture engages this debate will be off-limits for followers of Jesus. For Christians, our position on the abortion issue is inseparable from the manner in which we engage it.

 

The Gospel Coalition, purveyors of a rather virulent strain of Old Perspective Calvinism, this week published a video wherein John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt joyfully exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Chandler describe the ‘good news’ of his cancer (of which in this construal God is the direct, efficient cause) keeping him from seeing his daughters’ weddings because it’s all a part of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy. Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Around a domestic dining room table, shot in the gray grains of German New Wave, Piper, Chandler, and Platt unwittingly provide me with Exhibit A for my argument in yesterday’s post about the repugnant heresy of nominalism.

Side Note:

Nominalism supposes that ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no correlation to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.

Instead God is a Being of absolute power and will- whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God (allegedly) did it.

By contrast, the ancient Christians believed that not even God can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

In contradiction to the ancient Christians, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge (Piper has said that too, before), God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

The offense of the Gospel Coalition video is muted somewhat by the fact that the speakers are all speaking out of their first person experience. They’re narrating their own experience of suffering. It’s hard to argue with someone’s story; however, the truly unholy nature of what they’re espousing (God collapsed the bridge on your kid to show you how awesome he is) becomes almost tactile when you think about how it would sound if their testimony turned into counsel. If they put their perspective on to some other sufferer and told them to feel the way they apparently feel.

My teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike John Piper, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra Piper et al

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words, if there is indeed a reason for everything, there is no reason to worship God. Not because God does not exist but because he is not worthy of our worship.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.