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Tuesday, June 28, 2005
On Natalee Holloway, God’s Sovereignty and Luck
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 6:54 am

(A little deviation into theology this morning. One could also subtitle this: “Yet More Reasons Why I am not a Calvinist�?)

Over at Pros and Cons I noted a debate that started over God’s sovereignty, the issue of luck and Natalee Holloway’s disappearance. It boils down to a discussion of one of the basic tenets of Calvinism: God’s sovereignty and what that may mean. If taken to its logical conclusion, it vitiates the idea of free will. Since I believe that man has free will, I reject a concept of God’s sovereignty that equates to God being directly responsible for all actions.

The debate stars thusly. Bart Harmon notes:

My question is, if the Bible teaches that God is totally sovereign (assuming you believe the Bible), is there any room left for “horribly bad luck?�?

My answer is, of course not.

He then goes to cite a number of Bible verses that support God’s sovereignty.

Sean Farell responds:

I think it is reasonable to believe that God permits a lot of things to happen that are contrary to His will. Otherwise it’s hard for me to understand how we could have free will. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to say that some things happen by chance. If I flip a penny and it comes up tails, it is not necessarily because God decided to aim Abe’s image downward. The coin will obey physical laws that God created, and I’m certain God knew beforehand how the coin would land. But the actual toss is not totally under His control (by His own design).

Bart has a response here.

First off, I would say that part of the problem with this conversation to this point in the infusion of the idea of “luck�?—bad or otherwise. Luck presupposes a certain randomness to an event that cannot be fully explained. If person A is in place B and encounters bad person C it isn’t about randomness, in the true sense of the word. And the way that persons A and C interact while at place B isn’t random and without explanation. Hence, the situation with Natalee Holloway was the result of a series of choices made by numerous individuals. It wasn’t just “bad luck�? or “chance.”

The probability that something bad will happen to me increases if I am out and about town at 1:30am versus being at my hotel in bed. Further, if I am at a place were people are getting intoxicated, my chances of harm also increases. If I leave said place with people I barely know, the chances further increase. And so forth. It isn’t about luck, good or bad. It is about choices people make (and not just Natallee’s, but the choices made by whomever it was who did whatever was done to her). I am not stating that Natalee is directly responsible for what ultimately happened to here, but to argue that her actions didn’t contribute is simply incorrect. As a matter of simple fact, had she gone to bed early that night, she wouldn’t be missing right now. I am not saying that was necessarily what she should have done, per se, but noting that the choices we make dictate the probability of certain outcomes occurring in our lives. Life is not random in that sense. Indeed, I would argue that life is never truly “random”.

Keep in mind, random means that all event are equally likely—such as the fact that there is a 1 in 6 chance of a die coming up a certain number when rolled. Not all events are equally likely to happen to all of us. I drive almost 40 miles to work one way every day. My chances of getting in a car wreck are therefore far higher than someone who drives 5 miles each way to work each day.

Such is life.

Also: I think Bart misses Sean’s point about coin flipping. The point of bringing up coin flipping isn’t that God makes decisions on the flip of a coin, but rather that coins flip within the context of the natural laws of the universe, i.e., the law of gravity and so forth. God, therefore, doesn’t concern himself directly with each flip of each coin, exercising his sovereign power over each turn of the coin in the air. He set up the rules, and he lets the coin function within those rules.

So, too, I would argue, does He do with human beings. While He has the power and right to intervene (hence the Pharaoh example from Exodus), I see no logical or theological reason to extrapolate that example as a general model for explaining human behavior or the functioning of the universe or of God’s role in that universe. That God can intervene in the normal flow of affairs does not mean that God does intervene and direct everything that happens.

If He does, and this gets to the heart of at least one reason why I do not subscribe to Calvinist theology, then not only does the entire concept of faith go out the window logically, it also means that God is responsible, directly, for every single thing that happens on the face of the Earth. Not only does that put the concept of good and evil on its head (if God directs all acts specifically, how can we call any of them evil?) and means that I, as a man, have no room to criticize anything that happens or to complain (because if God specifically wanted X to happen, who am I to get upset about it or question it?). There is no reason to be upset about Terri Schiavo, or Supreme Court rulings or the Holocaust, for that matter, because, if God directs all things, He ordained those things for His reasons.

And really, if that’s the case, what’s the point of anything?

No, I think that we have free will to act and to choose and that sometime we choose rightly, and sometimes we choose wrongly—and some choose very wrongly. We operate within a system of established rules, like the aforementioned coin, but our every move is not preordained and controlled. Again, if that were true, what is the point of anything that we do or think?

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PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » More Theology linked with [...] mp over to my post on God and the weather over at Pros and Cons. This fits into something I posted here on PoliBlog several weeks back and is part of a topic I plan to return to. [...]
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  1. […] on God’s sovereignty, luck and free will has elicited a response. I have posted it here. I suppose the can of worms should be considered open. Scott and I started to discuss Calvinism at a res […]

    Pingback by Pros and Cons » Joining the Theological Battle (So to Speak) — Tuesday, June 28, 2005 @ 6:59 am

  2. Ah, Steven, where to begin?

    First, I want to characterize (fairly I hope) what I see as the main three points in your argument or position:
    One, while God has the ability to control events, he chooses not to.
    Two, if anything, God has set up a natural order of things or natural law of occurrences (i.e., like gravity) which generally governs events, but He does not interfere with this order to suit His own purposes.
    Three, if God does intervene in history—overcoming the free will of Man—it means that man has no responsibility for his actions, there can be no good or evil on man’s part and certainly no room for faith.

    Introduction to my reply: I think we should first establish some sort of basis for our argument. One basis could be: What does scripture say as to the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man. A second basis could be: What do I want to be the role of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? Do I like what scripture teaches? Do I reject what scripture teaches?

    Without knowing from which basis your attack is being launched, it will be like trying to hit a moving target. If I quote scripture (which I find to be authoritative, although not always to my liking), you can just come back with, “Well, I just don’t think it’s that way and I don’t want to be that way.�? Not much I can say to refute that. So, I’ll stick with what scripture says until you tell me that this is not a trustworthy source to you.

    DISPUTE ONE: ISN’T IT JUST THAT GOD HAD THE POWER TO CONTROL ALL THINGS—NOT THAT HE REALLY DOES INTERVENE?

    Both you and Sean Farrell (at P & Cs) take the position that God does not intervene to overcome the natural order of things or man’s freewill (although He has the power to do so), but you never cite any scripture to back up your position. Well, to me that’s like saying, I don’t believe my car runs on gasoline but then you are unable to cite any reference in the owner’s manual to the contrary and, in fact, every other page of the manual directly establishes the sufficiency and necessity of gasoline in the tank..

    Let’s look at a few of the verses, I cite:
    I Samuel 2:6-8 “�?The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.�?
    Under your view, it should say only, “The LORD is able to bring death and make alive, he is able to bring to the grave and raise up.�? But, it doesn’t.
    Proverbs 21:1″The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases�?
    Again, per your perspective, this should read that “he [can] direct it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.�? But, it doesn’t.
    Exodus could have said that God had the power to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but it didn’t. He did harden Pharaoh’s heart. I could go on, but you get the point. Again, its fine (in a debating sense) to say, “I don’t take the scripture to be authoritative.�? But it is illogical, to say on the one hand, that you believe in scripture and then, of the other hand, not believe what it so clearly teaches.

    Until you cite some scripture, scripture principle or at least some inference based on scripture, logic—something more than you just think that, there’s little to refute.

    DISPUTE TWO: WHAT IF GOD JUST SET UP THE NATUAL ORDER OF HOW THINGS RUN—THAT’S SOVEREIGNTY IN A GENERAL SENSE—BUT HE DOES’T EVER CONTRADICT THAT NATURAL ORDERING OR THOSE NATURAL LAWS.

    Well, there goes the super in supernatural. What kind of God makes natural laws he can’t break? What natural law provided that the Red Sea would part just at the right time? Or that the Sun would stand still when Joshua needed it to for battle? Or that earthquakes and storms would hit when Christ died? Or that a man blind his entire life would suddenly see? No, the Bible is full of God being God—of God being supernatural—over the laws of nature. Certainly, they function without overt interruption most of the time. But there is example after example of Him going over, around and through those laws if it suits his purposes.

    DISPUTE THREE: THE QUESTION OF FREE WILL

    In my earlier piece, I conceded that the question of free will is a dicey one. I think that there is no absolute free will. Our past heavily influences our future will. To repeat: How free is a crack addict to turn down crack? He may have had free will to do or not do crack at some point, but once addicted, I can hardly see how his will is still free. The same is true with our sin nature and our actual sin baggage (we created). We become a slave to our sin and need a Rescuer, a Champion to overcome our sin-infected, corrupted free will.

    God is so big, in His economy, there is room for the both truths: He is TOTALLY sovereign; we are TOTALLY responsible for our decisions. He weaves, wills, direct, ordains and decrees all our decisions into his master plan which WILL be accomplished with zero mistakes or changes. As one theologian said, “If there is one maverick molecule in the universe, then God isn’t God.�? I agree. Steven, I am sure you don’t.

    So, if there is no absolute free will, why have faith, how can there be good and evil? Well, God wants there to be faith, He has described what good and evil are, and they clearly exists. Merely because we have a limited capacity to comprehend God’s sovereignty standing along side of our own responsibility is no reason to think they BOTH can’t be true—especially when that is taught in scripture. Again, let us look to Joseph in the Old Testament story: “You[my wicked brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.�? Genesis 50:20. The brothers had an evil motive for which they are responsible. God had a good motive for the same actions which he had ordained. Difficult to comprehend? Yes. Impossible? No.

    So, why would God set the world up this way? I don’t know; I guess it pleased Him to do so. Why does the movie producer produce the movie?—hey, it’s scripted anyway, he knows how it’s going to end. Well, perhaps he enjoys seeing the finished product, it brings him pleasure. Plus, the audience doesn’t know the ending—they just have faith that the producer knew the ending and that it will ultimately be a good ending. Even the actors may not know the ending—they shot alternate endings, they don’t know what will be left on the editing floor?

    So, if we don’t have total free will, how is that fair? Paul addresses that very question,
    14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses,
    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”16It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”[g] 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
    19One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “[h] 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
    22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.

    So, there you go.

    Comment by Bart Harmon — Wednesday, June 29, 2005 @ 5:53 pm

  3. Bart,

    I appreiate the lengthy and thoughtful reply. I wil l confess that I am far too exhausted at the moment to respond at the moment, although I plan to do so.

    I am largely familiar with the arguments in question, and will do my best to respond. I will note that part of the problem I have with several of the arguments you have made, as well as your interpretation you ascribe to them, is that you are already presupposing that the Calvinist view is correct, i.e., you are arguing from within a set theologial paradigm. I will grant, I suspect you disagree with that proposition. But i would note, that, for example, the verses you quote from Romans do not prove or disprove either your position or mine. For that matter, you can quote the end of Job, which has a similar statement of God’s power.

    I will note that your specific arugments do not address a more fundamental problem: if God does indeed direct everything like a river, then every decision, from the socks I wore today, to whether that Chinook was felled in Afghanistan the other day, were the diret results of God sovereignly directing the universe. If that is case, faith, salvation, my daily existence, really is nothing more than a cosmis novel written in 3D by an ominpowerful being. It simply ceases to have any meaning.

    Indeed, this very debate is worthless, as every word typed was predetermined.

    As you can see, I have a very hard time with the concept ;)

    BTW-the crack addict example doesn’t work, as it presupposes some amount of choice, that later constrains choice. If the whole argument is that we ulitmately have no choice, I don’t think your logic holds.

    More later.

    Cheers.

    (any typos in the above I will blame on fatigue..plus, dinner’s ready and I’m starving)

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Wednesday, June 29, 2005 @ 6:47 pm

  4. Thoughtful points all. Thanks.

    First, I do not accept your conclusion that I am just looking at the question with Calvinistic tunnel vision. I invite you to quote scripture-give me evidence that contradicts my arguments. I’m still waiting. (To be fair, you have posed some good if/then questions, but if our “playing field” is scriptural truth, those are secondary. If the Bible teaches that God is totally sovereign, then the consequences that flow from that must be dealt with-but the consequences are not evidence against the truth. I guess I must ask exactly whom is holding on to his presuppositions and who is willing to follow scripture wherever it leads-even if it means a paradigm shift.)

    For example, your if/then conclusion that “we are just living a cosmic novel” is no evidence that God is not totally sovereign. You are just stating the fact that you do not like the idea of living a cosmic novel. Does scripture say anywhere, “Thou are not living a cosmic novel!” No, arguably it says the contrary: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 136: 16. Opps! Sounds kind of cosmic-novel-like to me.

    Back to your novel analogy. Why are novels made into movies? Why do actors want to play in the movie? Hmmm, there must be some magic in the movie, in “dancing the dance” even if we know the screen writer has already settled the ending and the composer has pre-determined each note. Plus, just because the screen writer or the master composer knows how all turns out doesn’t mean that the actors or dancers know. But they learn to trust the writer/composer and to enjoy the show.

    I do understand that you have a very hard time with this. Without sounding condescending (oh-what the heck-scratch that last part, I will go again and be condescending), so did I when I first was told these things. “That’s not the God I know” I said pretty darn foolishly in hindsight. As He once famously remarked, “He is who He is.” He hardly ever apologizes for it. (Read: Never). Having a hard time understanding a certain truth is, of course, no reason to reject that truth. Truth is a funny thing-a wise man once said-once you see it, you really can’t un-see it.

    Look forward to your next installment. I just think the God of the Bible is a lot bigger than you think He is.

    Comment by Bart Harmon — Wednesday, June 29, 2005 @ 11:42 pm

  5. I will confess, I have found that when discussing these issues with people with profound Calvinistic beliefes, they do tend to come across as condescending-including people whom I consider very good friends. There is something about accepting the doctrines that results in that kind of argumentation for some reason. c’est la vie, I suppose. I am a big boy, and can live with it ;)

    (I am not trying to be difficult with that statement, but simply think it to be true-plus, you brought it up ;)

    In fact, I think I have a small glimpse into how non-Christians view Christians as the result of these conversations. It has been my experience (and I shan’t extend this statement to you, as we have only started our friendly debate), that Calvinists are typically so certain of their position, and believe so deeply that specific scriptures back their positions, that often the argument becomes one of scripture citation, wherein the given scripture is supposed to be slam-dunk proof. However, if one doesn’t accept the basic premise, the slam dunk isn’t so obvious. Similarly, if one discusses Christianity itself with a non-believer, and tries to convince that person of the truth of Christianity by simply citing verses that are obviously true to the believer, but not to the non-believer, an impasse is reached.

    I must say, however, that the novel to movie anaogy doesn’t make for a very good analogy to real life, given that, by definition a novel and a movie are make-believe. Even beyond that, it isn’t an especially good analogy for the Calvinistic view of the universe, as the actors in movies often improvise and the scripts are rarely followed exactly. Further, a given re-makes of a specific filem often deviates greatly from the original.

    If God directs every single solitary action of every humnan being from the most minute action to the most important, then life is a tightly scripted cosmic novel.

    I don’t have time at the moment for a sufficiently thoughtful response to every point you have made. But I will note this in regards tho e specific interpretation of scriptures. I think that far too grand a conclusions are made from specific verses.

    I am not saying that God does not intervene in the lives of men. Clearly, he does. I am not espousing Deism. However there is a logical middle ground between God setting the universe into motion and then leaving it to own devices and God directing every single action within that universe.

    What logical foundation, for example, is there for taking the example of Pharoah and extrapolating out God’s relationship to the behavior of all men at all times? Further, there are debates over the precise translation of, say Exodus 11:12 (at least according to Adam Clarke), not to mention the fact that it ould have simply been the natural result of Pharoah’ own sin-that he had gotten to the point where he was under God’s judgement. Or, God had a specific use for Pharoah.

    All of these possibilities are a far cry from “God directs every movement we make.”

    Ah well, I have other stuff I need to do, and if I am not careful, this will be a morning-long project.

    More later.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, June 30, 2005 @ 8:44 am

  6. […] mp over to my post on God and the weather over at Pros and Cons. This fits into something I posted here on PoliBlog several weeks back and is part of a topic I plan to return to.

    […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » More Theology — Tuesday, July 12, 2005 @ 10:08 am

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