Here is a list of questions I found in a book about divine providence:
- Is everything that happens in the world precisely what God ordains will happen?
- Do we have free will to do things that God does not intentionally permit us to do?
- Was sin part of God’s eternal intention for creation?
- Is everything that happens, including evil, part of God’s master blueprint?
- Is God ever affected by the choices we make?
- Does the harm we do to one another cause God to grieve?
- Does God respond to anything we do, including our prayers?
These questions, and others like them, are theologically interesting. But some folks say that they are more than interesting; some say that your answers to these questions will expose what sort of theology you have. For example, the book from which I pulled these questions says that they “demarcate” a “watershed.” The author wants to say that your answers to these questions will put you in one of two camps. Notice two implications of this claim:
- Each of these questions has only a simple yes or no answer; and
- There are only two ways to answer the whole group of questions.
No. 2 appears to mean that if you answer only one question, I could predict your answers to the rest of the questions. Unfortunately that is not true, because the questions have so reduced and minimized the theological issues that they, the questions, are more like tricks than questions. But anyway no. 2 also means that all of these questions are on some level different versions of only one question, or different angles on one theme. And actually I think that is correct. The single issue behind all of these questions is this: God’s relationship to creation. Actually the author of this book gives away the secret a few pages later, that this is exactly the issue. But I had a pretty good hunch…
No. 1 is rather obvious, since they are all yes or no questions. So that means that the questions were designed to lead respondents to choose either one or the other. And the way that these questions force this choice is by distilling, reducing, simplifying the issue—God’s relationship to creation—all the way down to yes or no; one or zero; yea or nay.
Now there are a few obvious problems with this approach and with these questions. Obviously it is a pretty seriously disappointing, misleading simplification of some big theological issues. This approach is criminally simplistic. But let’s move past this and other issues for now to consider a follow-up question:
Should God himself be defined by his relationship to creation?
Forcing an up or down vote on poorly worded versions of rich and intricate theological questions which have been poured over for centuries by the greatest minds the Lord has given to the church is no way to begin a search for clarity much less a defense of an innovative theological proposal (what this book is about). I hope readers of material like this take note of this method. It is theologically irresponsible, for one thing, and on top of that it is a kind of insult to the reader’s intelligence—as though you couldn’t handle theological complexity or the richness of the biblical evidence. Another effect is noteworthy: polarization of the theological landscape. This approach to a conversation—on any topic—is designed to create division, and it will.
I am sure these jabs sound familiar: ‘Do you care about the poor or not?’ ‘Do you want to help our country or hurt it?’ This is the sort of election-year manipulative pandering that makes political rhetoric so detestable. And in theology, no less than in politics, pretty soon ‘isms’ take hold, misunderstood names are dropped, and the wonderful work of the church growing in the unity of the knowledge of God in the Son—together learning theology from Scriptures, in other words—will give way to ad hominem attacks, misrepresentation, distrust of brothers and sisters, and dissension that distracts the body of Christ, obscures grace, stunts growth, and brings disrepute on the church.
Aside from all that: the questions above touch on important topics, all aspects of that vast and profound issue of the nature of God’s relationship to creation. But that’s just it: the questions are about the nature of God’s relationship to creation. Both creation and that relationship exist by God’s design and free decision. Do they not? So the question, once more:
Should God be defined by his relationship to creation?
If you answer ‘yes’, congratulations: you are pantheist, or you’ve read too much (German) philosophy for your own good (or both). Good luck. Here is why you will need it: If that relationship is defined by the terms and conditions of creation—if what it is like to be a creature determines how God must relate to creatures—then the next step is this: God himself is defined by his own creation. This procedure is a very efficient way to take leave of the household of the one true God and enter any one (it doesn’t matter which) of the very many cathedrals of idolatry that litter God’s earth.
There are many ways to see this happen, but one is this: if you picture that relationship as a road between God and creation, notice that this road includes your knowledge of God. But in fact, this road represents something even more profound than your knowledge of God, what you say or believe about God; it defines how you know about God. So if that street is one-way from creation to God, then God is a complete and total figment of the creature’s creativity, and we are sinful creatures at that. This is pantheism at best; but other gods are no gods, so it’s nothing more than wicked self-projection.
Or if the road between God and creation is even just a little bit, ever, even once, a two-way street, then all is lost. At that point the creature adjusts—filters, interprets, re-interprets, applies and enforces—divine revelation ‘to taste’, and judges the Word of God according to autonomous self-assertion and prideful self-suitability; not only was this the first sin, no sinner under wrath, without the Spirit’s intervention, can or will utter the truth about God because in doing so he will have to confess his utter helplessness in the hands of a justly wrathful Creator-judge. God is love; but ‘love’ is not God. God is also just, and justice. The sinner will have to say ‘I now truly know that I know nothing truly’. This is repentance from the very seat of the human heart. And until we go to the Lord or he returns to claim those who are His, we are prone to wander from the God we love; so not even the regenerate—not even Christians—are to be trusted with their own private theological inclinations. The Bible never says any such thing.
To sum up the point here, if God is even just in the tiniest way defined according to his relationship with creation, then he is subject to his own creation. That is patent theological absurdity, a lowering of God beyond the tolerance of Scripture and Christian conscience, and an exaggeration of the ontology of creation beyond the confines of the word ‘creation’. If it is ‘creation’ God is its master. If that is lost, I don’t know what is left. If God is subject to his own creation not a word of the Bible can be trusted. One theologian says that the total trustworthiness of the Word of God, the inerrancy of Scripture, is “of the essence of theism.” Flip that statement around and you get this: lose the sovereign trustworthiness of God’s self-revelation in Scripture and theism itself is on the chopping block. We do not name God; he names himself.
Since I’ve raised those questions, I should devote some attention to them. I hope to do that soon.