As noted previously, this question places us at a kind of ‘t’ in the theological road. It is a low-grade dilemma in which there are two costly options, and only two. A negative answer comes with a price; but an affirmative answer is, some argue, even more damaging. Historic treatments of this and related questions go every which way, though certainly the majority (and all of historic orthodoxy) opt for some variation on the affirmative theme. Some contemporary literature argues that yes is so very costly that no is the only defensible choice. Let’s have a quick look at the question, with these contemporary discussions in mind.
Logic and Theology: It’s Complicated
On the one hand, if you answer ‘yes, everything that happens is ordained by God,’ then you face a couple of problems: experience doesn’t seem to agree, and the ideas of sin and God’s response in wrath and judgment become mysterious at best. And of course the persistence and extent of evil are difficult to explain. These problems emerge because the ordination of all things is thought to unfold more or less as follows:
If God foreordains all things then everything that ever happens is inevitable; if something is inevitable it is not significant, it has no meaning, or it has no more meaning than its cause; and so the thought is that there just is nothing at all except the will of God.
But the Bible never speaks this way. Ever. Not once. So that is one problem. ‘Logic’ sometimes makes theology do things that are unnatural for theology. For example, ‘logic’ would probably not even allow for tri-personal monotheism. Actually scholars debate whether logic can allow for the Trinity; they also debate what ‘logic’ is, or they ask, ‘Whose logic? Which logic?’ But certainly no one believes that ‘logic’ (whatever it is) naturally produces tri-personal monotheism. No one is so audacious. The boldest question asked is: can logic put up with the Trinity? And of course that is an interesting question because for some people it is a test of the Trinity; but for others, it is a test of logic.
So, again, logic and theology don’t always play well together. There are several reasons for this, but a most basic one is this: God is personal; he is not a principle.
Have you ever read a biography? Do you think it would be possible to read, say, the first paragraph of a biography, and then simply deduce the rest of the story? If I say, “1, 2, 3,” you can be sure “4, 5, 6” will come next. But people are not numbers.
Or: would it be possible to examine the first five minutes of a person’s day and then infallibly predict everything he will do for the rest of that day? Of course not; this wouldn’t even be possible with a dog or a fish or even the movements of clouds, let alone for a human being.
Persons are not principles, and of course this is supremely true of the supreme personal being, the Triune God. He is personal and free. And his personality and his freedom are in perfect harmony. Now we can say that God is perfectly wise, always matching the best means to the best ends. But still, that does not mean that we can search the depths of the mind and will of God, much less that we can search, know, and judge the wisdom of the will and actions of God. We are careful not to do this with our friends and family! How reluctant we are to judge rashly and harshly the decisions of our parents, or our husbands and wives, until we first listen and sympathize; how much damage to our family relationships would such judicial presumption cause? Lots and lots, I can assure you. How much more caution should we exercise when considering the divine mind and will. So caution must be exercised in reasoning theologically, so that the cold, impersonal force of logic does not corrupt our procedure and create distance between theology and God.
How Theology is Done (Or: What theology Is): God Comes First
Theology is in two parts: most fundamentally, (1) exegesis of Scripture, and as a secondary source, (2) the guidance of historical theology—great teachers of the church historic.
We’ll set historic theology aside for the moment. In terms of our question and the teaching of Scripture, two things need to be said here:
- Scripture answers this question in a clear affirmative: yes, God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. However:
- There is no hint in Scripture of the implications outlined above, that therefore history is reducible to raw determining will and, therefore, evil and sin are meaningless and divine wrath is discouraging fiction.
As for no.1, I won’t list Scripture references here because these can easily be researched. (Here the help of historical theology is invaluable.) But cataloging prooftexts would be a fool’s errand anyway because Scripture everywhere exalts the sovereign Creator-judge, and all of Christian theism presupposes the categorical transcendence of the triune God. God is categorically greater than His creation. This categorical, absolute distinction between the Creator and the creature must be preserved or the Creator-creature relation will consume them both. The relation between God and creation can only be rightly understood if their absolute distinction is presupposed and preserved. In relating to creation God does not become a creature. Even in Christ who ‘became flesh’ the church has always taught that the two natures remain distinct while they are inseparably united in the person of the Son. When Christ becomes man He also remains God; the absolute Creator/creature distinction remains in place. In Him the fullness of deity dwells bodily. When Paul says this, that the fullness of deity dwells bodily, he is expressing revealed truth. No human would conceive this or dare to make such a claim. But in Christ God is man. And Scripture does not obscure the unqualified sovereignty of God over creation. It is, over and over in the Bible, reason for praise (Eph 1:3–10 is one example). And of course the very trustworthiness of Scripture depends upon God’s mastery over the means. So it simply cannot be argued from Scripture that God is not sovereign over His creation.
So, Scripture says yes. But notice the way that the answer is stated: “God ordains everything that happens,” or more traditionally, “whatsoever comes to pass.” Try it this way: whatever happens, that is what God ordained. There are two parts to this statement:
First: ‘God ordains.’ This is an objective state of affairs, a theological truth not depending upon us and in many ways too lofty for the creaturely mind (Isa 55). In fact, humans ordain nothing. We promise, we try, we intend, we plan, request, sometimes order or command; but we have no power whatsoever to ordain or anything like it. We have no experience of such an action. No experience means no science, no data, nothing to compare it to.
It is traditionally said that God orders events to unfold according to secondary causes (God Himself being the primary cause), and that he ordains even those causes. God ordains contingent things. He infallibly ordains that several things are possible, and that one possible thing is actualized. This explanation is not intuitive; it is initially confusing, maybe even frustrating. That is because it is not an attempt to rationalize, but an attempt to present the teaching of Scripture.
Second: ‘whatsoever comes to pass.’ This way of wording it (not original with me) indicates that we only know in retrospect what God ordained. So we do not have access to the ‘divine board room’ or the ‘heavenly oval office’; we cannot consult the minutes of that administrative meeting. The divine counsel is hidden from us, except perhaps in places like Gen 1:26–27, where it is revealed because God judged it conducive to his glory that we would know it. Some things are revealed for the church and other things are hidden (Deut 29:29). Whatever God wishes to reveal for His glory, He reveals; whatever is more conducive to His glory to withhold, He withholds. The retrospective point of view means that of the nature of the case the foreordination of God is not a blueprint or script or determinative cause that evacuates life and history of all meaning. We might be tempted to think it is; but Scripture simply disallows this view. Let’s examine that line of reasoning once more:
God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass.
Therefore, everything is determined and inevitable.
Therefore, every event (decision) is nothing more than the effect of a prior cause.
Therefore, nothing has any more meaning that what preceded it.
Therefore, there really are no events or decisions that have any meaning except one: the decree of God.
Therefore, human reasoning, decision making, and life in general are all an illusion; sin is an empty notion; and the wrath of God is fantasy.
This is not good theology. Strictly speaking it does not fit the definition of theology as the presentation of the data of Scripture. The pattern of thought here is foreign to Scripture. I believe that the first statement is biblical; but in this argument, that statement is so misused that it is apparently not even understood.
As for no.2, Scripture supports the first statement; but there is not a hint anywhere in the Bible of any of the rest of this stuff. It just isn’t there. I don’t need to rehearse the biblical data here because all of the biblical data disqualifies this reasoning. All of Scripture contradicts every one of these statements except the first one. Each “therefore” is disqualified by the Bible. Therefore, the argument must be tossed. It is unbiblical speculation.
Any aspect of the doctrine of God can be shredded by the same fallacious reasoning. Take omniscience, for example. Does God know the future? If he knows the future, then there really isn’t a ‘future’ or a meaningful history, just a series of pre-designed still-lifes. But if the future is truly contingent, and it sure seems to be, then God cannot know what will happen because it hasn’t happened. There is no future to be known. So, God doesn’t know the future; He knows possibilities, just as we do; but He knows all the possibilities, so He can plan ahead exhaustively. Or maybe he can’t even do that.
This is to shred the knowledge of God by subjecting it to the creaturely experience of time. But the same can be done using the creaturely experience of space. I ‘know’ my office, but I am not there now. I only know it by mental effort of recollection. When I am present in my office, I know it immediately. Recollection and immediate perception are different sorts of knowledge. But the trick is that they are mutually exclusive; I cannot immediately perceive my office and recollect my office at the same time. So: which sort of knowledge does God have? If He is omnipresent, then He has immediate perceptive knowledge of my office; and therefore He does not have recollective acquaintance with it; so there are things He does not know, such as what it is like to remember something that you don’t have right before your eyes. In that case God can’t miss people as we miss loved ones who are far away. Or maybe God’s knowledge of my office is more like recollective knowledge, since He is not ‘physically’ there and anyway He has no body, so He cannot perceive with the senses as we do. Perhaps His knowledge is perfect recollective knowledge. In that case, again, there is knowledge God doesn’t have: the knowledge of immediate perception.
Such examples can be multiplied endlessly. (See ‘philosophy of religion’.) To avoid this confusion, we must remember that God knows Creation as its self-existent Creator and sustainer. He simply is not subject to the conditions of creaturely existence: ‘heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; tell me, what sort of house will you build for me?’ So drastic is the distinction between God and creation that we resort to metaphor: He is ‘above’, ‘beyond’, ‘highly exalted’, ‘from everlasting’, ‘everlasting to everlasting’, ‘before all ages’, the ‘Ancient of Days’, God of gods and Lord of lords. Or we must stretch beyond its normal capacity our philosophical language: he is a se, self-sufficient, self-defined, self-named, of himself, absolute but also personal. This is not poetry; it is ontology. God Himself is another sort of being.
Back to the Dilemma
I noted at the beginning that this question supposedly presents us with a dilemma. The idea is that if you answer ‘yes’, then you are stuck with meaningless history and empty religion. I have just argued that the Bible won’t endorse all that, so it should be disregarded. However, when an affirmative answer is thought to lead in that direction—as is sometimes argued—then we are rather desperately encouraged to deny that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and we are encouraged to do so in order (1) to reconcile theology to experience and common sense; and (2) to save the entire Christian lexicon (sin, evil, judgment, salvation, grace, atonement, and so on) from death by impotence and shame.
If what I have said so far holds water, then this dilemma is a false one. We are not obligated to choose between divine ordination and reality. Let’s conclude with Isaiah 57:15:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”