Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Old Testament and the Problem of Divine Sovereignty/Human Freedom

Craig Blomberg’s recent reflection “Why I Am a Calminian” provides a helpful reminder of the very real tension in the Scriptures between divine sovereignty and human freedom:

There are countless passages throughout Scripture that, seemingly paradoxically, affirm at one and the same time God’s sovereignty and human freedom (with accountability). Philippians 2:12-13 commands us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but only because God is the one at work in us to do his good pleasure. Isaiah 10:5-13 finds God using Assyria as an instrument to punishment faithless Israel but then promising to turn around and punish Assyria because of her evil motives in conquering God’s people.

But perhaps the text that says it best of all is the first one in the canonical sequence, Genesis 50:20. Joseph has been reunited with his brothers, but now that their father is dead they fear that Joseph may at last exact vengeance on them. Joseph allays their fears by explaining that he understands that God had different, good purposes in mind with their action of selling him into slavery in Egypt, even though their purposes were evil. Two separate agents, two separate wills, at cross purposes with each other, neither described as logically or chronologically prior to the other. Neither is said to cause the other; they occur simultaneously.

This tension is at work throughout the Old Testament. In line with Reformation theology, the Old Testament affirms divine sovereignty and grace as the basis of God’s election. The recurring motif of God choosing the younger over the elder in the book of Genesis reflects that God’s selection of individuals stands apart from human measurements of value and worth. Noah is righteous because he finds favor in the eyes of the Lord and not vice-versa (Gen 6:8-9). God chose Abraham despite the fact that the patriarch came from a long line of idol worshippers (Josh 24:3). Paul explains that behavior did not factor into God’s election of Jacob over Esau for inclusion in the line of blessing (Rom 9:11-12). He does not tell us, “God made his choice because Jacob the deceiver was at least better than Esau the reprobate.” Divine grace and love is also the only explanation for the election of Israel as God’s “holy nation” and “treasured possession” (Deut 4:37; 7:7-8; 9:4-5).

We also learn from the Old Testament prophets of God’s sovereign work in salvation. The Lord promises through Isaiah that “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (Isa 59:20). The reality, though, is that such a turning will only occur when the Lord overrides the human disposition to sin and unilaterally writes his law on the heart of his people through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Isa 32:15; 59:21; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:24-27). Then, and only then, will Israel’s cyclical history of disobedience come to an end. God’s sovereign work will guarantee Israel’s perpetual obedience so that there will never again be the need for more punishment or another exile (cf. Isa 33:20-24; 60:18-21; Jer 32:38-41; Ezek 36:28-30).

The other side, however, is that the Reformed view of divine sovereignty and its all-determining God does not appear to satisfactorily explain the interaction between God and man in space and time and how God’s choices are contingent upon human actions. The theological principle of God’s willingness to alter his intentions based on human response is summarized in Jeremiah 18:7-10:

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

As Longman explains, the point here is, “If those announced for judgment repent or those who are established sin, then all bets are off.” One of God’s intrinsic qualities is his willingness to change his mind or to alter his intended actions (Deut 9:13-14; Ps 106:23; Joel 2:13-14; Jon 4:2). Of course, there are instances where God has decreed and refuses to deter from his intended plan (cf. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4; Jer 4:28), but such occasions occur far less often in the OT than those where God is willing to change. The intercession of Moses (Exod 32:14) convinces the Lord not to carry out his intended destruction of the rebellious Israelites. Peter Enns writes, “It certainly seems that Moses, through argument and pleading, has been able to get God to alter his plans. To put it in plain English, Moses gets God to change his mind. There is really no other way to read this, and we should not try to avoid it.” The prayers of Amos in response to two separate visions portraying God’s imminent destruction of his people are similarly effective (Amos 7:1-6). Abraham negotiates more favorable terms for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:22-33), and Hezekiah successfully petitions for a 15-year extension to his life after the Lord has announced that he is about to die (2 Kgs 20:1-10; Isa 38:1-8). The repentance of Hezekiah and Judah postpones Micah’s announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem (Jer 26:17-19; cf. Mic 3:12), and the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh similarly reverses Jonah’s announcement of the impending destruction of that city (Jon 3:1, 10).

Human response (the repentance of the king of Tyre?) is perhaps the reason why Ezekiel’s original prophecy of Nebuchadnezzar’s total destruction of Tyre (Ezek 26:1-14) is later altered by the divine promise that Nebuchadnezzar would be given Egypt instead as recompense for his 13 years of frustration in the incomplete conquest of Tyre (Ezek 29:17-20). Israel’s fearful response when the king of Moab sacrifices his son on the city walls appears to turn Elisha’s prophecy of total victory into a disappointing retreat (2 Kgs 3:19, 27-28).

Reformed theologians are certainly correct in calling attention to the narratival perspectives of the Old Testament and the use of accommodation and figurative language when the Bible speaks of God “changing his mind.” God changing his mind obviously does not mean the same as when contingencies force us to alter our plans on how we will spend the afternoon. Open Theism has read too much into this language in its denial of God’s omniscient foreknowledge (cf. 1 Sam 23:6-12, where God not only knows the future, but the outcome of a hypothetical event involving free human choices), but there is the equal danger of reading too little into this imagery as well. More than simply the language of appearance, the idea of God “relenting” expresses the extent to which God has entered into real relationships with his creatures. We are forced to reckon with a God who is both inside and outside of time and with the reality that there are things that will or will not happen in our world based upon our choices and decisions. The sovereign God has allowed for there to be flexibility in his decrees.

We clearly see the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom in the story of the plagues and the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart in the book of Exodus. At first glance, we might feel sorry for the Pharaoh, as he unknowingly plays the role of marionette, compelled to bring about the destruction of his own kingdom for the enhancement of Yahweh’s glory. And yet, in his response to Aaron’s rod becoming a snake and six of the first seven plagues, it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (cf. Exod 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34). The divine sentence of hardening only comes as the appropriate punishment for the Pharaoh’s willful unbelief in the final plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the sea (cf. Exod 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 17). The statements that Yahweh will harden the Pharaoh’s heart at the beginning of this process (cf. Exod 4:21; 7:3) are an expression that Yahweh’s purposes will ultimately prevail in this struggle but not that he dictates or determines the Pharaoh’s responses.

The idea of an all-determining God is especially problematic when considering the divine-human interplay as God uses the Assyrian and Babylonian armies as his instruments of judgment against Israel and Judah (Isa 10:5-6; Jer 21:3-7; 25:8-11; 27:6-7) but then punishes these nations for how they exceed his intentions (Isa 10:7-19; Jer 25:12-14; 50:29-32; 51:6-8). God will “hand over” Jerusalem to the Babylonians, but he appears to be hands-off in how the Babylonian army executes their siege and conquest. The Babylonians go beyond Yahweh’s explicit intentions, and Yahweh is “grieved” (nacham) over the disaster that befalls his people (Jer 42:10). This paradox is perplexing, and yet, as Mark Biddle has suggested, the prophets’ perspective on God’s involvement with these pagan armies provides a way forward in understanding and speaking of God’s continuing involvement in a sinful world. God was at work in the events of 9/11 and is at work in the Gaza Strip or on the streets of Baghdad despite the violent acts and injustices that he does not directly determine.

Biddle writes, “While God is perhaps the most powerful actor on the stage, the play is, to a degree, an improvisation. Whether by choice or necessity, God does not script every dialogue nor direct every gesture. Instead, God becomes involved in genuine relationships. The other actors are free to act as they will. . . . . God responds within the limitations established by the choices of God's partners.” God’s sovereignty is such that he controls all things without necessarily orchestrating every detail. His providence at times takes the form of the micromanaging the smallest details, like the trajectory of the enemy arrow that finds its way between the chinks of King Ahab’s armor in fulfillment of the prophetic word (1 Kgs 22:34). But, there are many other times when God’s providence takes the form of a more indirect or even laissez faire control. God allows the suffering of Job within prescribed boundaries, but it is the job of the Satan to determine the form and sequence of Job’s afflictions. Using the analogy of the Divine Chess Master, God controls the game not by directing every movement of the individual pieces but by controlling the outcome and winning the game no matter how the pieces might move. The ultimate triumph of God’s purposes without direct determination of every contingency only heightens the greatness of his wisdom and sovereignty.

Biddle again comments, “History is the dance between God and humanity—neither partner alone defines its movement. History is, therefore, often herky-jerky, complex, messy.” Only a truly sovereign and omniscient God could accomplish his purposes in such a world. The Bible is a messy book in its stubborn refusal to resolve the irreconcilable tensions between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Rather than forcing the Bible into our own ideological confines, we are better to live with the tensions and to allow the biblical text to speak for itself.


  1. thanks for sharing!

  2. Great explanation and one that I appreciate for its honest reflection upon the text that doesn't fit either a pre-conceived system or theological position. I for one think seeing God'd complexity in Scripture brings a needed humility to my teaching about him and my relationship to him. Thanks!

  3. This was a most timely post (for me personally) and a great resource to consider - thank you Dr. Yates.

    That said, I still struggle with the concept of praying for others if it is the person that must respond (do something) and God is “waiting.” In other words, why pray for a person to repent and believe if God is constrained by “limitations established by the choices of God's partners.” - which really means – God is unable? I have settled on the two Truths – God is sovereign in His election to salvation and His call to repent and believe is universal.

    Tough topic – thanks again for these most valuable insights! Blessings!