The Horror of Meticulous Determinism

The Horror of Meticulous Determinism July 8, 2016

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye, #8 in his series of Top Ten Books in his life.

You’re seated in a prayer circle of seven people. Other prayer circles dot the sanctuary. A young man in your circle begins to offer a litany of unexpected hardships, bouts of anxiety, his own version of a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day. He concludes by saying, “I just don’t know why God is doing this to me!” Seated in your circle is Dr. Victor M. Matthews, former Professor of Systematic Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who on hearing the young man, stares him down and testily responds, “I am sick and tired of all the devil’s work being laid at the feet of God. Quit blaming God for your tough time.”

Dr. Victor Matthews suggested we read Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict. I knew of Greg Boyd only through his little book Letters from a Skeptic in which Boyd shares correspondence with his unconverted father, a literary father-son apologetic. God at War was a game-changer for me at both a theological and ministry level.

Some back story. Dr. Matthews, along with some other Christian leaders (e.g., Dr. C. Fred Dickason of Moody Bible Institute), taught seminars on spiritual warfare. Frank Peretti’s novels about spiritual conflict had in the 1990s blazed through segments of the evangelical church. Spiritual warfare captivated the attention of many.

Boyd, after introducing the prevalence of a spiritual warfare worldview in cultures throughout history and in the Bible itself, immediately rocked my received thinking regarding evil and the sovereignty of God. Boyd contends that the prevailing classic view of the God of meticulous determinism staggers under the weight of real evil in the world. The classic view’s contention that no will in the universe operates outside God’s eternal and comprehensive decree complicates the reality of spiritual warfare rather than resolves it.

Those holding the divine meticulous determinism view argue that Boyd’s view undermines God’s sovereignty and omniscience while Boyd argues that his view magnifies those realities in God. (Boyd was actually the subject of a heresy trial over his open theism views.) There is no way to escape that God is the author of evil when you hold that all that happens is decreed by God in God’s eternal, comprehensive decree. I remember J. I. Packer writing about this issue in his little paperback, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by introducing the term antinomy. The issue was God decreeing Satan’s resistance to God’s own will. God willed Satan’s willful resistance. We need a word for that: antinomy. I call it “the Calvinistic punt.” Boyd asks, “Does this [classic view of] omnipotence necessarily entail that God is all-controlling, as the classical-philosophical tradition after Augustine has been inclined to assume? Does affirming that God is omnipotent commit one to the view that a good divine purpose lies behind particular events…?” (41).

Did God decree evil and then send Jesus to “mop it up,” so to speak? Did Jesus come to reverse God’s decree? Is there a disunity in the Trinity? The classic omni-control view’s appeal to antinomy and mystery seems to be a way to escape where simple logic would lead anyone.

If everything, down to the a single molecule’s activity (R. C. Sproul), is decreed by God and is so decreed for God’s glory, then when Zosia, an alive young Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto, has her beautiful eyes gouged out by Nazi soldiers to make two rings—one for a Nazi leader and his wife—the loving God of the universe decreed this for his matchless glory (see Boyd, 31-72).

I stopped drinking the kool-aid of Augustinian/Calvinistic determinism. Rather than getting mad at God about evil or reciting inadequate platitudes (“all things work together for good”), I was able to focus energy on the real enemy and the real cosmic conflict.

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  • Tucker

    Flip Wilson’s line was “The Devil made me do it.” We all laughed. But when serious theologians say God was the one behind the terrible sexual abuse of a child (a situation all too close to home in my background), then the laughing stops. Such theology is the worst kind of slander against God.

  • gingoro

    While I as a calvinist reject meticulous providence, never the less God is ultimately responsible as he created all that is, even the fallen angels. God’s kenosis let’s his creatures express limited free will. I used to think that God restrained and limited evil but now I wonder about even that especially after visiting Auschwitz. Maybe God has turned his back on the mess we have made.

  • Beakerj

    I can recommend Udo Middelmann’s The Innocence of God (both book & a lecture on youtube) on this subject. He is married to one of Francis Schaeffer’s daughters & spoke at Edith Schaeffer’s funeral. He stands where you stand. I had an interesting correspondence with him over this, it is a viewpoint I wish I had heard many many years ago.

  • Lynn Betts

    “I was able to focus energy on the real enemy and the real cosmic conflict.”

    Thanks, John. To me, this is THE most important truth that is overlooked by so many Christians in understanding our “human condition” and the “problem of evil” and what we are to do: acknowledging that there is a “real enemy” and a “real cosmic conflict.” (Of course, we must also acknowledge that part of the reality include spiritual beings “on our side” as well, in the conflict.)

    Most Christians seem to believe it, but for some reason only in a theoretical sense. Even when we study the specific biblical passages that discuss it, we seem to believe the activity is “out there somewhere.” It is illogical that they do not consider it as the immediate cause of things that actually happen, and take up the main weapons at their disposal in the war (obedience and prayer, individually and collectively).

    The disconnect is one of the more successful of the enemies’ strategies.

    On the other hand, I have looked down my nose at Christians who “campaign” to get as many people to pray about something as possible…and seem to have a kind of theology of “votes” – if God’s side gets enough votes, then the person who is ill (for example) is healed, but the person is not healed if not enough votes can be solicited. There is a crudeness to this that I don’t like and which embarrasses me. Yet, I have to admit that the analogy is sound: in any earthly battle the outcome is sometimes dependent on the sheer numbers mounted on one side against the lesser. It is not always so, of course. Sometimes the effectiveness of one sides’ weapons tilts the outcome. So, I suppose the point is that we must be open to all strategies as we engage in this war, and don’t stop taking our duties seriously to pray and do good – even if some practices seem embarrassing. (James 5:13ff; Ephesians 6:18)

    Thanks again.

  • AmyK

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve been enjoying this series of yours, but this is one of the main ideas/worldviews that has shifted for me in the past 5 years or so. Because it was never taught to me outright, I didn’t realize how much it had infiltrated my thoughts about life. Eventually, I had a kind of crisis of faith where I recognized that I couldn’t believe for sure that God is good. I traced it back almost entirely to the view of meticulous sovereignty.

    I have found Roger Olson extremely helpful in working through other options outside of divine determinism, and he often promotes Boyd’s work (without being able to fully embrace open theism himself at this point). But I haven’t seen this particular book.

    This post also brought up an interesting thought to me. When I was growing up, there was a lot of those cliches thrown around about “God’s plan” and “all things working together for good”, etc. Everything that was bad was all a part of God’s plan, and we just didn’t understand why at the moment, but it would all make sense in eternity. BUT, at the same time, Calvinism was outright rejected. We had a very semi-pelagian view of salvation. I don’t know why this potential contradiction didn’t bother more people.

  • Janet

    I am still thinking about the young man in the prayer group who shared his distress. It’s one thing to want to be sure that we consider our view of who God is and is not, it’s another thing to call someone on theology when he is asking for prayer in a prayer group. I can’t help but wonder how Dr. Matthew ‘ s response affected that young man spiritually.

  • Brent White

    Like the author of this post, I believe that we don’t emphasize spiritual warfare enough. But for me, this post doesn’t solve any problems.

    Did the man in the prayer circle who was having the terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day pray that God would deliver him from it? If so, did God grant his petition? It sounds like God didn’t. In which case we have three options: 1) God didn’t grant the man’s petition because he’s incapable of doing so. 2) God didn’t grant the petition because whether or not God does so is completely arbitrary. 3) God didn’t grant the petition because, after considering it alongside all other petitions and everything else happening in the world, including God’s desire to direct history to a certain goal, God had a good reason for not doing so.

    It seems to me like the third option is the best one for us Christians. If so, there is a reason God allows some bad thing to happen, even if he doesn’t cause it directly. Indeed, Satan may have caused it. But God created Satan and allows him some measure of freedom to operate. Right? Does God have a good reason to do so? Or are God’s hands tied?

    My point is, the difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing isn’t nearly so great as many think.

    Besides, what about, as one example, Paul’s discussion of the “thorn in his flesh” from 1 Corinthians 12? Paul describes the thorn as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” him (divine passive) by God—in order to benefit Paul in some way. Paul sees that when it comes to evil and suffering, it’s not either/or, but both/and. God is someone who constantly redeems evil. If he could do it with the cross of his Son, he can do it with all lesser forms of evil in our world.

  • Ken

    Thanks, brother John, for introducing me to Boyd’s God at War a few years back – a timely read following a three year immersion submerged in the world of Piperian obsessions… whew, that was a close one.

  • AmyK

    Thanks for that recommendation. I just watched his lecture on youtube, and it was indeed fascinating.

  • Robin Warchol

    Roger Olson’s books are great “Against Calvinism” is so well done and very helpful.

  • Robin Warchol

    Great analysis and insight. This same determinism also applies to tragic accidents. Was it really God’s plan that a young woman dive into a shallow lake and break her neck so she can be an example for God’s glory? Or was it just a terrible accident based on a careless youthful mistake and gravity and applies to everyone yet God can, will and does give that person strength and help? I think I have always been bothered by the over the top Calvinsim of Joni Tada. Because if God willed or purposely broke her neck, why doesn’t God do this for all of us so we can give God glory? I think some of the greater implications of this is that the idea that God is going to come swooping in to prevent and rescue Christians yet if that didn’t happen, then it must be God’s will for you to suffer this tragedy.

  • DMH

    Some time ago (80’s) my father in law (missionary in brazil) had a kind of nervous breakdown and was sent to Pine Rest in G.R. (you might be familiar with it). Nothing seemed to help. One day Victor Matthews came and prayed with him, approaching it from a “spiritual warfare” angle- within days he was fine and back to normal things. Dr. Matthews seemed like a great discerning guy. Think what you want about “spiritual warfare” but there’s definitely something to it. I’m actually just getting around to reading Boyd’s book now.

  • Bob

    It’s one thing to misuse the Scriptures but another to label an excerpt from a verse (in this case, Romans 8:28) “an inadequate platitude.” I find that this statement comforts me in two ways. One, no matter what I’ve suffered, good is going to win out in my life; God will see to it. Two, even if I’ve experienced terrible misfortune, the glory of the Lord will be displayed in me. My life can be blessed and it counts for something eternal. While Romans 8:28 doesn’t answer every question we have, it provides the basis for consolation and hope. Both of these are demonstrated to the fullest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  • kburchard

    I always wonder how much more evil, horror, terror, and pain the god of meticulous determinism has all planned out and set up for us before the end of the age. If the god of meticulous determinism conceived of all this evil and then created some agents to carry it all out for him (for his greater glory), he’s the biggest monster I ever heard of. And man… what an imagination for the gruesome. Have you seen some of the photos of the aftermath of all the stuff he planned out (and had satan and evil people carry out)? Pretty sick stuff. Very unlike the God revealed in Jesus. I wonder which one is really God (they can’t both be).

  • The inadequate platitude isn’t the verse or your helpful interpretation of it, but its misuse to justify the belief in an all controlling God as the author of all evils.

  • Lee Martin McDonald

    Thanks for all of the above. I agree. I had to back away from Calvinism long ago because at its core it appears to make God responsible for my own failure and the failure found in the human race. That cannot be a God worth honoring or loving —I think! I have also found many in Reformed churches who without thinking live like they are responsible and not God for their failures and they do not blame God for the evil they experience. —Lee McDonald