A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies

A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies August 19, 2013

A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies

Recently I posted here an imaginary conversation between a Calvinist and an Arminian—about God’s sovereignty. At one point I inserted a common comment made by especially intellectually minded Calvinists about the non-competitive nature of divine and human agency. But it’s not only Calvinists who bring this up in discussions of God’s agency and creatures’. Some of the Christian thinkers I most admire in terms of their intellectual prowess and insight insist to me that I am risking idolatry when, as an Arminian, I insist that God’s agency and creatures’ are competitive.

Now it’s time to explain.

The issue can be stated many different ways; this is just one way. When a creature such as a human person makes a decision to act and then acts according to his or her desire and decision, what is God doing? A deist, even one who doesn’t call herself that, says God is observing. At the opposite end of the theistic theological spectrum a process thinker says God is observing. On that one point deists and process panentheists agree. God does not act in and through a creatures’ actions in such a way as to be directly involved. To put it another way, both deists and process thinkers agree that human creatures (and perhaps other creatures as well) have such a degree of autonomy from divine power as to be capable of acting on their own without requiring God’s corresponding action in them.

Sidebar: I realize some who call themselves process thinkers may disagree; I am talking about the major process philosophers and theologians such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, et al. There are many theologians now who attempt to modify classical process theology to correct what they see as some of its excesses—especially its tendency to make God finite. However, classical process thought and theology was not embarrassed to talk of God as finite except insofar as God is immediately present to every actual occasion giving it its initial aim and luring it toward that. The same can be said of so-called “Boston Personalism” (Brightman, Bowne, et al.).

The vast majority of Christian thinkers of all tribes have always insisted that human beings, creatures in general, have no autonomy over against God such that they can decide and act without God’s “concurrence.” The classical, orthodox Christian doctrine of God, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (including Arminianism) has always included “divine concurrence” as part of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, providence, and agency. (I discussed this in some detail in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.)

Stepping farther back for a moment: Classical Christian doctrines of God’s sovereignty, usually in the doctrine of divine providence, have traditionally held to three modes of God’s sovereignty in providence (history and individual lives): sustaining, concurring, and governing. Orthodox Christians, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (of all traditional types up until Boston Personalism’s and process theology’s appearances) have held that God 1) sustains everything that is and without God’s immediate sustaining power the creature and creation as a whole would fall into nothingness, 2) God concurs with creatures’ decisions and actions or else they would be powerless to decide and act, and 3) God oversees, governs, even directs the course of history and human lives such that nothing can happen without God’s permission or causation (or both).

The gist is that God is infinite and self-sufficient while creatures are finite and dependent. Put another way, God is autonomous in being, deciding and acting while creatures are not.

This is classical Christian theology. Yes, to be sure, there are variations of it. The devil is in the details, so to speak, of how theologians work out God’s sovereignty. But that God is sovereign in the ways I just described is basic Christian orthodoxy. Otherwise, God would not be infinite and could be regarded as just another creature, even if one without beginning. Creature in the sense of dependent on things outside himself or at least limited by them.

So what do theologians (and here I use the term broadly to include all who attempt to think Christianly about God) mean when they say that God’s agency and creatures’ agencies are “non-competitive?” That puzzles me. If they only mean what the doctrine of divine concurrence means—that creatures are not so autonomous as to be capable of deciding or acting completely apart from God’s permission and power—then I am in complete agreement. All orthodox Christians are.

However, in many discussions with Christian theologians I have detected they are accusing me of something more when they say I am pitting God’s agency and humans’ agencies against one another and thereby violating a principle of non-competitiveness between God’s agency and ours. This usually occurs when I insist, as I always do, that, when it comes to evil, God is not involved except in terms of permission and agreement. And by “agreement” I mean “concurs”—reluctantly permits and gives power to act. All creaturely power is “on loan,” as it were, from God.

I agree with those who insist on a non-competitive view of God’s agency and creatures insofar as we are talking about the good. According to Philippians 2:12-13 every good thing we do must be attributed to God being at work in us. In other words, when we are most active doing good, God is most active. And when God is most active in us we are most active. But that’s only true when we’re talking about the good. God’s agency and ours is strictly non-competitive in the realm of the truly good. Otherwise we could boast of the good that we do.

However, my problem with a “non-competitive view” of God’s agency and ours arises when we are talking about evil. Nothing in Scripture points to that! When we (or any creature) do what is truly evil, then God is still involved (sustaining, concurring, governing) but there is also competition—between God’s agency and ours. In other words, there can be no parallel principle along the lines of Philippians 2:12-13 when it comes to doing evil. Paul could not have written truly, under divine inspiration, and we should not believe or say “Work out your own evil inclinations and plans, your corruption and damnation, for God is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

When theologians, Calvinist or non-Calvinist, tell me I must avoid a competitive view of God’s agency and ours, my mind goes immediately to the problem of evil. Of course, I want to say, that’s true when we are talking about good or neutral decisions and actions (if there are neutral ones) but not when we are talking about evil decisions and actions.

But some theologians I have talked with about these matters want to take the non-competitive view all the way—to saying that God’s agency and human agency are never in competition. They are on distinct planes altogether with God’s completely surrounding and underlying, so to speak, creatures’.  (These are spatial metaphors that cannot do justice to what is meant by “noncompetitive agencies” when divine and human agencies are under consideration.)

My objection to that is that, while it may protect theology from idolatry and God’s being from finitude, it falters in making theodicy impossible.

Unless all is meant is divine concurrence. But that does not seem to be the case in many cases. Both Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologians often insist to me that any talk of creatures acting against God’s will, doing what God does not want done, thwarting God’s perfect, antecedent will introduces an element of creaturely autonomy that ultimately finitizes God.

While I do not wish to do that, of course, neither do I wish to imply that evil dispositions, decisions and actions fit within divine agency except concurrence.

With the proviso of divine concurrence I must admit that I view divine and creaturely agencies as somewhat competitive—commensurable in the sense that they can conflict.

I do not think that requires me to adopt a deistic or processive view of God as a finite being limited by creatures (a lá William James or Alfred North Whitehead or any of their faithful followers).  Why not? Because I hold to the doctrine of divine concurrence. I can do nothing, not even evil, without God’s agreement and aid. However, an element of competition of agencies enters in the moment I suggest that God only agrees and aids (concurs) in the evil that I do reluctantly and that the evil I do cannot be attributed to God’s agency as its primary, efficient cause. Whatever good I do I attribute to God’s primary, efficient causation (Philippians 2:12-13). Therefore I cannot boast and can only confess “What do I have that I was not given?” However, when I do evil I attribute it to my own causation as efficient and instrumental and to God’s causation only in terms of Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’s) final cause (making it possible and directing it to its ultimate “place” in God’s overall plan).

The problems I have with any consistently noncompetitive view of God’s agency and ours is that it problematizes theodicy and, while seeming to pay God metaphysical compliments, conflicts with the biblical narrative in which God is portrayed as horrified by evil as that which he does not intend or cause—even indirectly (through secondary causes).

I would describe my view, as briefly outlined here, as “biblical personalism”—a term I borrow from Emil Brunner. God is a person (or three persons in perfect community of will), not an object or force. While I am reluctant to identify God, or talk about God, in objectifying ways (i.e., as “thingy”), following the biblical narrative and avoiding speculation, as much as possible, I have to talk about God as a “Thou” who encounters me in a genuine, personal “I-Thou” encounter and not as an energy or force or principle or whatever who is impersonal or suprapersonal (whatever that means) or even infinite in the speculative, philosophical sense of “the Absolute” (a lá Hegel or Tillich and, I fear, much negative theology).


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