Is God Necessarily the All-Determining Reality?
Occasionally I “meet” (including non-face-to-face meetings here and elsewhere) people who believe that the God Christians worship is what theologian Greg Boyd calls “the God of the blueprint”—the Supreme Being who is not only creator and sustainer and redeemer but also the one who theologian John Piper says “designs, ordains, and governs” everything that happens without exception.
First, there are Christian (and other) theologians and philosophers who believe that God, in order to be God (the being greater than which none can be conceived) MUST be that—the ultimate cause of everything that happens in the sense that whatever happens is God’s will and is rendered certain by God according to God’s “blueprint” for history.
Second, however, there are Christian (and other) lay people, untutored in theology, who also simply assume that God, if he exists, must be this all-determining being. I say “if he exists” only to indicate that in these people’s minds any other idea of God, say of a God who is NOT the all-determining reality, would be of a God who does not exist.
Of course, there is a very long history to this question and debate among Christian theologians, philosophers, and lay people. (Here I am going to limit my discussion to Christians although this same question and debate pops up in other monotheistic religions.)
Somehow, however, the idea of God as determining all things to happen according to a divine “blueprint” has sunk deeply into both scholarly and popular/folk religion especially in America.
Although I haven’t heard this terminology for some time, insurance companies used to exempt themselves from having to pay for losses due to “acts of God”—earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. A popular song from the 1960s recently covered by a rock group talks about a girlfriend dying in a car accident. According to the lyrics “the good Lord took her away.”
I could go on and on with examples. I often see raised eyebrows among Christian audiences I speak to when I say that God is “not in control but in charge.” I always go on to explain that God limits Godself and allows things to happen that are not according to his “master plan” (antecedent will) and the reason is to allow real free will in the world.
Well, of course, that raises questions that beg answers and the best popularly written book answering them is Greg Boyd’s “Is God to Blame?” The argument unfolded there is too detailed to repeat here. Suffice it to say that the author speculates (biblically and reasonably) that God always does all that God can do to prevent and alleviate innocent suffering but that God abides by rules only he knows and understands in his interactions with the world (nature and history) and that to violate those rules would be the same as to destroy free will.
I frequently “meet” (quotations marks indicate that some are not face-to-face but in cyberspace) people who simply assume that if God exists (some definitely believe in God; others questions God’s existence) God must be the author of everything that happens and that everything that happens—without exception—must be according to God’s eternal, divine “blueprint” and rendered certain by God.
That idea of God is, indeed, one idea of God held by Christians (as well as others), but it is not the only one. This represents a kind of “continental divide” among believers in and worshipers of the God of the Bible. And those of us who deny that idea of God are not all heretics. (Some may be, but also some who believe God is the all-determining reality may also be heretics when they take it as far as to say God is the author of sin.)
The way to avoid being a heretic while denying that God is the all-determining reality (in the absolute, comprehensive sense described above) is to say, as Boyd does, that God limits God’s self for the sake of human (and possibly non-human) free will.
Many people are wondering why more evangelical Christians in America are NOT speaking out ferociously against our government’s inhumane and cruel treatment of refugee children from south of our border with Mexico. One reason often given is that all government is from God and that Christians are to regard whatever OUR government does as above criticism based on a misinterpretation of Romans 13.
But I suspect there’s another reason. American Christianity of almost all traditions and tribes has been influenced strongly by the theology of divine meticulous providence taught by Jonathan Edwards (“America’s theologian” according to a book by that title), Charles Hodge (perhaps the most influential American theologian of the 19th century—especially for conservative Protestants), and John Piper (America’s most influential living theologian). According to that theology, of course, even this cruel and inhumane treatment of children must be God’s will.
But there has always been another “stream” of Christian thinking about divine providence—stemming from John Wesley (a Brit but extremely influential in America), Horace Bushnell (a second extremely influential 19th century American theologian), and living theologians such as E. Frank Tupper (author of a massive book about God’s providence) and Greg Boyd.
When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelicals my spiritual-theologian mentors seemed to me to be confused about God’s sovereignty. When it came to sin they denied that God “designed, ordained” and renders it certain. They would have called that heresy. But when it came to tragedies, many insisted that “God has a plan for it” and “God knows what he is doing”—in the sense that God did design it, ordain it, and render it certain. At the same time, however, they taught that prayer could change the will of God about tragedy and sometimes attributed tragedies and disasters to Satan!
Well, the denomination (and tradition/tribe) I grew up in appealed to mystery whenever I asked hard questions about these seeming inconsistencies.
One of the main reasons I became a theologian was to come up with an answer for myself that avoided too quick and easy an appeal to mystery and also avoided to Scylla and Charybdis of divine determinism (which makes God the author of sin) and rendering God impotent (some forms of liberal theology).
Throughout my many years as a student of theology and teacher of theology I have studied in depth and detail all the options about God and evil (including innocent suffering). To me this is the most important theological problem. What I have found is this: All answers contain problems; there is no problem-free theodicy.
I tell students and anyone who cares to listen that, in SOME cases where the Bible does not seem to be as clear as we wish it were and where there are various options for interpretation all of which take the Bible seriously as God’s Word, one must embrace the solution that contains the problems one can live with.
I have found in Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? The solution to the problem of God and evil and innocent suffering that contains the problems I can live with. One of them is that we cannot know all the rules God abides by in his dealings with the world. But God is not arbitrary, uncaring or uninvolved, and God is omnipotent, good and wise.
The book so well explains this theodicy that I have recommended it numerous times. Unfortunately, many people will not read a book of theology no matter how simple to understand it may be. They want only ready-made sound bites and cliches. So here is mine: “God is in charge but not in control.” And then—if you care to understand what that means you MUST read Is God to Blame by Gregory A. Boyd.
(My spell checker/grammar corrector program will not allow a question mark not followed by a capitalized word. The title of the book ends with a question mark.)
I am frustrated by people who want, almost demand, an answer to the theodicy question but are not willing to read a relatively brief and simple to understand book like Boyd’s. They want ME to tell them what the book says, but to do that would be to repeat here the whole book. Every sentence in the book is necessary for the “whole package” of the book’s answer. No, that does not mean the answer is too complicated; it means Boyd has to clear away a lot of confusion and misunderstanding as part of the “package.” Without reading the whole book any thinking person will ask questions the book answers.
My challenge to those here (and elsewhere) who want to know about a Christian answer to the “problem of evil” that is NOT that God is the all-determining reality (which would make God the author of evil) MUST read Is God to Blame? I cannot help them more or better than that.
*Note: Here I speak only for myself. This is not a discussion board. I moderate this blog. Your comment may or may not be approved. If you hope for it to be approved and posted here keep it relatively brief, concise, on topic, and not hostile.