As we’ve talked about before, we humans have the funny tendency to be “too rocked” by world-rocking revelations.
In other words, proposals that dramatically shift our way of thinking can prompt us to — accidentally — go too far and conclude things that are vaguely related, and seemingly entailed by the new revelation, but not actually entailed by the new revelation.
We called this Kochab’s Error, and Kochab’s story helps us beware his Error.
Determinism is the idea that everything that happens is the definite result of a set of causes. Given a single set of causes, a single effect must emerge — unless and only unless sheer randomness intervenes.
This is a rather benign position. Imagine watching the universe from the outside, and Maurice chooses apple pie over chocolate pie. Then, imagine rewinding the universe, including everything within Maurice, to seconds before that decision.
He’ll make the apple pie decision again, of course.
“Of course” proceeds from the rhetorical question, “Why wouldn’t he?,” entailing the fact that if nothing about Maurice were altered on the second go, then he likewise wouldn’t decide differently.
Our decisions are products of our constitutions — “who we are” — at the moment of decision. So unless randomness intervenes, Maurice will always choose apple pie on each “repeat.”
And thank goodness! The prospect of Maurice choosing differently from one go to the next would be horrifying — it would mean that our decisions were not dependable products of our constitutional “factories.”
(The prevalent interpretation of quantum mechanics has there being intervening randomness at very tiny scales. Behavioral determinism under this interpretation is sometimes called “adequate determinism,” since it isn’t perfect determinism.)
A Common Response to Determinism
The very common response to hearing about determinism, however, is that of revulsion. That’s because we have several “default” perceptions:
- Others surprise us, and we even surprise ourselves, and we have a hard time predicting any individual’s behavior with accuracy. Thus, decisionmaking seems very “spontaneous.”
- We lack a sensation of the emergence of our thoughts from that of which they’re caused (if indeed they’re caused, and not random).
- The way in which most of us contemplate our available avenues — by imagining multiple prospective “worlds” sitting just ahead in time — gives us the sense that there really are multiple prospective “worlds” floating out there, like an array of multiple roads from a single junction.
Determinism exchanges that feeling of spontaneity for the recognition of a “hidden” non-spontaneity, and seems to bulldoze all but one of those “multiple roads.”
And thus, we see the following very common reductio ad absurdum: “If determinism were true, we’d all be robots!”
Being a Robot
Being a robot entails all sorts of unsavory things:
- The lack of consciousness.
- The inability to have emotions.
- The inability to love.
- The inability to express interests and values.
- The inability to find meaning in things.
- The inability to creatively express one’s self.
- The inability to come up with novel inventions and innovations.
- The conformity to simple rules.
- The inability to vividly imagine multiple prospects and choose between them according to feelings, intuition, and reason developed from a lifetime of experience.
Notice that each of the above are not things that could describe us, even under determinism.
As such, “We’d all be robots” is a Kochab’s Error. Calling us “robots” under determinism is absurd, trampling on all sorts of real, true things about ourselves that we enjoy and express.
To put it simply, if we ask “Could a robot make poetry/artwork/symphonies/etc.?” and the answer is “No,” then we’re not robots under determinism.
A Common Christian Response to Divine Determinism
When God’s involved, determinism has an extra complication: Everything ultimately traces back, through the domino-chain of causes and effects, to things God set up.
Thus, rather than calling us “robots,” a common response is, “If divine determinism were true, we’d all be puppets!”
Clear Non-Puppets Under Determinism
Most who say that humans have “libertarian free will” — a kind of “true spontaneity of decision” that precludes prior causes somehow (the “somehow” is never positively articulated) — do not apply the same quality to lesser animals.
And yet, our experience with lesser animals is not that they’re “God’s puppets.” Particularly when we think of our mammalian pets, we observe creatures with unique dispositions, desires, decisionmaking faculties, methods of contemplation and projection, feelings, and surprising (almost spontaneous!) behaviors.
Those aren’t the actions of puppets.
The story of Christian the lion is of genuine love, not an illusory veneer atop puppetry:
Further, even if someone says libertarian free will extends to lesser animals, would they apply the same to water against rock?
Imagine a cliff face being eroded by crashing waves over thousands of years. With each beat of the ocean, the face is slightly altered.
Does the deterministic procession of those water molecules against the molecules in the rock mean that each alteration — every nook and cranny throughout its history — is the hand of God in studious, meticulous action?
Such would be an extra conclusion beyond mere determinism.
Though under determinism God instantiated the universe — and each emergent item in the universe owes itself ultimately to that instantiation (and any subsequent intervention) — this doesn’t mean that God is consciously micromanaging absolutely everything.
Just as we don’t consider every cliff face at every moment God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, nor the behavior of every Fido and Mittens in households around the world God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, we aren’t burdened to consider the behavior of humans God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism.
The Gardener set the borders and rules and seeds of his garden from the get-go.
He also knew precisely how it would turn out in the end.
As the garden grew, there were blossoms and fruit, but also some thorns and weeds. But the Gardener was pleased to allow some such things to emerge.
Because although he didn’t have a taste for thorns and weeds, he did have a taste for letting his garden bloom chaotically — orderly, but messily and naturally — without constant intervention.
Did he intervene on occasion? Of course. Sometimes the thorns and weeds would be too much, and sometimes he wanted certain plants to know his personal care.
The degree to which he “let grow,” and the degree to which he intervened, proceeded from his total interest set expressing itself in action and inaction through time. And the deterministic chaos emergent from “letting grow” means that even under determinism, God is not a micromanager.
But if he knew precisely how it would turn out in the end, why do it at all?
Because it was in the Gardener’s taste to actualize his garden, not merely imagine it.
He really did want plants to grow.
He really did want shapes, forms, and stories to emerge.
He wanted to create a garden, and so he did so.
Christians who are libertarian free will incompatibilists — those who think there’s no sense of free will under determinism — have a typical answer when we ask them about whether God specifically micromanages the needles of each pine tree (a deterministic procession) or the thoughts and behaviors of my dog, Kirby (a deterministic procession): “No, he doesn’t.”
They’re ready to answer this for non-humans; they generally find it cogent, sensible, and satisfying.
This should likewise satisfy for human thoughts and behaviors under Christian determinism.
- Because we each have a “natural will” — a will wrought, knitted, and cobbled from an incalculably large and unique causal recipe — and
- because we can talk about the degree to which that will is free from gross intrusions, oppressions, and manipulations, and
- because that will yields obedience and rebellion, horror and symphony,
we are in no meaningful sense robots.
For more about how Biblical compatibilism solves the age-old puzzle of freedom vs. sovereignty, see “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
For more about the authorship of evil under divine determinism, see “Is God the Author of Evil? Semantics of ‘Want/Will.'”
For more about how determinism does nothing to preclude “genuine love,” see “‘Genuineness’ by Association.”
What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?
Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.
The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:
- The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
- The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
- The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Nineveh in the above image.
The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.
What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?
The “Free Will” Brand
The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as well as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.
This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.
Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.
There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.
In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:
- Reject that God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- Reject that God is omniscient (even if only about present states of affairs).
- Reject that God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- Reject that God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
The only other option is:
- Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.
(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)
Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).
I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.
What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.
(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer to the ancient puzzle comes down to how responsibility works.)
The “Reformed” Brand
The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.
In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.
Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.
But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!
Where on Earth did that come from?
How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?
It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”
But this brand needs that purple.
Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forever, a down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.
The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”
The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”
The situation is that these paradigms together:
- Are overwhelmingly dominant among Christians today.
- Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
- Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”
And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:
- Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
- In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
- Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.
The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)
There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.
First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)
This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.
Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.
Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.
From our last post on hell:
Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:
- “Hell is purgatorial.”
- “Hell is endless torment.”
The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).
(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)
Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”
But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The result is pretty amazing:
- Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
- “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.
So, what’s the catch?
- It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
- It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. See the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
- It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not always what they meant.
Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.
And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.
And there’s probably no way around this.
St. Isaac of Nineveh on the Folly of the First Two Brands
In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Nineveh were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).
The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.
St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:
“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.
Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”
St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:
“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.
All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”
St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:
“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.
This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”
St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:
“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.
For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”
St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.
“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.
At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.
Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”
We know that doctrine develops.
Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.
But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.
Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”
It’s notoriously difficult to show that an incoherent concept is incoherent, particularly because such a concept nonetheless sparks images and real meaning in our minds.
Incoherent concepts also have rhetorical utility, so those who wield them are afraid to give them up. This loss-aversion creates an extra barrier to understanding that incoherence.
In an earlier post, I called these things “logical wildcards” and showed, in the abstract, how irritatingly useful they can be. Like a KFC Double Down, they’re delicious in the lower-order/short-term but deleterious in the higher-order/long-term.
In that previous article, I talked about how logical wildcards can serve as “bridge-makers” and “bridge-breakers.”
- Bridge-makers: Concepts that link premises to a conclusion when that conclusion should be a non sequitur. Especially useful when we desperately want something that we believe true to be provably true.
- Bridge-breakers: Concepts that serve only to deny the link from premises to a conclusion. Especially useful when benign premises lead to difficult conclusions. Difficulty makes us sad.
Bridge-making and bridge-breaking, however, may have side-effects.
- When you bridge-make, you may — as a side-effect — yield conclusions that obviously shouldn’t be connected to those premises.
- When you bridge-break, you may — as a side-effect — posit a statement of “X makes Y impossible” that doesn’t actually make any sense.
When these two things happen, it’s an excellent red flag that the original concept that allowed that bridge-breaking or bridge-making was incoherent to begin with.
I believe, once these patterns are recognized in the abstract, this can serve as our most effective weapon against incoherent concepts.
Purgatorialism vs. Libertarian Free Will
One of the best examples of this comes up when we discuss purgatorialism.
Purgatorialism says that hell is purgatorial rather than endless, and eventually all will be reconciled.
Wrote St. Gregory of Nyssa, the most eloquent purgatorialist in the early Church:
“It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end. His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last — some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire.”
Libertarian free will is the vague notion that our decisions somehow lack external origination.
To protect this “self-origination” — usually out of a mistaken view that it is required for ascription of responsibility — “Open” fans of libertarian free will posit that no decision of man can be completely predicted, even by God himself. The “non-Open” folk will say that God can foreknow, but not predetermine.
Now, under purgatorialism, if GIVEN that God’s willed end is a full reconciliation, and GIVEN an omnipotence shall meet his willed ends eventually, there logically follows a 100% certain prediction that everyone will eventually choose God, even if after a purgatorial hell.
Uh oh! That’s a problem. “Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a 100% certain prediction with regard to the choices of man. And “non-Open” fans of libertarian free will who deny purgatorialism cannot tolerate a blanket eventual destiny — something about that reconciliatory hope is bleakly oppressive to them.
So, the argument goes, “Purgatorialism must be false because it would destroy libertarian free will.”
Here’s the rhetorical question:
- Why on Earth would the manner in which we make decisions make an eventual universal reconciliation impossible? Through what mechanism or tether would this be the case?
The answer to this rhetorical question is:
- There is no such mechanism or tether.
And this is a huge red flag for the incoherence of libertarian free will.
(Any deterministic paradigm, by contrast, has such a tether: The “domino chain” serves that role.)
Is the Prediction the Problem?
The stalwart, “Open” libertarian free will fan might say, “All this means is that God can’t make the prediction with certainty. Purgatorialism may be true, but not even God knows whether it’s true.”
They forget that this collapses into, “God cannot predict with certainty that anyone will be saved, nor can he say that anyone will be punished.” For “a mix will come to pass” is also a prediction made with certainty, and is ostensibly defiable by libertarian free will.
Any predictive prophecy, if given as “certain to happen eventually,” precludes libertarian free will if the fulfillment thereof could be delayed or affected by decisions of people, even if that prophecy is, “Some will be saved, others will be punished.”
This is the “mix problem” of prophecy + “Open” libertarian free will. We’d like to think that only sweeping proclamations would invalidate libertarian free will. But “Some will X, some will Y” has the same invalidating strength.
The response ought not be to rack one’s brain for a creative salvage of libertarian free will.
The simple response is, “This incoherent concept is spawning, as a side-effect, declarations that make no sense.”
The problem: Such a response is boring, and discussion ending, and difficult. Those qualities, especially in tandem, are memetically selected-against.
And that means we have to get ultra-excited about it and ultra-courageous about grappling with its challenges.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For more about the incoherence of “Can do otherwise,” see this article, called “Heroes, Not Superheroes.”
Here is a superpower:
- “To have done not that which you have done.”
Does anyone have this superpower? No, because it is necessarily false by virtue of entailing a logical contradiction.
We can detect this a bit better when we put “have done” into X, such that the superpower becomes:
- “To X and not-X.”
“But surely,” you might say, “you can have done something, but then do something differently, in a similar situation.”
Sure! But that’s not a superpower. That’s very mundane.
e.g., “I paid too much for a bad sandwich yesterday; if confronted with a similar situation, like at the same restaurant, I will do differently.”
But what about an identical situation?
Well, then we’d be back talking about superpowers, because the only way to undergo a completely identical situation would be to rewind the universe somehow and go back to the exact same circumstance…
… including myself reverting to that which was inevitably prone to make that sandwich mistake! After all, by rewinding, I have lost that which enabled me to see that I would be making a mistake at all.
The point of all of this is that there are three very different “abilities” at play.
- The first power, a superpower, is to have done not what you have done. This is necessarily false because it is a contradiction. Nobody can have this superpower, and as such, we hesitate even to call it a “power.” It’s a “nothing.”
- The second power, a mundane power, is to do something differently than what I have done, in the future, in a similar situation (I say “mundane,” but that is not to imply that this is always easy).
- The third power, a superpower, is to rewind the universe and relive a past experience exactly (which would require losing my memories of having gone through it in the first place, obviously dooming me to repeat any errors).
We humans cannot do this because we cannot rewind universes. But even if we could, and ourselves were swept up in that undoing, we’d be nonetheless doomed (that is, blessed) with the same reliable “who I am dictates what I choose” rule, and make the same choice “again.”
A False Superfreedom
Libertarian free will is, roughly, “true causal independence in some sense,” and is something nobody has. It is the perceptual result of being surprised at unexpected behavior, plus having an imagination that dreams up hypothetical and counterfactual situations.
(More exploration: Why is libertarian free will so popular?)
Libertarian free will advocates have a remarkably hard time articulating their doctrine in a both positive and coherent way, which is a symptom of it being an ambiguous perception lacking a positive and coherent definition.
They try, though, and one of their attempts is this: “The ability to have done other than what you have done.” This is often cloaked for brevity and obscurity within, “To do otherwise.”
But as we see above, depending on how this is understood, this is either a false nothing, a mundane thing compatible with determinism, or a cosmic superpower that, when exercised, still fails to “get there.”
One thing we know for certain: We cannot actually do false nothings or have false nothings, regardless of any ungrounded invocations of possible worlds.
In other words:
- We can’t do otherwise.
- But we can imagine having done otherwise (and this is a useful imagining).
- We can, tomorrow, do otherwise than what we did today, even if many things are circumstantially similar.
That’s all we need to affect ourselves, in a recursive way, and develop our knowledge, wisdom, skill, charity, ambitious projects, and all manner of other virtuous things.
It’s also all we need to be held responsible for decisions both bad and good, and for others to endeavor to fix or encourage us accordingly.
For us Christians, the Biblical solution to freedom & sovereignty is compatibilism through the “heterophroneo.”
The fact that we use open language to discuss the future doesn’t mean that the future is open. That’s because we use open language about the past, too.
God’s superordinate responsibility for absolutely everything that happens follows directly from his classical attributes:
- God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those properties are accepted, there’s no coherently-expressible way to avoid that conclusion of complete superordinate responsibility.
But we don’t want to say that God is the author of evil, nor do we want to say that he meticulously micro-manages trivial events, like the precise manner in which a certain leaf is tossed-about by the wind.
Put another way, we hope to avoid saying that God deliberately “wanted”:
- Trivial things that have no significance.
- Horrible things that could have, theoretically, been miraculously averted.
Quietude to the Yawn-Inducing Rescue
The goal of theological Quietude is to remedy doctrinal disputes by identifying boring language problems responsible for the perpetuation of those disputes.
Whereas exciting, passionate, Loud theology would have us say, “There’s got to be more to it,” theological Quietude says, “That’s actually all there is to it.”
Quietude solves our problem.
First, Quietude asks the following (Quietude often asks clarifying questions):
What Does “Want” Even Mean?
As it turns out, the word “want” is horribly confusing, and nobody knows precisely what it means without additional inference or explication.
“Now hold on there, Stan,” you might be thinking. “‘Want’ is one of the first words we learn as children. It’s 4 letters. It’s a single syllable. It seems pretty dang straightforward!”
But It Isn’t
Here are five completely theologically distinct definitions of “want.”
Sense #1: “What you want” is any one of many desires within you.
For example, you can really want to make your wife happy by coming home on time, and you can also really want to make your boss happy by staying at work late.
Sense #2: “What you want” is the desire that “wins” and is ultimately expressed.
Sense #3: “What you want” refers to your higher-order desires only.
You may have the lower-order desire to give in to temptation and eat the sundae, but you have the higher-order desire to abstain in service of your diet. Abstaining is “what you want,” independent of which choice you ended up making.
This Sense #3 is the one used by Paul in Romans 7:15.
Can you see how crazy this is getting, yet? Senses #3 and #4 are complete opposites.
Sense #5: “What you want” refers to your grossly selfish desires only.
(The “you” is often emphasized here; there is an implied “for yourself” trailing subclause.)
The Sixth “Want”
But there is a Sense #6 as well. It’s very similar to Sense #2 (the desire that “wins”), with one key difference: It’s where no desire “wins,” but rather, the desire set is just “best-expressed,” and in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy any of them.
This can happen when two or more of those desires are incommensurable.
Let’s take the “come home / work late” scenario. In it, I could stay just 45 minutes late. I’d make my boss a little happy and a little disappointed, and my wife a little happy and a little disappointed.
I wouldn’t be perfectly expressing my desires, but I’d be optimally expressing my desires.
And, for the first time, the gold star of “want” is not placed on any of my driving desires, but rather the expression thereof:
A Perfecting Plan
Often, the incommensurability of desires is circumstantial. For example, if my wife is going to be at a school function late anyway, then I don’t need to come home on time in order to keep her happy.
If I find myself in a Sense #6 situation, I’ll want circumstances to change over time such that my optimal expression doesn’t seem so suboptimal anymore.
The best plan would be one which transforms mere optimization into perfection:
This would be a plan of “birthing pains,” to invoke Romans 8. Creation wasn’t finished at the Garden, to invoke Irenaeus.
These variants of “want” can be similarly applied to “will.”
Pretending as if the definition of “God’s will” is single-faced, instead of many-faced as shown above, causes all manner of meaningless discussion and fruitless contemplation.
Let’s journey through each of the senses and compare them against our classically sovereign God.
- In Sense #1 (competing, inner wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #2 (the inner want that wins), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #3 (the higher-order wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #4 (the lower-order wants), God wants for nothing; he is not like humans, who are pitifully ignorant and have volatile desire sets.
- In Sense #5 (the grossly-selfish wants), God wants for nothing; he is loving.
But in Sense #6 (the optimal expression of the total desire set, with temporary dissatisfaction), God did indeed will that evil exist.
But only in this limited, 6th Sense.
And this is indeed what we find in Scripture. For although God is benevolent and loving, he is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil (Heb. raah): I the Lord do all these things.
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil (Heb. raah) in a city, and the Lord has not done it?
Do not both evil (Heb. ha-ra-owt) and good come from the mouth of the Most High?
So, Is God the Author of Evil?
The answer is “No… that is, depending on what you mean by ‘author.'”
In the superordinate sense in which I say that “God owns my house,” he is. And, as we saw above, that’s also what the Bible says.
But that’s not what we usually mean when we talk about the authoring evil.
Usually, when we talk about authoring evil, we mean orchestrating events with consequentially ill intent — malice, destructive hedonism, gambling with lives, etc.
Willing “bad stuff” in one of the first 5 Senses, in other words.
In those senses, we would certainly not say that God is the author of evil, and these are the senses to which the early theologians are so averse.
If Natural Development is Valued…
If one of God’s desires is to stay mostly hands-off, letting nature take its course with minimal course-correcting intervention, then as part of that “perfecting plan,” we’ll plausibly see all sorts of “bad stuff” and “trivial stuff” — even such stuff with no prospective purpose except to satisfy that mostly-hands-off desire.
This conjecture would fit with the pattern we see in the Bible, where God intervenes directly and publicly only a few dozen times over millennia — where, for most, “He who is unseen” must be sought and found.
Of course, with the “bad stuff,” we hold a sacred hope that God’s genius and foreplanning would somehow use it for goodness, down the road, despite itself.
But this prospective utility is not assured for every “bad thing.” Natural protrusions of triviality and evil alone may satisfy a desire to “mostly let run,” if only that humanity look itself in the mirror. We dare not contrive theodicean prophecy in a misguided attempt to solve the experiential problem of evil. That’s completely above our paygrade.
To hope, however, is officially in our job description.
For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.
1 John 5:14
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”
That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.
With All of Our Hearts
We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.
First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”
Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3
“[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
1 Chronicles 16:11
“Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”
That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need.
Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
With All of Our Minds
At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.
It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.
We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.
- Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
- Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
- Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.
That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”
Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayer. Reason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.
At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.
Between Heart and Mind
Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.
But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.
Is God really in control? Does his sovereignty encompass everything? Is the universe working out an orchestrated creative process according to God’s deliberate, big-picture will?
Or, by contrast, is the universe on a twisting, winding road according to the pulls and tugs of innumerable creatures with free will? Are our decisions dictating the course of the plan without, in turn, being dictated by it?
The Bible appears to support both, at first glance.
- The Bible says that a man’s steps are not his own (Jeremiah 10:23), that a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9), and that God intervenes as it suits his pleasure in order to get the job done in the manner he most prefers, including affecting the decisions of people like Jacob and Esau’s mother Sarah, and hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Romans 9:9-18). The Bible says that God has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32), and that his plan works out everything in conformity with his big purposes (Ephesians 1:11).
- But the Bible also says, later in Jeremiah (chapter 18), that if a nation exceptionally delights or disappoints God, he’ll alter his stated plans for them. Furthermore, the Bible frequently talks about human volition, choice, responsibility, and just punishment, which would appear — at first glance — to require free will as a prerequisite.
The mainstream Christian response is, “Both, somehow.” The net result, in our mind’s eye, is a non-cohering picture that flickers one way and the other, never making all that much sense.
Broken chunks of an incomplete sovereignty collide with granular pieces of a devastated free will. It’s not a very pretty picture, and folks are generally so repulsed by it that they cry, “Oh, I don’t know! It’s a mystery! One day we’ll get it.”
But that doesn’t last very long. Soon enough, that mystery is being employed as a logical wildcard, being crammed and shoehorned into whatever theology a person pleases.
As an inscrutible mystery, it should have been a dead-end of logical derivation, but they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the wall, and now anything goes.
By “anything goes,” I’m referring to the endless doctrinal opinions on freedom and sovereignty, across every denomination of the Christian religion, and throughout its history.
Sovereignty Logically Follows from God’s Classical Attributes
First, it’s important to understand that God’s absolute sovereignty really is a “free truth” that proceeds from God’s classical attributes.
Take the following 4 premises as given:
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient (in the classical sense of knowing even the future).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those premises are given, then we can ask ourselves, “When would God intervene in such a way?”
The answer would be, “Whenever it suits the optimization of his interests — i.e., whenever he pleases.”
We can also ask ourselves, “When would God not intervene in such a way?”
And the answer is the same: “Whenever he pleases.”
Since the answer to both questions is “whenever he pleases,” this means that everything that happens must be a product of his deliberation, in service of his interests. This might include down-the-road interests, or an optimization of incommensurable interests, that generate what Paul calls the “birthing pains” of the ongoing creation.
This is the “sovereign conclusion.”
St. Augustine correctly reasoned this, in Enchiridion, ch. 24:
“This obviously is not true: [The idea that] there is anything that he willed to do and did not do, or, what were worse, [that] he did not do something because man’s will prevented him, the Omnipotent, from doing what he willed. Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he [directly] causes it to happen.”
And the “foreknowledge is not predestination” complaint doesn’t work here. If those 4 premises are true, there is no functional barrier between foreknowledge and predestination (although they are distinct in the degree to which various divine interests are expressed in time).
Thus, some folks have taken the route of jettisoning the classical attributes of God such that he definitely is not sovereign in the way commonly understood.
This has three perceived payoffs:
- First, this approach allows the picture to cohere (so they think) upon just one of the Bible’s “pictures” above, rather than settling on the ugly hybrid.
- Second, that picture is one in which each of us has an unchained, uncoerced will. We are not fully under God’s control, they suggest; God has some control, and we have some control, and various dark agents have some control. We are the “co-authors of history.”
- Third, it’s extremely useful for theodicy (the reconciliation of God’s attributes with the bad stuff that happens in the world) if God isn’t sovereign.
Initially, they jettison only omniscience. But this doesn’t go far enough because, as it turns out, the sovereign conclusion proceeds also from these 4 premises:
- God is omnipotent.
- God knows everything about the present, but is uncertain about the future.
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
Thus, Open Theists sometimes feel forced to go even further, usually ditching omnipotence in favor of “weak God” theology, or persuasively redefining omnipotence such that subtlety is “true power.”
(For more about why they’re forced to go that route, watch the following video: “Challenge for Open Theism“.)
I think there are some palatable elements to this approach, but…
Assuming We Don’t Want to Do That…
There’s a robust, complete reconciliation of the first two pictures available to us.
It eluded us for many centuries, because it required discovering and deducing enough about ourselves to get rid of the idea of libertarian free will.
You see, there are, roughly, two kinds of free will.
The first is libertarian free will (which has nothing to do with the political persuasion). This is the idea that a part of us is completely spontaneous or uncaused. Advocates like to say “self-caused,” but nobody knows exactly what that means.
Early Christian theologians were obsessed with libertarian free will, because it was a fountain that seemed to yield so many exciting and stimulative puzzle-like prospects.
And it was taken for granted because — after all — my steps feel like my own.
Origen Adamantius demonstrates the underpinning archaic folk science in his De Principiis, Bk. III:
“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”
In none of this am I implying that these geniuses were dullards. They were simply working with the tools and body of knowledge to which they had access.
They didn’t understand how the brain works. They didn’t realize that our desires and impulses are driven by complicated machinery of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which are in turn motivated by things as mind-boggling as our genetic programming to things as deceptively mundane as what we had for breakfast.
They had some understanding of these causal contingencies, of course. Obviously they understood that a person can teach another, and mold another, and discipline another, and manipulate another, and threaten another, etc., sufficiently that the other’s mind is altered.
But they held out hope that, no matter how deep we explored into the causal contingencies of our thoughts, there would yet be a blank gap with a nearby signpost, “Here there be libertarian independence.”
Libertarian free will is our “default feeling,” since we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from the machinery by which they were created. The fact that others surprise us by their behavior, and we even surprise ourselves, lends even more weight to the default hypothesis.
The problem is that we can’t find libertarian free will anywhere. Furthermore, we don’t even know where to look, because the concept is not articulable.
Slowly but surely, we (in philosophy) began to realize that it’s not a real thing.
And this realization was horrifying. In fact, it was so horrifying, that we (Christians) got stuck on the first stage of grief — denial — and have been, for the most part, stuck there ever since. Even Calvinists, the infamous predestination-pushers of Christianity, often have vestiges of libertarian language and thought.
Why was it horrifying?
- It feels like a new oppressive force is added.
- It seems like there’d be no moral responsibility.
- It appears that we’d no longer make real choices and have no efficacy.
- It is a “dark incubus” that births an existential nightmare by robbing us of our sense of origination.
Note that, in the above bullets, I talked about our feelings, how things seem, how things appear, and what we sense. This was deliberate, because the reality is that all of these things can be overcome.
- First, no new oppressive force has been added. The world has not changed. The rejection of libertarian free will is a “world-rocker” for sure, but we have to be ultra-careful not to let our worlds be over–rocked. I called this mistake “Kochab’s Error” in an earlier post.
- Second, there’s still moral responsibility, because responsibility is not an ethereal bauble that bounces around, looking for its buck-stops-here resting place. Rather, responsibility is a dynamic recognition of causal “nodes” in service of fixing them or encouraging them.
(For more about dynamic responsibility, watch the following video: “Responsibility: Ejecting the Looseful and Keeping the Useful“.)
- Third, we still make real choices, because real choices are simply this: Electing one from a menu of prospective options to actualize. Nothing more magical than that.
- Further, efficacy is retained, because efficacy is simply the fact that what you do causes things to occur accordingly. Nothing more magical than that.
- Finally, our sense of origination can be retained through our individual uniqueness and the increase thereof through recursive self-molding.
19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:
“I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances, as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power…
I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it… I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of [compatibilistic] free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing.
All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of [antecedent] circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood.”
That’s the other major kind of free will: Compatibilistic free will.
Compatibilistic Free Will
As the name might suggest, it’s completely compatible with there being a predetermined chain of events. Compatibilistic free will is a semantic revision that extricates the volitional dictionary — things like choice, responsibility, efficacy, and the term “free will” itself — from the libertarian shackles of incoherency that had kept these issues so insanely intractable.
Compatibilism asks us, “When you say free will, what are you saying the will is free from, and to what degree?”
It correctly recognizes that nothing is “free” in a vacuum. You have to be free from something, even if that something is merely implied. For instance, “Buy one, get one free,” really means “Buy one, get one free of charge,” or “of cost.”
And so, we can talk about “free-from-X will, to degree Y” about any oppressor X that we feel is meaningful to us.
“Destiny” is not a meaningful oppressor, because to be divorced from it is nonsensical. But Goliath of Gath could be a meaningful oppressor. Same with Nazi propaganda. Same with other lies, threats, manipulations, coercions, and brainwashings.
These can all constitute very meaningful oppressions of my will, making it “less free” than it would otherwise be.
Once we have a volitional dictionary that “works” with God’s sovereignty, our hybrid picture turns from this monstrosity…
… into this beauty:
We can use “heterophroneo” as a compound term that means “different ways of thinking about things.” This helps capture when non-contradictions nonetheless seem paradoxical due to the different vantage points at play.
- Yes, God is in control. But still, I can talk about in what ways my decisions are efficacious.
- Yes, a man’s steps are not his own. But still, I can talk about my own steps in a subordinate sense (just as I can talk about my own house versus my neighbor’s, though God transcendently owns both).
- Yes, God is benevolent. But still, we can talk about the local “birthing pains” of his creation — sins, disasters, etc. — and put our hope in their being instrumental for an ultimate happy ending. We hold a sacred hope that God will be proved holy and righteous (Isaiah 5:16).
- Yes, God knows what’s going to happen. But still, he can use hypothetical language to convince us to do the right thing, proclaim true (but ungrounded) counterfactuals, and make anthropomorphic statements about having regrets and changing his mind.
What follows are two great examples of heterophroneo from the Bible.
Timen and Atimian
In Romans 9, Paul talked about how Israel was being used for instrumental purposes despite itself.
In service of his thesis that God decides the destinies of the nations, Paul referred to the fact that God ordains the destinies of individuals, even intervening to change them, even to harden their wills.
When his imaginary antagonist asked, “Who, then, can resist his will?,” Paul did not say, “Oh, don’t misunderstand. Of course you can resist his will!”
Rather, Paul launched into a staunch defense of God’s sovereign orchestration of destinies:
“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
You see that “special” and “common”? Those are actually the Greek words timen and atimian; honorable and dishonorable.
It’s important that we recognize this. It’s not about being a hero versus lukewarm. It’s about being a tool of honorable use versus a tool of dishonorable use. Both have purposes. Both have a role to play.
That’s the sovereign perspective.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Paul repeated the very same language in 2 Timothy — but from the human perspective, wherein we can “cleanse ourselves” and choose which role we’ll adopt.
2 Timothy 2:20-22
“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes and some for common [Gr. atimian; dishonorable] use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes, made holy, useful [Gr. hegiasmenon euchreston; set apart and very profitable] to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
He was able to do this without contradiction because our decisionmaking is compatible with God’s sovereignty.
The Sins of Joseph’s Brothers
Joseph’s brothers were sick and tired of Joseph and his visionary dreams, wherein those brothers bowed down to him. They were also envious of his coat, a symbol of their father’s favor.
So they attacked him and sold him into bondage.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the [empty] cistern. … [And] when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”
Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious sin. It’s one thing to throw your family members into a cistern, but to then sell them into slavery? Pretty reprehensible. Undoubtedly a sin of malice and unchecked envy.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Joseph became a ruler and managed a plan to store up food in preparation for a big famine. His brothers came to Egypt seeking a portion, but didn’t recognize Joseph. After messing with his brothers for a while, Joseph finally revealed himself.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.'”
Did you catch that? God sent Joseph. Did God sin? No, the brothers sinned.
But their sin was the dishonorable instrument — the tool of atimian use — by which God saved his people.
And it’s not as if God just kinda rejiggered his plan to work with what he had. Joseph referenced God’s sovereignty — and counterintuitive tactics — as a way to comfort and relieve his brothers of a measure of guilt, now that they had come to repentance.
And this segues into our final stop.
Why the Heterophroneo?
Heterophroneo can be confusing. At first glance, it looks like a contradiction. As such, it was held as a paradoxical mystery alongside belief in libertarian free will for centuries.
So why would Scripture use it? Because we’re supposed to use it.
Heterophroneo is useful.
The human perspective is good for:
- Recognizing our own wills and dispositions and how they can be turned in various directions.
- Deliberation among multiple imagined prospects.
- Recognizing when we are being subverted, coerced, or exceptionally manipulated by things we consider meaningfully oppressive.
- Assigning responsibility without feeling like we have to do a radical backward reduction. “Talking about your house and my house, even though God owns the universe.”
- Reframing our uncertainty into prospective hopes and fears, and using those vivid images to aid in our decisionmaking. This helps us make choices in better service of our higher-order interests.
The sovereign perspective is good for:
- Humbling ourselves.
- Praising God, and recognizing his attributes (his power, wisdom, dominion, and will).
- Helping us fight through suffering, Elihu-style.
- Taking comfort in God’s grand plan of reconciliation.
- Recognizing over what things we do not have control, and sacrificing that anxiety and uncertainty, converting it to faith in God and his promises.