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’).”
Okay, okay, we’re actually going to be reading excerpts from Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. But his words reach through death and time and culture, giving us advice today about avoiding the [g]ospel of “money, prestige, image, security,” and how [G]ospel-followers ought react to this [g]ospel and the followers thereof.
‘But the love of money is the beginning of all troubles.’ Knowing, therefore, that ‘we brought nothing into the world, nor can we take anything out,’ let us arm ourselves with ‘the weapons of righteousness,’ and let us first teach ourselves to follow the commandment of the Lord.
I have been deeply grieved for Valens, who once was an elder among you, because he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him. I warn you, therefore: avoid love of money, and be pure and truthful. ‘Avoid every kind of evil.’ But how can a man who is unable to control himself in these matters preach self-control to someone else? If a man does not avoid love of money, he will be polluted by idolatry, and will be judged as [those] who are ignorant of the Lord’s judgment.
Therefore, brothers, I am deeply grieved for [Valens] and for his wife; may the Lord grant them true repentance. You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies, but as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety. For by doing this you build up one another.
For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures and that nothing is hidden from you (something not granted to me). Only, as it is said in these Scriptures, ‘be angry but do not sin,’ and ‘do not let the sun set on your anger.’ Blessed is the one who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you.
Origen was a great thinker but was, in many ways, a lot like other early Church fathers. He offered theology based on logical derivations from Scripture one minute, but brazen theological conjecture the next minute, and Neo-Platonic syncretism the minute after that. We don’t have to blindly agree with every little thing an early Church father says, especially when it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
But many times what they say makes more than a lick of sense. Many times, it’s oozing with reason and wisdom, and can provide us with some quiet sanity, even 1800 years later.
Such is the case with Origen’s “On First Principles, Book IV,” written in the early 3rd century.
Some Christians would like to claim that they consistently take the Bible literally. Origen shows why this is plainly impossible.
Those Christians often, then, respond with the question, “Then how can we easily divide the literal from the figurative?” Origen’s response: “You can’t, easily. But here are some tips.”
Excerpts, slightly reordered, from Origen’s “De Principiis, Book IV”:
Having spoken thus briefly on the subject of the divine inspiration of the holy Scriptures, it is necessary to proceed to the [consideration of the] manner in which they are to be read and understood, seeing numerous errors have been committed in consequence of the method in which the holy documents ought to be examined; not having been discovered by the multitude.
For [those that] have not believed on our Saviour, thinking that they are following the language of the prophecies respecting Him, and not perceiving in a manner palpable to their senses that He had proclaimed liberty to the captives, nor that He had built up what they truly consider the city of God, nor cut off “the chariots of Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem,” nor eaten butter and honey, and, before knowing or preferring the evil, had selected the good.
And thinking, moreover, that it was prophesied that the wolf the fourfooted animal was to feed with the lamb, and the leopard to lie down with the kid, and the calf and bull and lion to feed together, being led by a little child, and that the ox and bear were to pasture together, their young ones growing up together, and that the lion was to eat straw like the ox: seeing none of these things visibly accomplished during the advent of Him who is believed by us to be Christ, they did not accept our Lord Jesus.
Nor even [does the Old Testament] wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
And who is so foolish as to suppose that God planted a paradise in Eden after the manner of a husbandman…? … And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.
Cain also, when going forth from the presence of God, certainly appears to thoughtful men as likely to lead the reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and what is the meaning of going out from Him. And what need is there to say more, since those who are not altogether blind can collect countless instances of a similar kind recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place?
And what is said in many places, and especially in Isaiah, of Nebuchadnezzar, cannot be explained [literally] of that individual. For the man Nebuchadnezzar neither fell from heaven, nor was he the morning star, nor did he arise upon the earth in the morning.
And it is impossible to take [literally, the statement] in the Gospel about the “offending” of the right eye. For, to grant the possibility of one being “offended” by the sense of sight, how, when there are two eyes that see, should the blame be laid upon the right eye? And who is there that, condemning himself for having looked upon a woman to lust after her, would rationally transfer the blame to the right eye alone, and throw it away?
All these statements have been made by us, in order to show that the design of that divine power which gave us the sacred Scriptures is, that we should not receive what is presented by the letter alone (such things being sometimes not true in their literal acceptation, but absurd and impossible), but that certain things have been introduced into the actual history and into the legislation that are useful in their literal sense.
But that no one may suppose that we assert respecting the whole that no history is real because a certain one is not; and that no law is to be literally observed, because a certain one, [understood] according to the letter, is absurd or impossible; or that the statements regarding the Saviour are not true in a manner perceptible to the senses; or that no commandment and precept of His ought to be obeyed; we have to answer that, with regard to certain things, it is perfectly clear to us that the historical account is true… And therefore the exact reader must, in obedience to the Saviour’s injunction to “search the Scriptures,” carefully ascertain in how far the literal meaning is true, and in how far impossible; and so far as he can, trace out, by means of similar statements, the meaning everywhere scattered through Scripture of that which cannot be understood in a literal signification.
For, with respect to holy Scripture, our opinion is that the whole of it has a “spiritual,” but not the whole a “bodily” meaning, because the bodily meaning is in many places proved to be impossible. And therefore great attention must be bestowed by the cautious reader on the divine books, as being divine writings.
Let us notice, then, whether the apparent and superficial and obvious meaning of Scripture does not resemble a field filled with plants of every kind, while the things lying in it, and not visible to all, but buried, as it were, under the plants that are seen, are the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge; which the Spirit through Isaiah calls dark and invisible and concealed, God alone being able to break the brazen gates that conceal them, and to burst the iron bars that are upon the gates.
Ignatius of Antioch, in the custody of Roman soldiers, along the long road to Rome to be executed, sent a letter to the church in Ephesus:
You are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God.
Pray continually for the rest of mankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be gentle; do not be eager to retaliate against them. Let us show ourselves to be their brothers by our forbearance, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.
There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished. None of these things escapes your notice, if you have perfect faith and love toward Jesus Christ. For these are the beginning and end of life: faith is the beginning, and love is the end, and the two, when they exist in unity, are God. Everything else that contributes to excellence follows from them. No one professing faith is sinful, nor is anyone possessing love hateful. “The tree is known by its fruit”; thus those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For the Work is not a matter of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith.
It is better to be silent and real, than to talk and not be real. It is good to teach, if one does what one says. … Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our secrets are close to him. Therefore let us do everything with the knowledge that he dwells in us, order that we may be his temples.
Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone forth in heaven brighter than all the stars; its light was indescribable and its strangeness caused amazement. All the rest of the constellations, together with the sun and moon, formed a chorus around the star, yet the star itself far outshone them all, and there was perplexity about the origin of this strange phenomenon which was so unlike the others.
Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life; and what had been prepared by God began to take effect. As a result, all things were thrown into ferment, because the abolition of death was being carried out.