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.
Let’s learn the Mountain Game! It’s the hottest board game around.
The Mountain Game board looks like this:
Its rules are as follows:
- You begin at [START HERE]. This is the “start.”
- You advance upward, one space at a time.
- You must follow all given instructions on visited spaces.
- If you modify the board — or break the rules, or change the rules — of the Mountain Game, including by means of whatever creative semantic or temporal trickery, you lose. That is, there is a “modal spy helicopter” that “sees” any attempt to change the game and declares “This now a different game” upon “seeing” that modification.
A Mountain Game is any challenge defined by the fact that it cannot be met. If someone claims they have won a Mountain Game, you know for 100% certain that they are lying, no matter how powerful they are or what freedom they claim to have.
Oooh, sounds spooky, right? It’s actually just a way, brought to us by mid-20th century philosopher R. M. Hare, to understand the many-layered nature of moral discussions, even under consequentialism.
And this understanding is vitally useful for Christianity; not just for moral decisionmaking, but also for various questions of theology and theodicy.
The “Rule” Snag
Consequentialism is roughly the doctrine that moral/ethical* decisionmaking is “mostly about” seeking goals or interests, rather than being “mostly about” following rules. Upon hearing this, some recoil and shout, “If it’s mostly about seeking goals or interests, then rules don’t matter at all!” They combine this first premise with the knowledge that moral discussions are very “rule-y,” finally concluding that moral decisionmaking must not be “mostly about” seeking goals or interests.
* (Morality and ethics are the same thing. Those who claim otherwise cannot agree on what the differences ought to be.)
But that first premise is false. Moral decisionmaking being “mostly about” seeking goals or interests does not mean that “rules don’t matter at all.” The Angelic Ladder is a great way to illustrate why that is.
Meet the Two Characters
The first character is the “Archangel.” It’s just an illustrative figure. The Archangel is totally aware and totally wise. By “totally aware,” I mean that she knows everything there is to know. By “totally wise,” I mean that she can use that knowledge — how the universe works, at every infinitesimal moment, from the distant past to the distant future, from the largest galaxy to the smallest subparticle — to make perfect “forecasting” decisions, like a cosmic Al Roker, in service of her interests.
Furthermore, because the Archangel is fully aware and fully wise, she is never bound by methodological rules. In other words, she needs no “cheat sheet” to augment her decisionmaking abilities; her decisionmaking abilities are already perfect. As such, if somebody handed her a guidebook, she would either immediately reject it, or it would be redundant to what she already knows.
The second character is the “Prole.” The Prole is completely unaware and completely stupid. By “completely unaware,” I mean that he has no idea what’s currently going on. By “completely stupid,” I mean that he has no idea how the universe works, and so even if he did know what was going in, he cannot fathom any of the prospective (“future-looking”) consequences of his actions.
Because he is so senseless and dim, he is always bound by methodological rules. He needs a “cheat sheet” to make any headway toward his interests.
Note: We cannot turn our Prole into what A. I. engineers call “an expert system” by bombarding him with innumerable rules in an exhaustive, astronomically large guidebook. He’s a blockhead, remember. His “cheat sheet” needs to fit on a note card.
Does this mean that all Archangels make the same decisions, and all Proles follow the same guidebook?
That’s because different beings have different interests. There’s one for every color of the rainbow! The Archangel in the lower-right wants to optimize “maximum amount of ice-cream” and “minimum amount of planets.” The Prole in the upper-right wants to be the best fiddle player in the galaxy and to live as long as possible, and to violently shove his enemies at every opportunity.
These examples are silly, but it doesn’t really matter what these interests are, exactly. All that matters is that each being can have his or her own interest set, and within that interest set, there may be interests that are circumstantially incommensurable (in other words, there may be moments where total interest satisfaction is logically impossible, no matter how powerful or wise the decisionmaker may be).
Let’s get rid of that variable for now, and assume we’re dealing with an Archangel and Prole that have a perfect alignment of interests.
We can place these two characters on a ladder-like scale — Archangel on top, Prole down below.
Archangel and Prole, after all, are two extremes. Most of us are just pretty unaware and quite stupid, but not completely. And so our proper place on the Ladder might be slightly higher than our hopeless Prole.
Look what happens! We have a little flag of slight wisdom atop our dunce caps. We have one eye open. And the rule list to which we’re fully bound is a little shorter.
In other words, add a dash of awareness and wisdom, and the legislation becomes a little less strict and prescriptive.
Now, every being with interests has a “proper place” along the ladder, as a function of his or her actual wisdom and awareness. But it’s certainly possible that a being will think he is wiser and/or more aware than he really is, and violate rules to which he should adhere. The cost of that violation is a failure to optimally seek his interests.
It’s also possible that a being will think she is more stupid and/or less aware than she really is, and conform to a rule she should violate. The cost of that conformity is a failure to optimally seek her interests. See the pattern here?
It also may be that a being may fail to recognize another being’s proper place along the ladder. A parent might think their child more bright than she actually is, and allow her to bend rules she shouldn’t. Another parent might think their child less bright than he really is, and subject him to rules he should be free to bend when he finds it justified.
Ladder-Climbing 101 for Individuals and Groups
In none of this, however, should it be implied that our place on the Ladder is fixed and rigid. Our proper place, as I wrote above, is a function of our actual wisdom and awareness. Refine and train your predictive skills, improve your critical thinking, and research and learn how things — both simple and abstract — work, and you’ll probably increase in wisdom and awareness, climbing the Ladder thereby.
As always, we can group-up a large number of individuals and talk about the interests, decisions, and Ladder position of that aggregate.
For example, an ancient oligarchic council may recognize that the citizens of their stone city, in aggregate, are generally bad at making decisions in service of that aggregate’s higher-order (roughly, “big picture”) interests, and may warrant a healthy dose of laws, regulation, and micromanagement. Centuries later, after dramatic technological, scientific, and philosophical development, and building robust educational systems, the new council may find it fitting to relax or revoke various laws and regulations.
And this isn’t to say those laws and regulations were always bad; they might have been helpful when the aggregate was dull, but only to a point — like a gravity well at some specific Ladder rung, helping anything below, and burdening anything above.
The Inscrutable Archangel
Finally, it’s important to understand that even if the Archangel and near-Prole share the same interest set (“color”), the Archangel will plausibly not only violate the rules to which the near-Proles are called to submit, but may make all sorts of “bad now” decisions in investment service of a big-picture payoff down the road (“bad” in terms of the shared interest set). The near-Prole may be completely perplexed as to how those decisions could possibly be justified.
I feed my dog twice a day. I also throw him scraps from time to time, and let him eat treats from friends’ hands. But while on a walk, if he sees a treat on the ground, I grip the leash and prevent him from gobbling it up, because I have a higher knowledge that strange food can be dangerous. He probably thinks I’m just silly sometimes, with my odd restrictions, and shrugs it off.
We humans are pretty creative, though, and so the over-eager near-Prole human might rush to act “above his paygrade,” using his pathetic brain to imagine up and and announce explanations that could have nothing whatsoever to do with the real chain of prospective events that will, eventually, justify those “troughs.” And, indeed, his embarrassing attempts will probably be crude, ill-conceived, and even horrific.
A more “at paygrade” approach, if he sincerely believes the Archangel is on “his side” in terms of shared big-picture interests, is to practice a hope in a down-the-road justification, offer abstract possibilities humbly and carefully, and hasten to admit his ignorance.
Less Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad, Dr. Pangloss, and Pat Robertson. More Elihu and post-storm Job.
Rules Rule… Usually
By now, I think you’ll agree that when we take the “epistemological vector” (the measure of knowledge) into account, there’s all sorts of room for rules under consequentialism, especially given the fact that we know that we’re terrible at understanding the full breadth of how the universe works and the full consequential fallout of each action. We can’t even reliably predict the weather more than a few days out — a cosmic Al Roker, we’re not.
And thus, even if we accept that morality proceeds consequentially, we can still say, “Follow the rules… unless you have a really, really good reason not to.”