Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Freedom of God and the Free Will of Human Beings

One of the more interesting subjects to discuss is the freedom of God. What exactly is God free to do or not to do? Is God's will the primary and controlling divine attribute such that even God's knowledge is dependent on God's will in the first place? Are there things that a sovereign God cannot do? For example, is God free to sin? Or is God's behavior determined by the unalterable divine nature? That is, is God subject to the same sort of determinism some Christians believe applies to human beings? These sorts of questions and their answers all have a bearing on how we ask and answer the question about human freedom and its nature.

A few preliminary points are in order. Firstly, I take it that the primary attribute of God is not God's will but rather God's love, which is a holy love. Not holiness without love, and not love without holiness. I say this because God's will has primarily to do with his doing, but what is prior to that is God's being or character, and in my view God's willing is dependent on his character. There are certain things which, while theoretically God might be able to do, God would never do because it would be 'out of character'. For example God is light, and in God is no darkness at all. This I take to mean that God would never do evil nor commit sin. Of course there have been theologians who have argued that the terms good or evil are simply defined by what God does or does not do and sanction. I think there is a problem with this whole approach. The moral order of the universe and more specifically the image of God in human beings is meant to tend in a particular direction, namely conformity to the character of God. God says "be ye holy as I am holy". There is supposed to be a reflection of the divine character in us, and indeed in all of creation. This in turn means that God, having set up the universe in a particular way, is not free to be capricious and redefine the meaning of holy in the middle of the game. God has chosen to express the divine nature in a particular way and has chosen to limit himself such that God as well as all of his creation is subject to certain standards of truth, holiness, love, and so on. This is a complicated matter, but the bottom line is that once God set up a universe with other free agents other than himself, God is not free to do just anything without violating his revealed character and will. This is not an absolute limitation. I am assume God could set up a definition of sin and could violate it, but if God did, he would cease to be the good God of the Bible. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel to say that God who has already defined darkness and light, can change the definition along the way so that "whatever is, is right, because God has done and said it". This is one of the reasons why it is terribly false to predicate of God sins that he prohibits us from doing, say for example destroying innocent human lives for no good or appropriate reason. But I digress.

I assume that when human beings were created in the image of God this meant, among other things that Adam had libertarian freedom to either obey God or not. It is not appropriate to judge this matter on the basis of the attributes of fallen human beings who indeed in various ways can be said to be in bondage to sin or addicted to sinful behaviors. No the question is, how did God make us in the first place, and how in Christ does God restore us in Christ as we are renewed in the image of Christ? Does grace restore the power of contrary choice in redemption or not? Of course much depends on one's view of grace. Some people think grace works rather like an escalator-- it does all the heavy lifting and we are just along for the ride. I disagree with this. Grace is not irresistible, it is rather a form of enablement from a gracious God which gives us a further chance to freely love and obey God. In other words, we must indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling, God's grace does not do it all for us and in spite of us.

Another of the major issues which affects this discussion is the nature of love. Now I understand love to be something that is the most personal act of either God or human beings. And furthermore it is the most free and freeing act of all beings. It must be freely given and freely received. It cannot be coerced, co-opted, manipulated, and it most certainly does not work in an impersonal manner, like say the way iron filings are attracted to a magnet. God is not a magnet, and he does not treat his creatures in an impersonal way that makes their behavior inevitable, and if he did, it would cease to be personal and loving behavior on our part for sure.

This leads me to a further point. Ethics in the Bible are largely what are called virtue ethics. They are not intended to be exercises in futility or frustration. Nor is the function of ethical enjoinders to simply give us a clear picture of our impotence compared to God, though it must be said it often has such an effect. Now virtue ethics require that a person has the capacity to be virtuous, by which I mean, the person has the capacity to either freely behave in this way or not. Otherwise there is nothing virtuous about the behavior. The fight or flight pure instinct of a deer, for example, is not an example of making a conscious choice to "do the right thing". I am utterly convinced that the Bible calls us to be virtuous beings, or as Paul suggests in Phil. 4 to be creatures who can not merely reflect on what is noble and excellent, but seek and attempt to do it. The commands to love as we are loved, to forgive as we are forgiven, and so on, presuppose that grace actually enables us to freely attempt to imitate Christ and do what he commands us to do, at least approximately. God is an ethical being and he wants Christians to reflect the highest and best behavior a human being can muster. Indeed, he commands us to do it, but as Augustine says, God gives what he commands, he enables us to believe and behave as we ought to do.

In short, the discussion of the freedom of human beings should never be undertaken in isolation from the discussion of the freedom of God, and the ways God has chosen to limit himself in order to allow us to be beings with a limited measure of freedom, and so a small reflection of the divine character. Here we must return at the end of this discussion to the matter of God's will and knowledge. Notice how in Rom. 9-11 God foreknows things that he did not will, for example the apostasy of Israel and the rejection of its savior by most early Jews. God not only did not will this, it breaks his heart in the same way it breaks Paul's. What this tells me is that Calvin was wrong about the relationship between God's will and God's knowledge. God does not merely know it because he wills it. There is some other relationship between knowing and willing in God and they are not inexorably linked. At the end of the day I believe whole heartedly in what John 3.16-17 says, God loves the whole fallen world, and Jesus died for the sins of all human beings as 1 Tim. 2 also says. This in turn means there are other agents in play in the matter of redemption, human agents who can either positively or negatively respond to the Gospel, and the eternal lostness of some is in no way willed or destined by God. Were the matter otherwise, our God ceases to be a good God, by God's own definition of goodness. One final reminder-- as the prophets told us God requires of us that we reflect the divine character-- to do justice to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. What God requires of us, he enables us to do, so that in small measure we may reflect the virtuous and free character of our God.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Is virtue ethics based on "rule" or "act" understanding of morality? Is it "one type" of behaving and only one type that is virtuous? And what if, there is a higher value between two moral dilemmas that bring in a situational dynamic? How is that determined in "biblical ethics"? Do you go outside the text to determine what is "right" or is the "text" the determinor of what is most appropriate? Is there a collective consensus of what is "right" when it comes to judging virtue in light of moral dilemmas? Or is it that "Jesus" as "perfect man"is held up as the "standard" of virtue? Therefore, all Christians should be doing as Jesus did? But, what is it that is "right" about Jesus' life? His servanthood, of course. But, he did not "rule in government". Does that imply that Christians should not "rule in government" because this would be unvirtuous? He bore injustice. Does that mean that Christian should bear injustice, instead of work for justice? It seems that Jesus chose the "higher" moral value.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do you base your understanding on "rule or act" theory of morality? Is the "standard" of virtue Jesus life? If so, is it interpreted by "rule" or "act" theory? Was there a higher moral value that Jesus adhered to than the "rule"? Did his obedience look to the religious leaders like "obedience"? Did he obey the "Father", though? How do we judge another's obedience unless there is a known universal "law"? Let's just say that man, as God's image bearers, are to "be like Jesus". How does that "look"? What part of Jesus life are we to express to be "virtuous"? (the inclusiven humanitarian, the religious revolutionary, the zealous cleanser of the Temple, the Teacher, etc. etc.) And is there any "allowance" of individuality in adhereing to this "standard"?

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you for asking for me to take a look at this post. I found it very clear and astute. Since it may be a draft of something more or larger, I noted some typos or syntax issues too. Please forgive me.

You write: "God, having set up the universe in a particular way, is not free to be capricious and redefine the meaning of holy in the middle of the game...God has chosen to express the divine nature in a particular way and has chosen to limit himself such that God as well as all of his creation is subject to certain standards..."

If God is not free to be anything that is not of God, then there is a limit on God...a constraint. So how can God then *choose* to "limit himself?" Is it because, as you say, "This is not an absolute limitation"?

[An aside. This sentence is awkwardly worded: "This is one of the reasons why it is terribly false to predicate of God sins that he prohibits us from doing, say for example destroying innocent human lives for no good or appropriate reason." (End of paragraph 2.)

In the third paragraph, you change the question. ("It is not appropriate to judge...No, the question is...") Will this become a problem later in the dialog with Calvinists?

End of the third paragraph: "God's grace does not do it all for us and in spite of us." This is surely my own failure to comprehend, but how does this agree/disagree with God's grace being "sufficient"? If God's grace "does not do it all," what exactly do you mean by all?

[An aside: sentence of last paragraph reads "I short," but I think you mean "In short." Also, near the end: "Were the matter otherwise, our God cease to be a good God, by God's own definition of goodness," cease is in the wrong case, I think.]

If God enables us to do that which God wills, then would we be unable to do that which God does not will? In the last sentence, perhaps "enables" implies a binary nature to God's will. I wonder if God's will is a binary matter - on or off/right or wrong.

- Taylor Mills

Unalone said...

You mention grace not being an escalator that does all the heavy lifting, which I agree with for the most part. However, I wonder how far grace extends beyond what we normally understand. Many people we are friends with have a twisted view of God/Jesus based on church or family abuse. In most (but not all) cases they continue to "believe" that God exists, but have fairly Deistic views of his interaction with the world and with themselves. I want to believe that God's grace is stronger than their pain, anger, addictions, and even open rejection.

In my house, I am the beneficiary of work done by an architect I have never met nor even heard his name. I want to believe that at least some people are the beneficiaries of work done by a loving God they have never met and for many have never heard his name.

elderchild said...

“Love Not The World”

”For the WHOLE world is under the control of the evil one”(I John 5:19)

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world will pass away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of The Only True GOD will abide for ever.” (I John 2:15-17)

“If you were of the world, the world would love it’s own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:19-20)

“Where do wars and fighting among you come from? Do they not come of your lusts that war in your members? You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war yet you have not, because you ask not. You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is to be at enmity with The Only True GOD? Therefore whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of The Only True GOD.” (James 4:1-4)

“The world cannot hate you; but the world hates Me, because I testify that the works of this world are evil.” (John 7:7)” and “The Messiah gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of The Only True God, Our Father.”(Gal 1:4)

The Messiah testified: “If the world hates you know that it hated Me before it hated you.”(John 5:18) Truly, Truly, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life in this world shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall have it unto life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)

John testified: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hates you.” (I John 3:13) “ James testified, “Whoever would be a friend of this world is the enemy of GOD”(James 4:4)

The “earth” is The Creation of The Only True GOD, Father of ALL! The “worldly” systems are the creation of, and under the dominion of “the god of this world”, he who is “the father of lies”, he who “has blinded the minds of those who believe not The Messiah”! All the nations of this world are under the dominion of, and serve, the evil one for he provides the fuel that feeds mankind’s “imag”ination and mankind’s “imagination is destroying and perverting Creation(land, air, water, creatures, Truth, Love, Peace, Faith, Simplicity, .etc.) ;-(

And the “strongest thing” in the evil one’s worldly systems? “Woman”…… yet The Truth, that which is of The Only True GOD, is stronger even than woman. (read I Esdras 3&4 of the Apocrypha) And Truth, Love, Peace, Faith, Mercy, Hope,,,etc,,, all that is “good”, is of The Only True GOD and is of HIS Spirit, not of this world. Those born of The Spirit, those born of The Only True GOD, are the brethren of The Messiah, for they received "a love of The Truth that they might be saved”. Reborn!

And those who have “received a love of The Truth” have separated themselves from this world and those of this world, for they have taken heed unto The Call of The Only True GOD to “Come out of her MY people.” They are “in, but not of this wicked, evil world”, and The Only True GOD has received them, and is "A Father unto them, and they are HIS sons and daughters”. And they follow, and desire to be like their Master and Brother, The Messiah, He Who was “the firstborn of many brethren”. And as “The Messiah was a servant of The Only True GOD”, so also His Brethren are “servants of The Only True GOD.”

The called out ones are not “adulterers and adulteresses”, they are not “friends of this wicked, evil world”, they do not “fornicate with the god of this world” for they know that “to be a friend of this world is to be the enemy of The Only True GOD.” They are at war against the evil spirits that possess those of this world.

And they do not “allow that woman Jezebel, which calls herself a prophetess, to teach. For she teaches others to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. The Only True GOD gave her a chance to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.” (Rev 2:20-21)

“fornication” and “adultery..” in that which is recorded above signifies spiritual fornication with “the god of this world”, which is to love that which is of his world.

Once again, the “earth” is The Creation of The Only True GOD, Father of ALL! The “worldly” systems are the creation of, and under the dominion of “the god of this world”. Those who “love this world” all serve “the god of this world”, and play their part in the processes that seek to destroy The Creation of The Only True GOD. “And The Only True GOD will destroy them who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:18) Global warming, polluted air, land and waters, toxic wastes, sexual perversion, evil inventions of destruction, greed, hate, carnal warfare, dis-ease ,,,etc,,, are all destructive processes that have their root in “the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life”. And as stated, “woman is the strongest thing of this world”. Yet stronger than woman is The Truth, which is in those who have “received a love of The Truth”. The Truth Is Alive in those who have been born of The Spirit for “they no longer love this wicked, evil world and it’s things, nor do they love their own lives in this world”. They but seek and desire The Will of GOD, as they await their final transformation. “Caterpillar to Butterfly” ndeed and Truth!

Now “the ground was cursed for Adam’s sake” because he “hearkened unto the woman”. Adam listened to a woman rather than obeying The Only True GOD. Yet because of Faithful Noah, The Only True GOD “no longer would curse the ground for man’s sake” because Noah obeyed The Only True GOD! (Genesis 8:21-22) And the Faithful today are exhorted to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” And Faithful women are exhorted to “be in silence.” “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. For I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” “For Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11,12,14) A man and woman joined together in obedience and submission unto The Only True GOD are blessed indeed. All who are not obedient, all who will not submit themselves unto The Only True GOD will have to answer to HIM..period.. Be not of those who deny and defy “The One GOD, Father of All”. Be not of those who are destroying and perverting HIS Creation(land, air, water, creatures, Truth, Love, Peace, .etc.)!

“The Only True GOD is The HEAD of The Messiah, The Messiah is The Head of the man, and the man is the head of the woman”. Multitudes pervert GOD’s Order because they have been seduced by ” the commandments and doctrines of men and devils”. Multitudes are seduced by the religious systems that are in and of this evil world. Seduced because they love this evil world and their own life in it! “Set your affections on things above”. Desire heavenly, eternal things. Quit serving ‘time’ in the prison that is this world and take heed unto the call to ”Come out from among them and be separate!”

Once again, “Come out” of the worldly systems, which are the product of mankind’s “imag”ination, especially the religious systems. “Come out” from among those who are destroying and perverting Creation and be of those who follow The Messiah on “The Way to The Truth of The Life”.

Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world……. francisco

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I especially liked your comments on Romans 9-11 between God's foreknowledge and His will.

It seems to me that if the Calvinist was correct, then the Holy Spirit was being redundant in saying that whom God foreknew He also predestined, etc. Thus we are left believing that whom God predestined, He also predestined.

In that case, why mention Foreknowledge at all? And John MacArthur's explanation of foreknowledge representing God's "foreloving" His elect is nothing short of desperate.

I appreciate your blog.

Brian Slate said...

I wonder how you view the doctrine called the "Impeccability of Christ." Most commentary I've seen says that Christ not only chose not to sin, he did not have the ability to sin. I've always had issues with this, since I believe if there was no ability, there was no true temptation.

If I'm wrong, could you direct me to some resources that prove this doctrine? I'm just a self-educated amateur at this theology stuff, so forgive my ignorance.

Thanks aplenty,


Unknown said...

Thanks Ben - I've been pondering these very issues of freedom and love recently so this is a very timely post. The God you describe inspires me to worship more than the Calvin's seemingly arbitrary, deterministic God. This post helps crystallise some of the things I've been contemplating.

jabre said...

Good post. I think the distinction between God's "absolute" freedom and God's freedom in relation to creation is important to maintain. Also, starting with God's character of love and goodness, even justice, instead of God's will or certain actions is a good move. I think John Wesley did something like this in his "Predestination Calmly Considered."

Jake Charles said...

Great post Dr. Witherington, being a philosophy guy I really enjoyed it. I had a question about a certain portion though.

"It is the last refuge of a scoundrel to say that God who has already defined darkness and light, can change the definition along the way so that 'whatever is, is right, because God has done and said it'."

I assume you're aware of the Euthyphro Dilemma first posed by Plato and I was just wondering if this was your take on it. It seems as if you reject the Divine Command Theory proposal that what is right is indeed right just because it is commanded by God. This does seem to trivialize what we mean by "right" and attributes an arbitrariness to God that seems out of place. But on the other hand, arguing that God commands what is right because it is indeed right makes it seem as if there is some independent standard of right and wrong apart from God. But surely this can't be the case, can it? Just wondering what your take on the dilemma is. Thanks!

D said...

Well put. I anticipate a firestorm from our determinist friends, but you can't always let that determine what you write.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these excellent responses and a special thanks to Taylor Mills. In regard to the impeccability of Christ I assume that since we are told that Christ was tempted like us in all respects save without sin, that the word 'tempt' in that sentence does not mean something different than what it means for other human beings. By definition a temptation is not tempting unless one is or can be inclined to do it. This in turn suggests to me that it is false to say that Christ was unable to sin. If he was unable to sin, and knew it, then no temptation would have been truly tempting. And furthermore, if Christ was unable to sin, then he was incapable of virtue and love and a host of other things.



Ben Witherington said...

In regard to our old friend Plato, and his dilemma, what I assume is that God has established and set up a standard of good and holiness that is in accord with the divine character, and once established, God obligates himself to live by that moral standard. It is not unlike the case where the author of Hebrews says that God swears an oath by himself, thus obligating himself to do something.



Kyle said...

The Euthyphro dilemma can be solved if we regard God Himself as "the good" out of which His commandments necessarily flow. The good is the moral nature of God.

God's moral nature (holiness, love, etc) never changes. There is no outward constraint on His freedom, but it isn't possible for Him to sin because He is immutably righteous, holy, and perfect.

If God can act in such a way that is contrary to His nature, He is not trustworthy and He is not perfectly good. Divine freedom is only within the bounds of divine character and perfection. This is not a limitation if you really think about it, because only God is capable of always being perfectly holy and loving. We lack this ability to be totally perfect, but God has it.

Jaltus said...

I have a slight problem with one point in the post. You say that God's "primary attribute" is love. My issue is that I do not think God can have a "primary attribute" and still be God. In other words, God is classically defined as the omni-God. He is all good, all powerful, all holy, all ____. If He is all good, all love, all holy, how can one of those be above the other?

If He is maximally good, how can His maximal justice be above it? If He is maximally holy, how can His love be above it?

My point is that, while admittedly God is more than a bundle of attributes held together by string, God's various attributes should balance rather than have one become primary.

Tim Hallman said...

Is it outside the bounds of your post for you to comment on why some Christians focus primarily on God's will instead of his character of holy love as the controlling divine attribute?

Brigitte said...

Grace creates a good tree.

Unknown said...

Great Post, thanks. I agree with practically all of it.

The problem I have is with the related issue of man's chief end being to glorify God (Westm. Conf.); this is a cornerstone of the Reformed system of thought, does the Wesleyan believe the same or interpret it differently?

For the Calvinist, this idea is usually related to an 'individuals' interpretation of Romans 9:23. The glory of God is the endgame, both in the election of individuals to salvation and in how these individuals are to live the Christian life. The Wesleyan presumably disagrees on the question of election, e.g. 'nations' are elected for the purpose of bringing glory to God (Is 43:7) before the other nations (Is 43:9) with the end of widespread salvation (Is 49:6). Does the Wesleyan also disagree when it comes to the chief end of the Christian life?

The problem is how best to interpret the phrase. On one level it suggests an inward looking, self-focused God just concerned for his own reputation and glory. But if it is taken that this glorifying occurs by enjoying God (e.g. Piper), then it is true that God does create man for the purpose of an intimate relationship. Here the creation and purpose comes from God's outward looking love (not inward looking glory seeking), but the appropriate form of this relationship is for the created to glorify the creator.

Is the latter interpretation the solution? What is the Wesleyan position? Can you recommend any Wesleyan reading on this? What is the biblical basis for glorifying God as the chief end of man? Is it related to loving God as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22)?

I’d appreciate any thoughts

Anonymous said...

I have a question about Christ's temptation, mentioned in the combox.

Does not the word for "tempted" also mean "to test"? And could not the interpretation also include that meaning, whereby the devil was "testing" Christ about being the Son of God (i.e. "if [or since] you are the Son of God . . .")?

This could leave room for the inability of Christ (in His divine nature) to sin and mean that he was tested rather than tempted, as though He "could" have sinned.

Any comments? (From anyone.)

T said...

Ben, these words are like a breath of fresh air from the growing miasma of determinism. Thanks!

Ben Witherington said...

I don't think anyone is arguing Christ was tempted in his divine nature, simply in his human nature and that he was, like pre-fallen Adam 'posse peccare, posse non peccare'.


Anonymous said...

A-ha. I see. I didn't get it at first. Thank you!


Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Dr. Witherington. I agree insofar as I can understand it all, and I look forward to reading your commentary on Romans 9-11.

Derrick said...

"Is virtue ethics based on 'rule' or 'act' understanding of morality?"

First, what exactly do you mean by your distinction? Do you mean to ask if it's a system that endorses multiple command principles (such as a deontological/broadly Kantian theory or Rule-Utilitarian systems) or does this entail our actions being governed directly by a single principle (e.g. Act-Utilitarianism)? If so, then, to put it bluntly, it's complicated. Virtue ethical systems, broadly construed, are ethical systems that, rather than asking "what should we do," ask "what should we be?" The focus is on character traits we refer to as virtues or excellences (the Greek word that is translated as "virtue" is also the word for "excellence"), which, obviously does influence what we should do, but does not always focus on our actions. It doesn't necessarily just come out and say, "Don't do action A," but, it does sort of imply to not do A if A is necessarily contrary to some virtue we ought to possess. For example, murder is necessarily opposed to the natural virtue of benevolence and the theological virtue of love, and thus, shouldn't be done.
These theories are inclined to put certain individuals forward as moral exemplars, who exemplify the virtues we ought to possess, and who we ought to imitate. In the New Testament, Paul in I Corinthians 11 holds up Jesus as the exemplar he tries to imitate as he asks others to imitate him.
Anyway, my rather pathetic attempt to explain virtue ethics doesn't really do it justice. If you're really curious, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entries on "The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics," (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-law-ethics/) and "Virtue Ethics" (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/). The first is more in line with the Christian tradition of virtue ethical thought, and the other is more secular (though some thinkers the author notes, like Robert Adams or Alasdair MacIntyre are Christians).

Mike said...

My question is this. If God is not free to live outside the boundaries of ethics/morality that humans have to live by, then what is the big deal about the incarnation?? Other than that He put on flesh, there would then be no difference. He retained the same moral code, so no big whoop. He didn't really give up much except for the independent exercise of certain attributes which he still retained the use of through the Spirit. But what if God has set up a moral code that He is outside of? Would it not attribute more meaning to the incarnation to say that not only did God put on flesh, but He also humbled himself to operate within the boundaries He gave His children. Think of it in terms of a parent/child relationship. There are certain things a parent may be free to do that they prohibit their children from doing. It isn't that it would be sin for the parent to do those things, however it would be sin for the child by virtue of the fact that they were told not to do them. (i.e. the occasional alcoholic beverage). ??

SteveJ said...

"... the eternal lostness of some is in no way willed or destined by God. Were the matter otherwise, our God ceases to be a good God, by God's own definition of goodness."

I argued this for years, but always ran into daunting difficulties. The problem was, I had to square this sentiment with the contradictory parallel beliefs that:

(1) God let the devil into Eden, knowing what would happen as a consequence,

(2) God transmitted a depraved nature to all Adam's offspring that would hinder us all from doing good and believing the gospel,

(3) God created a lake fire in which to cast unbelievers,

(4) Jesus spoke in parables to prevent some people from understanding the gospel,

(5) Jesus refused to pray for the world, but only for those whom the Father had given him,

(6) God (according to Paul) gives people over to delusion so they will be damned, and

(7) God allowed the rise of religions throughout history that would hopelessly prejudice multitudes against any other faith.

On number seven, people may argue that God won't "interfere" with the free agency of men who create false religions. But is the supposedly inviolable free will of Mohammed so important -- so supremely important -- that it's worth the damnation of millions and millions of Arabs? Imagine looking into gehenna and concluding, "Well, at least God didn't violate Mohammed's free will. Now THAT would have been terrible."

The only Christian way out of the maze is to adopt a form of universalism, despite the fact that many texts of Scripture contradict it (while others support it). Either that, or a person can adopt hard-core Calvinism and harden himself against the scum-bag nonelect who are just getting what they deserve.

Adam Godbold said...


just a quick response to your response:

concerning point 2, where do you get the idea that God Himself transmitted sinful nature? i can't recall ever having heard that argued before.

concerning point 3, where do you get the idea that God created hell for unbelievers? i'm under the impression that He created hell for sin, death, satan, and the other fallen angels.

concerning point 7, what are your thoughts on Lewis's understanding of early paganism as "good dreams"? [not that such would necessarily involve all religions]

i certainly have concerns with other points, but these seemed quite easy to mention.


Brigitte said...

I am reading but I think I am in over my head with some of this. I would have differences with the Calvinist and the Arminian. As far as an attempt of connecting, some of this post does not read too badly.

However... there are some things, I'd like to observe, if I may.

1) GRACE/MERCY: should be preached! and believed! proclaimed! liberty to the captives! new life! hope! joy! it's yours! It's the best thing that could happen to you (passive)! Cling to it!

Images such as "escalator" are just too cold, mechanical, to the point of meaninglessness. We are talking about Spirit. Do you "know" God's grace or just about it?

2) There is this paradox about "freedom". We should really be much more careful about defining all the terms. The "bondage of the will" tries to clarify that the will is not under "compulsion" when it is unfree. Our sinful nature is so bound that it freely choses to do the evil.

If it does something that is so called "good" because it is forced to (by law, or its reason...),(even against its own bound will) this was not a "willing", because it did not really want to.

Someone gave the example of making yourself get out of bed, even if you did not want to. This was a choice, he could make, but he did not make it "willingly". If you don't want to do what you are doing, you are not really "willing" or making a "free" choice.

A "good" work, needs to by nature be done "willingly" to be good before God. Your heart must be in it.

This is like what Dr. Witherington says: for something to be "virtuous", it needs to be done "freely" or it is not virtuous. (This agrees with the "bondage of the will".)

However, where do you get this "willing" Spirit?

Personally, I beg it from God. I do not chose it. I cannot chose it. I really can't. In the liturgy we sing with King David: "Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with your free Spirit."

Thus, when we are under the operation of God's Spirit we are "free" to do good. We will gladly do it. We will run to the ends of the earth and have ourselves whipped like Paul. Or maybe we will serve our family and persist doing the right thing under difficult circumstances. Whatever your calling.

3) I don't like the word "enabled". It is the Spirit's doing via the word.

When you say:
God gives what he commands. and then: He enable us to believe and behave as we ought to do.

You are not employing a parallelism correctly. You have two different theological statements there. It depends on the definition of "enabled". But enabled sounds too much like your own doing.

4) Why do many hear the message and don't believe it? Because you CAN resist God's grace to your peril.

Why do some resist? Are they "reprobate" (never heard this term before reading these posts). (We don't use it, at all).

I feel much more comfortable stepping out of the discussion at this point and leaving things to faith and God's hiddenness than going into these lengthy discussions and disagreements which end up not preaching good news.

Luther finishes up the "bondage of the will" with these words, trying to say something about God's apparent unfairness. The previous passages deal with this also. But I can't quote everything:

Quote: Let us therefore hold in consideration the three lights--the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory; which is the common, and a very good distinction. By the light of nature, it is insolvable how it can be just, that the good man should be afflicted and the wicked should prosper (he is mentioning OT difficulties): but this is solved by the light of grace (eternal life through Christ). By the light of grace it is insolvable, how God can damn him, who, by his own powers, can do nothing but sin and become guilty. Both the light of nature and the light of grace here say, that the fault is not in the miserable man, but in the unjust God: nor can they judge otherwise of that God, who crowns the wicked man freely without any merit, and yet crowns not, but damns another, who is perhaps less, or at least not more wicked. But the light of glory speaks otherwise.--That will show, that God, to whom along belongs the judgment of incomprehensible righteousness, is of righteousness most perfect and most manifest; in order that we may, in the meantime, believe it, being admonished and confirmed by that example of the light of grace, which solves that which is as great a miracle to the light of nature!"

end of quote.

He is saying that God's rightousness is at this point incomprehensible to us, but it most surely is perfect and we will see by the light of glory. I'd be happy to leave it there.

After this passage comes a Conclusion, which has 5 main points in 5 main paragraphs, with which Dr. Witherington would not agree: 1. God forknows and fore-ordains. Nothing can take place but according to His Will. There is no so called "Free Will" in any creature.
2. Satan is the prince of this world and he does not let go his captives without being forced by the Divine Power of the Spirit.
3. Original sin has so destroyed us that the man devoid of the Spirit can do nothing to turn himself to good.
4. Man without grace can do nothing but will evil.
5. If we believe that Christ redeemed man by His blood, we must say that the whole man was lost; otherwise, we shall make Christ superfluous.

End of my summary of the summary.
I think the last point is the most cogent of all.

Thanks for bearing with me and the length of this.
Love, Brigitte.

SteveJ said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks for responding. I have to admit that this is a little frustrating, though. The questioner of traditional Christianity always has to jump through hoop after hoop, justifying the validity of his questions and answering a host of counter-questions. Meanwhile, the traditional Christian doesn't have to answer any of the tough questions.

Concerning your objection to question 2: God created us and set up the processes of nature and heredity. As a consequence of the Fall, the sinful nature is passed from Adam and Eve to everyone else. How is God NOT involved in that process? So did God determine that my kids should get my eye color but not that Adam's posterity should get his sinful nature? (Where does Genesis even teach that Adam's entire nature went sinful when he ate the fruit, anyway?)

Point 3: It doesn't matter one bit whether God originally created hell for fallen angels. Surely He knew from the beginning that He'd end up sending people there, didn't He?

Point 7: You'll have to explain Lewis' idea here. I'm not familiar with it.



Edwardtbabinski said...

Is God's nature in everything or not?

The Bible teaches that everything came out of a perfect God, it came directly and only out of that God's perfect mind, perfect will and perfect power, it came from nothing else.

So whence comes imperfection?

Ben Witherington said...

Obviously imperfection comes from sin which leads to suffering and sorrow, and disease, decay and death.


SteveJ said...

"Obviously imperfection comes from sin which leads to suffering and sorrow, and disease, decay and death."

But Ben, don't we have to be imperfect to begin with in order to sin? If not, then where would the sin ever come from? What would make a perfect being -- one with no impulse toward evil -- sin?

I've grappled with this question since the 1970s and am convinced it is theologically unanswerable. Not that an unanswerable question should necessarily destroy anyone's faith -- but let's be straight-up about this vexing difficulty.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Steve it depends on what you mean by perfection. You seem to have some sort of idea of perfection that implies that an unfallen person somehow has a divine nature. This is not true of course, and neither do unfallen angels. They are by definition 'able to sin' and 'able not to sin'.

As created beings we do not partake of various attributes of the uncreated one. This does not mean we were created imperfect in any way. It simply means we are not God.

The 'wholeness' or 'completion' or perfection (teliotes in the Greek can mean any of these)of a human being is of the nature or character that is appropriate to a finite being, not an infinite one.

Ben W.

Jake Charles said...

It has always seemed to me that sin is one of the easier to answer facets of the problem of evil (relatively, of course).

In order for God to create in love and for love, He chose to create humans with a free will. That was the only way to ensure authentic love. But with this free will came the tendency, once a situation presented itself, for Adam and Eve to want autonomy, authority and knowledge--something engendered by the choice presented to them. This led to pride which led to sin.

Skybalon said...

I know that many lifetimes of study have led to the belief that we are qualified to discuss the attributes of God in a way that convinces us we are actually discussing the characteristics of God as they are. That is, we seem to think that a proposition we may make about God is a statement that could stand apart from us. But conclusions about freedom aside for a moment, I am not sure how one could know the character of God apart from what a people would say are the acts of God. It may be helpful to distinguish that what we frequently call an attribute of God, or a matter of God's essence/character, is likely to be more properly called an attribute to God. So, the redemptive, loving, saving, and even the abandoning, cursing, destroying, acts of God are attributed as such in the experiences of people who relate to God and are understood in existence as attributes. From that, they are, as the eggheads may say, anthropological statements as well as theological.

This is not merely a matter of what one is able or unable to know of God. I would suggest, humbly and with earnest intent, that you not buy into the premise that one can separate "being" from "doing". This differentiation between being and doing seems to be the source of those problems one encounters about the "theoretical" freedom or acts of God, as in, "Could God make a burrito so hot, he couldn't eat it?", "Is God free to sin?", etc... Plus, it hardly seems to be a differentiation suitable for theology concerned with more than a concept of God. It seems a non-idol God, that is, a God that is revealed rather than vainly created, which is consistent with the Christian claim, if I'm not mistaken, makes this discussion (being versus doing) quite literally moot. Unless one is willing to dismiss the scriptural revelation and opt rather for some philosophical concept of God, what is knowable as attributes of God are those "things" that are done in the ongoing lives of an existing people- a people busy both being and doing in light of a God similarly being and doing.

I wouldn't take issue that the freedom of God (an attribute you seem to separate out through some calculus differentiating being from doing) is a freedom for love but I don't think you arrived there from these premises you set up, especially as you posit that it is somehow helpful to separate being from doing or making one prior to the other. Of course in recent history, theology has been about the "being" of God and presently, in trendier theological circles, there is an emphasis on the "doing", but neither of those approaches communicate what I would consider anything resembling good news.

More specifically now, the assumption that human freedom includes the ability to obey or not is a misunderstanding of freedom- but it is a misunderstanding that reveals we are not in a world of unconditioned/unbound possibility. That is, the freedom to choose sin is not freedom, but slavery to a manner of existence that would imagine it as such. (Perhaps akin to brigitte's sense of a bound will.) A sense of freedom that allows us to imagine that we are more than creatures of God is simply a sense of freedom that binds us to a vain idol. I can think of nothing worse for us than autonomy- but then that may simply reveal the limits of my imagination. Similarly, God's freedom, as revealed least wise, is not unconditioned possibility either. Rather God's freedom is a freedom that is for us, a freedom that chooses to save us. What we see that God is (being) is what we see that God does (doing)- God is such that God has created and called humanity to be for God. There is no freedom qua freedom, for God or humanity, rather what is known is known as it is revealed/lived.

There seems to not be an attribute of God that is not revealed to us in God's acts for us. This is why I would take issue with the philosophical premises as you seem to have laid them out. Of course this is simply a matter of wonder on my part and not intended to impugn or negate anyone else's explorations engendered by the same. As well, I wouldn't take issue, as I said before, with the general sense of the conclusions, especially as you lay them out more clearly in the final paragraph, but these conclusions follow from a commitment to a God of love and not the discussion of freedom. This could be clearer, and I only mention that as a.) I see the suggestion that this is for more than distribution here, and b.) I find it difficult to avoid additional internet timesinks.

bobbyt said...

I would like to thankyou Dr Witherington, for your blogsite which is of such help and encouragement to one such as myself, a recently-recovered Calvinist who had begun to notice flaws in the arguments of such as Piper, Grudem and Carson. Your blog articles and books have really helped me to realize just where those flaws lie. My first problem was in the Calvinistic view of the character of God and which characteristic (if any) might be most basic to the nature of God. I wonder just how relevant any late Medieval theories of kingship might have been to the development of Calvin's view on the nature of God,and how much his views were shaped by the immediate struggle for political / economic / military power between Catholic and Protestant factions in Europe? In other words, was Calvin simply reflecting scripture or was in (at least in part) reflecting his own cultural preoccupations in the 'Instititutes'?
One little request, Dr Witherington: I have recently been struck by an apparent contrast between the Reformed view of 'saving faith' as a gift of God (given presumably in the light of 'total depravity') and a lack of reference to the faith that saves as specifically a gift of God. Is there any reading material that might guide my thinking on this issue?
Again, many thanks for your excellent work.
God bless

Seraphim said...

I was pondering the question of God's freedom, God's freedom from constraint, while driving to work this morning. I was considering an important teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church, namely, that the apophatic characteristics of God (e.g., that God is uncreated, unoriginate, without constraint, without beginning or end) are more "primary" than the catophatic (e.g., God is Love, God is Light). (Cf. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church).

It seemed clear that the catophatic characteristics must somehow be derivative from the apophatic. This led me to ponder, could it be that God's love is the outcome of His being without constraint in any way? Not that, in His freedom, He chose to love; but simply that, since He is free, He is therefore also Love.

I am not sure how that actually works out logically. And I am afraid of attempting to ponder the nature of God within Himself. And I am also wary of introducing human concepts of process and derivation into the Godhead, for Whom, as Lossky writes, "There is no interior process; no 'dialectic' of the Three Persons; no becoming."

So tonight, I thought I'd check the Internet to see if anyone else had been pondering such things, and discovered your blog, for which I am thankful.