4 Views on How God Interacts with Creation

Theologians often ponder the distinct attributes of God. God is known to be spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, omnisapient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent. Creation is finite, holds no knowledge in and of itself, is limited in power, without wisdom, holds no sense of morality,[1] and is limited to space and time. How does an all-powerful, perfect, Creator engage with a limited, imperfect, creation? I have been reading Alister McGrath’s stellar work entitled Christian Theology: An Introduction[2] and noticed four particular theories as to how God interacts with the world. I will present the four theories and will then provide which best represents the Christian tradition in the conclusion.

Deism: A Laissez-faire God.

Deism is a concept that reached its zenith of popularity in the 18th century. Deists accept the existence of God, as well as God’s involvement with the early stages of creation. However, deists do not think that God continues to involve Himself with creation. The God of deism winds up creation like a top and spins it, allowing creation to naturally spin itself out with no intervention. In deism, miracles would seem frivolous if not invalid. McGrath quips, “The Deist position can be summarized very succinctly as follows. God created the world in a rational and ordered manner, which reflected God’s own rational nature, and endowed it with the ability to develop and function without the need for any continuing divine presence or interference.”[3] That is, God developed the world, but is currently “hands-off,” or holds a laissez-faire mentality. The second position allows for more involvement by God.

Thomism: The Prime-Moving God.

Thomism is a concept developed by medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas made the distinction between primary and secondary causes. That is, necessary and contingent actions. Aquinas held that God was the Prime Mover.[4] And from the Prime Mover, creation came to be. Furthermore, God’s actions resulted in secondary actions. Often, as McGrath notes, Aquinas held that “God can act indirectly, through secondary causes.”[5] Therefore, God is completely hands on, however God can serve as an indirect cause through the scope of natural law—that is, cause and effect. God is transcendently causing thing to happen, but those causes result in natural secondary actions within the space-time continuum.

This type of philosophical understanding is especially helpful in understanding how God (who can do no evil) can allow evil in a good world, but use that evil to bring out the greater good. More could be said of this concept. Suffice to say for now, this theory views God as a hands-on God, but resulting in hands-off reactions (however, the hands-off reactions are perfectly within the control of God—unlike the deist understanding). That is to say, God is a prime-moving God.

Process Theology: A Persuasive, Changing God.

Of the four theories presented by McGrath, the process theory is perhaps the most confusing. In the process theory, God is not transcendent,[6] but rather completely immanent.[7] Process theology is attributed to Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).[8] In this scheme, the universe is seen as dynamic, always changing. God acts as a persuasive agent without forcing a natural or moral agent. McGrath explains,

“Process thought argues that God cannot force nature to obey the divine will or purpose for it. God can only attempt to influence the process from within, by persuasion and attraction. Each entity enjoys a degree of freedom and creativity, which God cannot override.”[9]

The process viewpoint is so distinct from the normal understanding of divine action that McGrath notes “the God of process thought seems to bear little relation to the God described in the Old or New Testament.”[10]

While process theology is quite controversial, it is enjoined with another theory called occasionalism. This viewpoint is quite different from process theories. The next section will address occasionalism.

Occasionalism: A Dictator God.

The final theory is not covered in great detail by McGrath, but is given as a side note—that is, a bit of an afterthought. For that reason, one would tend to think that the theory is quite controversial. Islamic writer Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) presented the view often termed “occasionalism.” Al-Ghazali did not accept the existence of any natural cause. If a fire burned a forest, the fire was not responsible for burning each individual leaf, rather God was. McGrath uses the example of lightning striking the ground, causing a fire.[11] Al-Ghazali would not attribute the fire to lightning, but as a direct act of God. Thus, God does not indirectly cause anything but directly causes everything. So, which of these theories work best with the theistic Christian worldview?

Conclusion

There are a few considerations that must be addressed before offering a verdict. What does the Bible say of God’s attributes? What does the Bible say of creation? What does the Bible say of God’s work? The following observations are made.

God is immutable, independent, and omnipresent. Much can be said (and has been said here at BellatorChristi.com) of God’s attributes. The Bible makes it clear that God is immutable and independent of creation. God, speaking through the prophet Malachi, says, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6).[12] In Acts, it is noted that “God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). God is also shown to be omnipresent as God says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away” (Jeremiah 23:23-24)?

From the noted attributes given above, process theology is deemed inadequate, and even possibly unbiblical. God is not manipulated by creation (while I do think that God feels emotions). Nevertheless, process theology is eliminated from possibility due to the attributes of God.

God is the Creator of all things and has established systems of operation. Nehemiah notes concerning God that “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). In the book of Job, God responds to Job saying, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33)? Throughout God’s message, several systems are noted, demonstrating that God not only created all things, but developed systems of natural operation.

From what we can see Scripturally-speaking as it relates to the creation of all things and the order of operation of natural processes, occasionalism is void. God creates all and knows all. Certainly! But, God has given nature certain laws and functions as ordained from the halls of heaven.

God’s work within creation. If you have been taking notes, you will note that only two systems remain: Deism and Thomism. To answer which of the two find biblical precedence, one will need to discover whether God currently acts in creation. This is not difficult to answer. As one will find countless miracles throughout the Bible, it is appropriately deemed that God certainly does work in creation. Through Christ, God brought about healing to the blinded eyes, sound to the deafened ears, and life to the death-filled soul. Thus, deism is also proverbially knocked out of the competition.

So which of the four theories work? Only Thomism is a viable option. However, it should be noted that God operates more often than what was noted in McGrath’s book. God is functionally working within creation. I believe that God feels emotions and obviously hears prayers. Therefore, one should not take the Thomistic theory to extreme ends. Nevertheless, Thomism is the clear winner as it pertains to God’s operation within creation.

 

© November 21, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Speaking of creation, not the creatures within creation.

[2] This book comes highly recommended by the Ph.D. theological department at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 212.

[4] Especially pertinent in Aquinas’ 5 ways, see the Summa Theologica.

[5] McGrath, 213.

[6] That is, beyond the scope of creation.

[7] That is, within creation.

[8] McGrath, 214.

[9] Ibid., 215.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 213.

[12] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

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Does Divine Omniscience Hinder Human Freedom?

A friend and I recently discussed the impact of divine omniscience as it pertains to human freedom. Omniscience is the term used to describe the complete knowledge of God. The critical question of God’s omniscience in theological circles is whether divine omniscience hinders a person’s choice to choose x or y. If God knows with certainty that person A will choose x and person B will choose y, do persons A and B really have the freedom to choose? I argue that God’s knowledge does not impede human freedom. I would like to present four reasons why divine omniscience does not hinder human freedom.

The “Could, Would, Will” omniscient knowledge of God.

In his book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, Kenneth Keathley argues that divine omniscience includes what he calls the “‘could,’ ‘would,’ and ‘will’”[1] knowledge. “Could knowledge” represents God’s natural knowledge; that is, that “God knows all possibilities.”[2] God knows all the possibilities that could take place. “Would knowledge” is more popularly known as God’s middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is a concept that is accepted in Molinist and Congruist perspectives.[3] In other words, “God knows which possibilities are feasible.”[4] Put another way, God knows what free creatures would do when placed in certain situations. Finally, “will knowledge” is God’s free knowledge in that “God exhaustively knows all things.”[5] Thus, if God knows with certainty what could happen in the potentials of the created world, and God knows the things that will happen from His knowledge of what free creatures would do in certain circumstances, then there is no reason to believe that God’s knowledge would impede human freedom in any way. Now God may place people in certain circumstances to bring about a certain reaction. But even in doing so, the free creature would still have the freedom to choose x from y.

The relationship of omniscient knowledge to future actions.

If one grants that God holds could, would, and will knowledge, some would still argue, “But now if God knows with certainty what will happen, doesn’t that still imply that a person could not have chosen differently?” This view is called theological fatalism. Is it true? Not really. The person is given an opportunity to choose and willfully does so. Knowledge holds no bearing on a person’s choice. For instance, given the model provided by Keathley, picture someone you know who is quite the hot-head. And suppose that this hot-head really steams up over liberalism. Now suppose that a hyper-liberal approaches this conservative hot-head (and by the way, the roles could easily be reversed) and tries to coerce the conservative hot-head to accept hyper-liberal philosophies. You know the result of the encounter. The hot-head will blow up and lose his cool. Did your knowledge of his reaction impede the freely chosen response by hot-head in this story? No! Knowledge is just that—knowledge. Thus, God, even given His placement of events in a person’s life to lead one to salvation, does not hinder a person’s free will by the certain knowledge of future events that will transpire.

The intimacy of omniscient knowledge.

The debate between Calvinists and Arminians often revolves around the issue of how God chooses whom to save. The Calvinist will say that God elected to save some and reject others due to God’s own will. The Arminian will say that God chose whom to save because He foreknew what people would do in advance. But why couldn’t the answer involve both? Thomists, Molinists,[6] and Congruists hold that God’s election involves His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, evangelical Thomist Norman Geisler notes that “whatever God fore-chooses cannot be based on what He foreknows. Nor can what He foreknows be based on what He fore-chose. Both must be simultaneous, eternal, and coordinate acts of God. Thus, our moral actions are truly free, and God determined that they would be such.”[7] God’s election is greatly based on His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, God told Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).[8] God knew Jeremiah intimately before Jeremiah’s birth. This, however, does not mean that Jeremiah did not have a free will. Consider the issue with Pharaoh. Yahweh tells Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). But how did God harden the heart of Pharaoh? This question is answered in chapter 8 of Exodus. God had brought forth a plague of frogs. Pharaoh had asked that God would take away the frogs. Yahweh did just that. He provided His grace to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But what did Pharaoh do? One reads that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (Exodus 8:15). Did Pharaoh have the opportunity to choose differently than he did? Yes. Did Yahweh know what Pharaoh would choose when He provided grace unto him? Yes!!! So, did God’s knowledge hinder Pharaoh’s freedom to choose? No, not at all. God’s omniscience as it pertains to election is based on His intimate knowledge of each individual.

The sovereign nature of omniscient knowledge.

Due to the fact that God is beyond the scope of time and creation, God is sovereign over all things. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), thus if God promises to bring about a certain thing, it is certain that the promised thing will come about. However, God has given individuals the freedom to choose how to live and how to respond to His grace. If God can be trusted in what He says about future things, then one must accept God’s complete and thorough knowledge of the past, present, and future. Yet, this knowledge does not demerit the ability of free creatures to choose. If God is sovereign, then He must know what would take place when mixing two parts hydrogen with one-part water—the creation of water. God would know what would need to take place for live to be able to exist. Thus, it should not trouble anyone to think that God would hold absolute knowledge of a person’s future choices. It is because of this thorough knowledge that we can trust in God’s amazing sovereignty while holding to a view of human freedom.

Conclusion

As this article has sought to demonstrate, there need not be a conflict in holding God’s sovereignty along with a healthy view of human freedom. Thomas Aquinas felt that if there were no freedom of the human will, then laws and morality made little sense.[9] I concur. Too often people think that the theologian must choose between divine sovereignty and human freedom—an either/or paradigm. Yet, when one considers the potential “could, would, will” knowledge of God; the relationship of God to future actions and outcomes; the intimate nature of divine omniscience; and the sovereign nature of omniscience; then the theologian can rest in the choice of a both/and scenario. God is sovereign AND people have freedom. Theologically speaking—it’s the best of possible worlds (pun intended).

Sources Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: Complete Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014.

Geisler, Norman L. Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Copyright, 9/19/2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] It is here that Congruism parts ways with classical Thomism. Congruism accepts effectual grace which also differs from classical Molinism. Congruism is best seen as the middle path between Molinism and Thomism.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] There are differences of opinions in the Molinist camp concerning this issue.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 145-146.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[9] See Thomas Aquinas, “Of Free Will (Four Articles),” Summa Theologica, Kindle.

Finding Comfort and Order in the Midst of Chaos

At times, life seems chaotic. It appears that the harder one tries to make sense of the world, the more bizarre it becomes. I recently told my dad, “Just when I think that things cannot get any worse, something happens to demonstrate how much worse it can become.” However, the more I have studied God, the more I realize that chaos is an illusion. If God is what the Bible purports Him to be, then God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present in all places), a se (unchangeable), immortal (eternal and timeless), holy (the perfect good) and indestructible (incapable of being destroyed). If this is true, then nothing takes God by surprise. In addition, this means that the chaos of the world is fitting within the sovereign plan of God. But wait, isn’t there a lot of evil things taking place in the world? What comfort can we find in these attributes of God?

Joseph was a man who was met with severe forms of evil. He was thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers and was eventually sold as a slave. The people who were supposed to have loved Joseph the most performed one of the highest acts of treachery and evil. Yet, the tables turned for Joseph. Joseph would eventually score a high-ranking position in Egypt under the Pharaoh. His brothers sought help from Egypt. It was then that Joseph was able to forgive and say to his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:21).[1] How could Joseph say such a thing? There are three things that must be kept in mind.

chaos_to_order

Human actions are free, but planned by God.

There are two seemingly opposing viewpoints offered in the Bible: humans have freedom of the will and God is sovereign (in complete control). How does one reconcile these two truths? Hardline Calvinists (or hyper-determinists)[2] will say that people have no choice in any matter. Hyper-Arminians, especially of the Open Theist variety, will claim that God does not know what will happen. Yet, I feel that the more moderate Thomistic (and even Molinist) compatibilist interpretations fit the realm of Scripture. For instance, the writer of Proverbs notes that “The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). That means that man plans his/her steps, but God foreknows and has already established such a free act. Proverbs also states that “The lot is casts into the lap, but its decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). I like how the New Living Translation translates this verse. The NLT reads, “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall” (Proverbs 16:33, NLT).[3] This may not be good news for the one who goes to Vegas. But free human actions fall into the sovereign plan of God.

God will bring forth an ultimate good despite the seeming chaos of human actions.

Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). This does not mean that all things will work in the end for all people. It will work for the good to those who love God and have submitted to his will. God is good and God is powerful. This means that God will bring an ultimate good despite the great evil in the world. Joseph was met with great evil, but he knew that God would use that evil to bring about an ultimate good.

Thus, chaos is an illusion as God is sovereign.

Two classic theologians note that chaos is seemingly an illusion due to the great attributes of God. Norman Geisler writes,

“God is a simple Being, all of whose attributes are one with His indivisible essence. He has no parts; He is one in essence. If He had different parts, He could come apart, but He is immortal and indestructible…But if God is simple (absolutely one), then both foreknowledge and predetermination are one in Him. That is, whatever God knows, He determines. And whatever He determines, He knows. More properly, we should speak of God as ‘knowing determining’ and ‘determinately knowing’ from all eternity everything that happens, including all free acts. If God is an eternal and simple Being, then His thoughts must be eternally coordinate and unified” (Geisler 2010, 145).

Thus, God’s knowledge and actions do not negate free will. Nevertheless, God knows absolutely what free beings will choose. Therefore, God is able to place people in certain times and places, knowing what those beings will choose. Therefore, even with human freedom and the seeming chaos that ensues from bad human decisions, God still is moving to bring things to a greater good. Thomas Aquinas writes,

“It should be noted, however, that with natural things the specification of the act is from form and the exercise is from the agent that causes the motion. But the mover moves for the sake of an end. Thus the first principle of motion with respect to the exercise of the act is from the end…It should be said that man’s will is discordant with the will of God insofar as it wills something God does not want it to will, as when it wills to sin” (Aquinas 1998, 557, 561).

In other words, God does not order evil. God does not will evil to exist, yet evil is the natural outgrowth of the human freedom to will. God is moving upon all of creation with his grace. However, human beings misuse the grace of God afforded to them. God knows that they would. Thus, God is able to use human free decisions to bring about the ultimate good.

All of this is to say, chaos is an illusion. God is working to bring about the greater good which will be actualized in eternity.

Conclusion—the Roller Coaster

I am not a fan of roller coasters. I don’t like the drops and turns as it makes my stomach very queasy. When I dated my wife, I tried to act like a macho man and ride roller coasters with her…I eventually became sick. Roller coasters give the illusion of chaos. However, coasters are designed to provide that experience while they bring the person back to a common end. Life seems to be much like this. Things may appear to be chaotic, but a good, loving, Almighty God has an order and a plan.

Joseph realized that what man meant as evil, God used for the greater good. When we keep this perspective, we will realize that God has an order despite the seeming chaos of the times. Understand, God is still in control. Don’t despair. Don’t lose hope. God will bring an ultimate good out of the midst of great chaos.

© November 2, 2015. Brian Chilton

 

Sources Cited:

Aquinas, Thomas. “On Human Choice. Disputed Question of Evil, 6 (1266-72). In Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings. Edited and Translated by Ralph McInery. London, UK; New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.

Geisler, Norman. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Hyper-Calvinism does not represent the general Calvinist viewpoint. Some sects of Calvinism do hold to a hardline, or hyper-Calvinistic, interpretation. The hyper view is what is being discussed here.

[3] Scripture marked NLT comes from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

The Timelessness of God and the Secrets It Unlocks

One of the more complicated issues in theology is not so much theodicy (that is, the problem of evil) as difficult as such a topic can be, rather it is the issue of God’s relationship to time—or, termed in another fashion, the timelessness of God. How does God interact with time? Any book on such a topic, even written for a layperson, can get quite complicated just by the sheer nature of the topic. However, the timelessness of God is an important issue. In fact, the timelessness of God is the key that unlocks other mysteries, or paradoxes, of the faith. First, let us describe what is meant by the timelessness of God and how one can understand God’s relationship to time. Then, we will examine some of the issues that are better understood from a good understanding of this complicated topic.

What is the Timelessness of God?

When we speak of the timelessness of God, we are addressing the issue of God’s interaction with time. Before we engage in the topic, one must understand two terms. Temporal is the term used to describe time since the beginning of the universe. You and I live in temporal time; that is, finite time within this universe. We exist in the present space-time continuum. Atemporal indicates one who exists beyond the scope of time. Thus, when I use the term temporal, I am addressing existence within time and when I use the term atemporal, I am referring to existence beyond this scope of time as it exists in this universe. (You are probably already noting how confusing this topic can become.)

Christian theists believe that God is eternal or atemporal. The psalmist writes of God that “Of old You founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. Even they will perish, but You endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end” (Psalm 102:25-27).[1] The apostle John addresses the atemporal nature of God, as well as that of Christ (Word), in denoting that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:1-3).

However, Christian theists also note that God is temporal in the sense that God operates within time. For instance, John continues his thought in chapter 1 of his gospel in noting that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). That is to say, the atemporal God acted in a temporal world. Thus, the atemporal God (transcendent) acts within a temporal world (immanent). In Psalm 90:4, Moses denotes that to God “a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.”

Norman Geisler describes the thought process of Thomas Aquinas as it pertains to the matter of time. Geisler denotes, Time is duration characterized by substantial and accidental changes. A substantial change is a change in what something is. Fire changes what a piece of wood is. An accidental change is a change in what something has. Growing knowledge is an accidental change in a being. Aquinas sees three levels of being in relation to time and eternity:

  1. God in eternity is Pure Actuality, without essential or accidental change.
  2. Angels and saints who dwell in the spiritual world of heaven live in aeviternity (or aevum).
  3. Human beings, comprising soul and body, form and matter, live in time” (Geisler 1999, 283).

William Lane Craig in his book Time and Eternity came to the conclusion that “It seems to me, therefore, that it is not only coherent but also plausible that God existing changelessly alone without creation is timeless and that He enters time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relation to the temporal universe” (Craig 2001, 236). I would agree with Craig. However, I would note that the timelessness of God, or the atemporality of God, does not cease with God’s temporal nature with creation. Thus, God is both atemporal and temporal. God exists beyond the scope of time and also engages in a space-time world.

The Secrets God’s Timelessness Unlocks

As difficult as it is to understand God’s relation with time, one must understand that studying such an endeavor is worth investment.

The Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility Paradox

On one particular Sunday, I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with a brilliant Christian man by the name of Caswell “Cas” Booe. Cas and his family owns and operates a popcorn factory near our neighborhood. Cas and I differ on some issues. But of course, we are both Baptists. It is said where there are three Baptists, there are also five opinions. Nevertheless, on the issue of God’s relation to time, we both enjoyed a great deal of unity. Cas demonstrated the mathematics behind God’s timelessness in relation to the temporal world. The results demonstrate something spectacular as it pertains to the issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. If God remains atemporal as well as temporal, then it is quite possible that God could see all events (past, present, and future) at the same moment. Thus, God’s foreknowledge is thorough and complete. God not only knows personal decisions made by individuals, God would also know with certainty what individuals would do when placed under certain circumstances. God could see the heart of each person. However, such actions would still require free moral agents to respond accordingly. This would coincide with a Thomistic or even a Molinist compatibilist perspective.[2] When asked about the conundrum between divine sovereignty and human freedom, Cas said, “It’s really an easy solution when you understand God’s relation to time.” Some would claim, “But doesn’t such knowledge take away human freedom?” I would say, “No, as such knowledge requires human response.” I like how the New Living Translation translates Proverbs 16:33. It says, “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall” (Proverbs 16:33, NLT).[3] The Lord determines how they fall, but such determination requires the casting of the dice. Here one may find the perfect harmony of divine sovereignty and human freedom. The person rolls the dice, but God already knows with certainty the outcome of the roll since God can see all events in history. One may claim that such knowledge demerits human freedom. However, I cannot see how such is the case. Meteorologists are able to forecast the weather using computer models. Yet, the forecast is built upon contingent events. God who is outside time has access to know what free creatures would do and how they would do it. Could a person do otherwise? Theoretically, the person could, but God would know of the change. This does not demerit a human’s freedom, but only elevates the glory and grandeur of God.

The Problem of Evil Paradox

The timelessness of God also settles the problem of theodicy. Can a good and powerful God coexist with a world so full of evil? Yes!!! Why? It is because God knows the greater good that will come in the end. One can only imagine the great heartache God possesses in knowing the great evils that have come and will come to the earth. The most heartbreaking of all must have been the knowledge that Jesus would have to suffer and die upon a cross for the sins of humanity. Nevertheless, God permitted such due to the knowledge that something much greater would come in the end—billions and billions of souls saved by God’s grace. The future victory of Christ, while yet to occur in the temporal world, is already a certainty with God in God’s atemporal existence. It is a certainty.

There is a saying that goes, “Something worth having is worth working for.” The same holds true with the complex doctrine of God’s relation to time. Such an endeavor may require great theological, philosophical, and maybe even mathematical knowledge to understand with any great depth. However, the rewards to such knowledge are outstanding.

Bibliography

 Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

© June 1, 2015. Brian Chilton.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2] While Molinists accept libertarian free will, they also acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Therefore, Molinists could be said to be compatibilists in this manner.

[3] Scripture marked NLT comes from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

Do Thomists and Molinists Hold Better Alternatives than Calvinists and Arminians in Understanding the Balance Between Sovereignty and Freedom?

If one engages in theological studies, one will be met with two main theological paths: that of Calvinism from French Reformer John Calvin and that of Arminianism from Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius. Calvin’s theology can best be summarized by the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Arminius, while not taking an extreme course as believed by some, took somewhat a different route. For he still promoted total depravity (with some distinctions), but also taught conditional election (based on divine foreknowledge), unlimited atonement (free for everyone), resistible grace, and leaving open the possibility of apostasy (while he did not explicitly teach that one would fall away from grace, he left it open as a possibility).

As I have deepened my studies in Scripture, I have noticed glaring holes in both systems. For Calvinism, there are undeniable problems related to the character of God. Calvin did not focus so much on the love of God as he did the grace of God (for more information see my paper Evaluation of John Calvin’s Views on Election here on the website). There are clear-cut problems with Calvinism (at least the extreme forms) when it comes to understanding a person’s responsibility to respond to the Spirit of God. For example, Paul writes explicitly “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). This indicates that one can resist the Spirit of God. God also says, “…“I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:20-21).Notice that God states through Paul and Isaiah that He reached out to others not associated with Israel while continuing to reach out His hands to those who were disobedient and contrary. Why would God do this if His Spirit were irresistible? Obviously God knew they would resist, but He still tried to reach them.

There are great problems with Arminianism, as well. If you read some of my earlier posts, you will note that I previously identified myself as a classic Arminian Baptist. However, I am not so certain that Arminius holds the best answers either. While Arminius holds fewer problems than extreme Calvinists, Arminianism is problematic in the sense of Romans 9. Many Arminians would hold to what is called corporate election, meaning that God chose to save a group of people through Christ. Christ was the person that was elected and not necessarily other individuals. This is extremely problematic. For, one will note that if God foreknew the people who were going to be saved, God would have known the individuals that constituted that corporate group before they were created, as well as those who were not chosen. Why then did God still create those who were not going to respond?

Luckily, other systems can be discovered that help one wade through the depth of these theological issues. In fact, two other systems are preferred over both Calvinism and Arminianism. These systems are less stringent than those of Calvin and Arminius which leaves more wiggle room, therefore holding less problems. The two systems stem from the uber-intellectual Christian giant known as Thomas Aquinas (Thomism) and from one of Aquinas’ followers, Spanish theologian Luis de Molina (Molinism). Both systems hold similarities with some stark differences.

 

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas

Basics of Thomism

Thomism does not have a catchy little acronym to demonstrate the basics of the system. However, for the purposes of this article, it is important to understand two basic principles that Thomas Aquinas taught in his classic writing Summa Theologicae. First, Thomas believed in the sovereign reign of God. In fact, God is responsible for the creation of all things. For Thomas, God is the necessary “efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God” (Aquinas, Summa I.2.3, 67). Therefore, God is the prime mover when it comes to salvation. However, Thomas seemed to hold to a form of the human will in the process of salvation. Thomas writes that

“just as it is impossible for a thing to be at the same time violent and natural, so it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely coerced or violent, and voluntary. But necessity of end is not repugnant to the will, when the end cannot be attained except in one way: thus from the will to cross the sea, arises in the will the necessity to wish for a ship. In like manner neither is necessity repugnant to the will…For what befits a thing naturally and immovably must be the root and principle of all else appertaining thereto, since the nature of a thing is the first in everything, and every movement arises from something immovable…” (Aquinas, Summa I.82.2, 290).

So for the Thomist, God is the ultimate mover and humans respond to the movement of God. Later, it was added that efficacious grace, or “grace that effects the purpose for which it is given” (Hughes 2001, 521) was necessary for one to be saved. In other words, efficacious grace is grace that plays out to its end. This is somewhat similar to the doctrine of irresistible grace with some differences. It is here that Molina would have issues with the classic Thomist view.

Luis de Molina
Luis de Molina

Basics of Molinism

Luis de Molina, a Spanish theologian and knew and taught from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae extensively. However, Molina held some issues with the two forms of knowledge promoted by Thomas Aquinas and in his view of efficacious grace. Molina held that while humans were free to respond to the grace of God, God knew how a person would respond under certain circumstances. Molina held that in addition to God’s natural knowledge (things that are) and free knowledge (things that could be), God also possesses middle knowledge (or the things that might be under certain circumstances). So, in other words, Molina believed that God knew how a person would respond to God’s grace under certain circumstances. Therefore, God places people in events and places that would bring the person to His grace without impeding upon the human will. This differs from Arminanism because God absolutely knows what it takes to bring a person to faith and knows those of whom no amount of persuasion would influence. This holds a greater balance in the context of Scripture than one might think. The Scriptural support for Molinism will be argued in a future article. Because of middle knowledge, Molina did not see efficacious grace as necessary.

Robert Bellarmine
Robert Bellarmine

Congruism

Finally, future Molinists would create another version of the Molinist system. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez developed a system called Congruism. Congruism fits well in both Calvinist and Arminian perspectives. In this system, God knows individuals before creation. God’s knowledge of the individuals includes the knowledge of what the person would do in certain circumstances. Therefore, those who would respond to the grace of God were placed in positions that would lead the person to respond to the grace of God. Efficacious grace re-enters this version of Molinism. While more study of Bellarmine and Suarez’s theology is necessary before expounding on their systems extensively, the Congruist system is explained by Millard J. Erickson as “a mild Calvinism…that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality. This theology is a dualism in which the second element is contingent on or derived from the first. That is, there are realities distinct from God that have a genuine and good existence of their own, but ultimately received their existence from him by creation (not emanation)” (Erickson 1998, 448). Erickson also writes that Congruism was the position of B.B. Warfield who termed the position as congruism as it “holds that God works congruously with the will of the individual; that is, God works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that the person freely makes the choice God intends” (Warfield, in Erickson 1998, 385).

B. B. Warfield
B. B. Warfield

Conclusion

While any of these three systems work well in dealing with the sovereignty/free will conundrum, it is in this writer’s opinion that Congruism works the best. However, I would disagree with Warfield, Erickson, and Norman Geisler that Congruism is a version of mild Calvinism. Congruism should be noted as being mild Molinism. For Congruism seems to fit the system of Molina more than Calvin. In fact, Congruism seems to fit the systems developed by Bellarmine and Suarez even more as these two theologians presented their own twist to Molinism. I would add one small detail to Warfield’s description of the system, however. It is God’s will that all should be saved. It has been written many times before, but it bears repeating that Peter wrote that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In fact: if Congruism is true, then God has not only a purpose for each life, God holds a purpose in an individual’s existence in a particular timeframe. In which case, you have a purpose not only to God but also to the world in which you are placed.

So to answer the question presented in this article; do Thomists and Molinists hold better answers in solving the conundrum of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in regards to salvation than do Calvinists and Arminans? My answer is a resounding…YES!!! Regardless of where one finds oneself on the theological spectrum, it is important to find balance. While we may strive to understand the ways of the infinite God and the workings of God’s creation, it is important for us not to become so obsessed with the differences in the theological systems that we forget the clear commands of God in that we are to love God with all our being and to love one another as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39-40).

 

Francisco Suarez
Francisco Suarez

Bibliography

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. In Summa of the Summa. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Hughes, P. E. “Grace.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Warfield, B. B. The Plan of Salvation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942. In Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

© Pastor Brian Chilton. 2014.