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Thursday, March 02, 2017

The Divine Veto

Lately I’ve been wondering how much latitude God gives his servants in choosing how they go about doing his work. If you read either Testament carefully, it seems like it could be an awful lot.

Now, bear in mind that from John Calvin’s perspective, it is really God doing everything that is done in the universe. I don’t think he ever used the word “pawn” (which might have been the most honest way to describe how he thought God treats his creatures), but in effect he taught that sentient beings, good or bad, cannot really act contrary to the will of God. God’s determinate counsel initiates and controls every transaction in the universe — “all events whatsoever”, as Calvin put it.

I’m not operating on that wavelength at all, so disciples of Mr. Calvin may want to take a pass on the following musings.

The Musing Stage

And I’m really only at the musing stage at this point. Let me back up and tell you where I’m coming from here: I have been convinced for years now at the most basic level that importing determinism into the pages of holy writ simply does not work.

Never mind the thorny theological problem of making God the author of sin. The theory has more fundamental flaws built into it.

For one thing, the presence of commands in scripture makes no sense from a determinist viewpoint. Why tell us to do things or not do things if all our responses are already preordained? For another, the frequent authorial notations in the Bible that specific events or choices made by men occurred because heaven so directed. Such comments make no sense if, in fact, God already does absolutely everything at every moment.

I’m not going to make a full defence of my position here because others have done in better (not to mention at book length), but I simply want to point out that my objections to Calvin’s views on this subject amount to considerably more than a few divergent interpretations of a small number of New Testament verses having to do with foreknowledge and predestination. They go to the most basic levels of interpersonal communication.

Actions and Consequences

I find objections to determinism from Genesis to Revelation, and particularly as I observe how God has distributed his authority throughout the universe both to sentient beings (like angels, kings, elders and fathers) and into mechanical processes (like gravity and the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Apart from the very occasional divine intervention in response to prayer and the rare exercise of executive privilege when his ministers fail repeatedly and egregiously to do their jobs, God leaves his agents to operate in the world pretty much as they may. Most notably, this includes the “god of this age” himself, whose personal choices throughout history have been markedly divergent from those that would please the sovereign God.

In other words, actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are inconsistent with the revealed will of God and certainly inconsistent with what we might consider the most desirable outcome. I cannot escape the conclusion that despite not desiring these things to occur, God allows them to happen anyway, presumably because knowing and loving and being loved by created beings that possess real agency is more important to him than the effects on us of guns, knives, tidal waves and plane crashes, which — according to Christian theology — though real and often immensely painful, are temporary.

The Way to Dusty Determinism

And yet, despite these convictions, I’m afraid determinism still rents a little corner of my head that I have not got around to dusting until recently; to be specific, in connection with the prophets.

I think I have had it in the back of my mind, quite inconsistent and unconsidered, that in granting miraculous powers to men, God reserved to himself the right to overrule their actions; some kind of last-minute veto over any unreasonable use of his power they might opt to exercise in his name.

Something like Christian prayer, when if we ask in his name (or, as I understand it, in accordance with his will, or “that the Father might be glorified in the Son”), then we are assured God will act in answer to our prayers.

There’s kind of an implicit divine veto there, isn’t there? Even if we forget to add, as the Lord Jesus did, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done,” most Christians kind of accept that a request outside the revealed will of God and inconsistent with his character is simply not going to be honored.

The Implicit Veto

One cannot truly ask for a fling with the hot twenty-something next door “in his name”, or for the violent death of an enemy “in his name”, or for a million bucks “in his name”. How exactly would any such request glorify the Father in the Son?

There is an implicit heavenly veto to all Christian prayers, and I have always kinda figured it applied to the Old Testament prophets as well; that if a prophet asked for something and received it, by definition both the request and the result HAD to be pleasing to God. Otherwise, God would have just exercised his veto, right?

Maybe. But now I’m wondering about that. Take Elisha’s bears (please). They’re theologically difficult for some.

The Bear Facts

To set the stage here, Elisha’s mentor, Elijah, has just been taken up alive to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha has been granted a double portion of his master’s spirit. So he tries this new endowment of divine power on for size: he parts the Jordan with the cloak of Elijah crying out, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” and walks through the river on dry ground to the other side.

Wow. Whaddya know? It WORKS.

The sons of the prophets are on the other side of the river, and they are suitably impressed with this display. “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha,” they say, and they bow to him. But they kind of miss the point of the exercise. They want to send out a fifty-man search party to find the old prophet, figuring that God’s chariots and horsemen may have dropped his body into a mountain or a valley. Not likely, says Elisha, and he tries to persuade them Elijah is really gone.

Of course they can’t find him. But you see the problem. If even the sons of the prophets can’t quite grasp what’s happened, how is the average person in Israel going to react to the fact that God’s authority is now vested in Elisha? Probably with rank disbelief.

Bear With Me a Moment

And disbelief is what Elisha immediately encounters. He has hardly left Jericho to go to Bethel when a group of boys come out of the city and jeer at him. So Elisha turns and curses them in the name of the Lord, and we read that “two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.”

That’s some nasty payback there, and we might wonder if it was really justified. More, we might wonder if this was really God’s idea — or if it was Elisha’s.

Personally, I am entirely persuaded that God is neither trivial nor arbitrary in his judgments, but rather loving and good. He cares about human life, and animal life to boot. He never uses the equivalent of a tactical nuke (or a couple of crazed she-bears) on his enemies when something less will do the job, or when repentance is an option.

So on one hand, the sneaky closet determinist in me figures God would have exercised his divine veto if he viewed Elisha’s curse as inappropriate, and that part of me accordingly prepares to attempt to defend God’s reputation with a bunch of relevant details and apologia. On the other hand, there’s another part of me that believes God fully respects and honors the prophetic authority he has granted to men even when they might overstep their mandate a little. That part of me finds itself balking at attributing the bears to anything other than the prophet’s bad temper.

So tell me which of the following scenarios you prefer.

The Closet Determinist Opines

First scenario: It’s not impossible God was fully in sympathy with Elisha’s curse.

I say this for a several reasons:
  • First, the chant, “Go up, you baldhead!” may initially appear a trivial and personal insult to us, but what the crowd is really saying is that Elisha is a liar. They are mocking his testimony about the ascension of Elijah. They are denying God’s power and refusing to acknowledge Elisha’s (and therefore God’s) authority. As such, God had a strong vested interest in making it known in Jericho and throughout Israel — for the good of the nation, if nothing else — that he was unequivocally present in the ministry of Elisha.
  • Second, the words “small boys” and “children” in the passage may be a bit misleading. These kids were probably not six, seven and eight. “Small” is frequently translated “younger” and “lesser”. It’s a relative term, not an absolute. “Boy” is also a relative term in Hebrew; it is used of Shechem, who raped Dinah and was probably close to twenty. And “children” has the broadest semantic range of all, primarily denoting family relationship rather than pinning down a specific age. The fact is, we do not know how old these kids were, but they were likely as responsible for their actions as the teens who fought for their countries in WWII.
  • Third, they were thugs. If the bears tore forty-two of them, this was a pretty sizable gang. They vastly outnumbered and probably intimidated poor Elisha no matter what age they may have been. And when you go out in public to act as a mob, my feeling is whatever you get back in return is probably coming to you fair and square.
The argument can be made that Elisha’s curse was an entirely reasonable response to a bunch of potentially violent, unbelieving teenage thugs in desperate need of a serious spiritual lesson. But if I were to make that case, I’d really be doing it because I think I need to; because I think God would have exercised his divine veto if his servant’s request was … er … unprophetable.

Better and Worse Uses

Second scenario: God gave discretionary authority to his prophets, and sometimes his prophets used it more wisely than at others.

This explanation is awfully convenient for those who read the passage to suggest that Elisha sicced wild animals on a bunch of innocent little boys just having a bit of fun, in that it eliminates the need to account for the fact that God didn’t step in and overrule Elisha’s curse. This way God can remain ‘good’, while Elisha gets to be the guy with poor impulse control. The very convenience of the argument makes me reluctant to trot it out.

Moreover, other than this incident, such an explanation seems rather unnecessary. Most of the miracles performed by Elijah (and the other prophets, for that matter) were either illustrative or highly practical, and some were a matter of acute necessity. There are simply not a lot of miraculous prophetic acts to point to in the Old Testament that we might call frivolous, or that might lead us to question whether they were actually consistent with God’s will.

Still, God has a track record of standing with his servants even when they don’t have their best day on the job. Moses struck the rock in the desert in a fit of pique, destroying the intended symbolism of the act and disobeying God in the bargain, and yet God stood behind his choice despite Moses’ sin. He brought water from the rock for the people despite the fact that his servant had fallen short. His punishment was a private matter between him and God. Samson was a train wreck who broke his Nazirite vow over a woman and lost his God-given strength, yet God heard Samson’s request to be avenged against his enemies.

I’m not sure I’d rule this one out.

God’s Fellow Workers

Sometimes, let’s face it, God’s people are a wretched testimony to his grace and glory. But I must confess I love the idea that God uses us despite all our weakness, frailty, selfishness and frequent stupidity. I love the idea that he can overrule us any time he pleases, and yet sometimes — perhaps often — simply doesn’t. I love that he allows us to serve as real, meaningful co-workers possessed of genuine agency and not just pawns bumped about on a celestial chessboard.

At least I think so. You be the judge.

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