Wednesday, December 29, 2021

My Contingent Ego (or A Matter of Pride)

You can’t discuss a matter effectively unless you really understand what the other side is saying.

Mischaracterizing the other position is extremely common in theological disagreements. I try very hard to avoid it here by quoting people directly, linking to context, and reading and contemplating an argument before I reply to it. I try even harder to avoid speculating about the motives of those with whom I disagree, since these are irrelevant to the truth or error of a person’s viewpoint.

But even these precautions cannot guarantee I have really heard and comprehended what the other side is trying to communicate.

At best, I am usually contending with a relatively small sample of cases made by advocates of a view with which I disagree. These may turn out to be competent, representative proponents, or they may be marginal and/or downright wacky. Downright wacky is more fun to go up against, I will admit, but it’s like shooting fish in a barrel: not quite sporting and way too easy.

Sovereignty and Speculation

Nowhere is the failure to understand what one’s opponents are actually saying more detrimental to putting together a coherent argument than in the matter of God’s sovereignty. Years ago, Immanuel Can wrote this rather wonderful post as an open letter to the speaker at his church one Sunday morning. The man had summed up his argument with this remarkable statement: “As far as I can see, the only reason for not believing in [the speaker’s understanding of the sovereignty of God] is pride.” IC promptly produced five perfectly logical motives for rejecting this gentleman’s view of sovereignty that had nothing to do with pride, not one of which had ever occurred to him.

Now, I loved IC’s piece, which was graciously written and necessary given the situation it addressed, but I did not think he was saying anything particularly earth-shaking. Of course there are other motives than pride for holding any theological position. How could anyone be so obtuse as to suggest otherwise?

Well, at least it seemed obvious to me. Then I read Doug Wilson’s most recent post and realized it’s not obvious to everybody.

What Sin Does to You

Here is Doug on the reason people deny certain attributes of God:

“Whenever smart people deny certain key attributes of God, like His sovereignty, this is not because they dislike that attribute. No, actually, they often like that attribute very much. They just object to the fact that the attribute belongs to somebody else. They resent the fact that these divine attributes belong to someone else necessarily. They want their contingent ego to be a necessary ego, but alas, that is the sad part of what sin does to you.”

You may notice that Doug is using essentially the same argument as IC’s Neo-Calvinist preacher. People are proud, and they want their choices to matter, so they refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Like Satan, says Doug, they aspire to sit upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north.

Ugh. Double ugh.

How, Not Whether

Let’s start at the beginning. First, there is this issue of allegedly denying God’s sovereignty, in my estimation the straw man of all straw men. There may indeed be actual full-blown sovereignty-deniers way out there in the bushes, but in almost four decades of debating the question, I have yet to meet one. What Neo-Calvinists tend to characterize as sovereignty-denial is usually a failure to agree fully with the determinist’s redefinition of sovereignty-as-micromanagement. Yet almost everyone who has studied the matter agrees that the Bible declares God to be sovereign. The real question is how he exercises his sovereignty. In other words, it is not about whether God could control every atom in the universe at every moment, but whether he chooses to. Doug thinks he does; I think he doesn’t, and apparently never the twain shall meet.

Now, I suppose my motive for rejecting a determinist view of sovereignty could be satanic pride. Let’s not pretend I always know precisely why I believe the things I believe. But is my issue with the Neo-Calvinist understanding of sovereignty really a matter of wanting my “contingent ego to be a necessary ego”? Is it so all-fired important to me that my personal choices matter?

I would argue that it is certainly not. I take no pleasure in the consequences of many of my choices as I see them play out in the world. The exercise of my will in this life has done great harm to others, in some cases to the point where I would rescind my choices if it were in my power to do so. But it is not, because God has made me responsible for what I choose, and he will one day hold me to account for all of it.

Would it comfort me to be able to lay off the responsibility for my actions on the sovereignty of God? Actually, maybe it would, but I don’t get to do that just because it might make me feel better.

The Comfort of God’s Absolute Sovereignty

By that way, that’s not a mischaracterization of the Neo-Calvinist argument. Cameron Cole actually makes it right here:

“What you’re saying with [the teaching that there are other effective wills in the universe than God’s] is that God is limited. And if God is limited in the bad things, that means God is limited in his ability to heal and redeem you. You’re saying that his arm only stretches so long. So it may not stretch all the way to your heart, to your sorrow, and to your brokenness.”

There is comfort for Cole in what he calls “God’s absolute sovereignty”. Unable to distinguish between “God preferred” and “God permitted” in the matter of the sad loss of Cole’s son, he finds peace in believing that “God was completely and fully in control of his death.”

As for the rest of his argument, it starts from a false premise and piles illogic on top of it. The non-determinist is not arguing that God is limited; he is arguing that any constraints on what the Almighty does in this world are self-imposed. Nor does the non-determinist necessarily believe events like Cole’s son’s death are random or accidental, or that they are without meaning and purpose unless God personally planned and executed them.

Meaning and Purpose

The way I would put it is that some animate or inanimate delegated authority under God, or some combination of such authorities, was responsible for Cole’s son’s death, and that God did not see fit to intervene to prevent it for reasons yet to be disclosed. That doesn’t make God the engineer of the death in this instance (though he could certainly have orchestrated the circumstances if he wished, as he sometimes does in scripture), and it does not mean God preferred it (“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone”).

If God then chose to introduce meaning and purpose into a situation that would otherwise appear (from our perspective at least) to lack it, that is both a testament to his sovereignty and his grace. It also does not limit God in any way. He could have chosen to do any number of things in this and every other tragic situation. Neither does the identity of the authority behind Cole’s son’s death in any way limit God’s ability to comfort his grieving parents. The two issues are unrelated.

Anyway, that’s my take. I won’t say every Neo-Calvinist builds his theology of sovereignty on the basis of how it makes him feel personally. That would be as flimsy and unsustainable as speculating that denying sovereignty-as-micromanagement is always a matter of pride.

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