Boston and Free Choice

Credit: Charles Krupa/AP

Credit: Charles Krupa/AP

First, some cautions. Believers should be very careful about attempting to interpret providence just as we should be careful about seeking to know his hidden will. The truth is, according to Jesus (Luke 13), we don’t know why God permits evil in the world. More on this below. Where is God when bad things happen? Right where he always was, comprehending everything in his providence.

Second, there is more to say and know about how God relates to the world and evil in his mysterious providence. In Westminster Confession of Faith 5.2 the Reformed churches confess:

2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

Here is wisdom about how God operates in the world but it will take some time and meditation to begin to grasp what this little section means. The first thing we must say is that whatever happens in the world occurs within God’s foreknowledge and decree. Remember, Scripture says: “In the beginning God….” We cannot account for Divine-human relations without that datum. We must not try to explain how God relates to the world in a way that effectively overturns the reality that there was when there was God and nothing. God alone simply is (Exodus 3). Everything else is created and dependent or contingent upon God. God spoke (Gen 1; John 1) into the void and made all that is. This is why catholic Christians (i.e., those who confess the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) say “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” There are accounts of divine-human relations, e.g., so-called “Open Theism“ or “Process Theology” or even “Middle Knowledge” that, in different ways, seek to overturn the catholic (universal) Christian understanding of Holy Scripture. They would make God contingent upon his creation. Ultimately, any view of God that makes him dependent upon us is a species of paganism.

There is also a temptation to react to these errors by flattening out the story of divine-human relations. Sometimes the way Reformed folk talk popularly about the how God relates to the world fails to account for everything that Scripture says and everything we confess. So, whatever happens does so within God’s foreknowledge and decree. It happens “immutably” (unchangeably) and “infallibly” (without deviation). Nevertheless, God uses what are called in the Confession “second causes.” What are they? A second cause is a created thing. God, who is uncreated, is the first cause. In rough terms think of dominoes (for those under 30, here’s a video). The person who pushes the first domino is the first cause. Creatures do what they do because God decreed what he decreed. That is the clear teaching of Exodus 9 and Romans 9 and Job 38.

Now, it’s not as if God pushes the first domino and then walks away. Not at all! The God of Scripture is actively and mysteriously working through, in, and with his creatures to accomplish his good purposes. He uses “second causes.” in three ways: necessarily, freely, or contingently. Some things God wills to accomplish necessarily. They could have come to the end they did in only one way. Our salvation is an example of God using second causes to accomplish an end necessarily. God willed from all eternity that each of his elect will come to faith where they shall, when they shall.

Felix-the-CatHe does not, however, will everything to work out in that same way. When we use the adjective “freely” we recognize that humans make free choices. They do not have the ability to will the contrary to God. That is a pagan notion. Humans do, however, make free, uncoerced choices according to their natures. Those free choices are comprehended within God’s secret providence and God works through them to accomplish his purposes unchangeably and infallibly. Our choices are not a surprise to God. Yet, we, as we experience things, are making free choices. Consider Felix the cat. He may walk across the street or he may not. Impulsive cat that he is, he does not know whether he will cross until he chooses to do so. If Felix is hit by a car as he crosses the street, that will be a great surprise to him but not to God. Yet, Felix willed freely (no one made him will to cross the street) and yet that free choice was comprehended in God’s providence and decree in a way that operates differently from necessity.

When we say “contingently” we are saying that Felix might have willed not to cross the street. Elmer Fudd, who hit Felix, might have chosen not to text whilst driving. If Elmer had chosen to sleep in rather than to go hunting, he would not have been behind the wheel to become distracted by the text from Bugs Bunny. These are contingencies. Things might have been other than they were. However the events surrounding Felix’s street crossing worked out, they were all comprehended in God’s eternal foreknowledge, decree, and providence and yet Felix, Elmer, and Bugs each made a free choices and the chain of events was, relative to second causes, contingent (things dependent on other things), and, at the same time, God was mysteriously working out his purposes in all of them.

What does this all mean? The caricature of Reformed theology is that it reduces humans to “stocks and blocks” (Canons of Dort 3/4.16) is false. Even with respect to salvation, we confess,

so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, or do violence thereto; but it spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it, that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign….

The Reformed account of the human will relative to the divine will does not minimize or eliminate it. Quite the opposite is true! The Reformed account actually makes our free choices meaningful. Those choices do not occur in a random, chaotic (pagan) universe where nothing has meaning. Our choices occur within the context of God’s interpretation and design. They have meaning because God assigns meaning to them. They have value because God uses them to accomplish his purposes. They have moral significance because God holds us morally and legally liable for our choices. Can we explain exhaustively how this all works? No. If we press Paul for an answer he says, “How can the clay say to the Potter, why did you make me thus?”

As we continue to meditate on Boston and other apparently random acts of evil let us remember that human beings made free choices to attack, maim, and to murder. Those choices were not “fated.” The evil actors who planted those bombs could have chosen other than they did and those evil actors are morally and legally culpable for their choices, actions, and consequences. We must not shake our fist at God for the bombing. In his mercy he sent brave authorities to rush into the midst of the chaos to bring aid to the wounded and to defuse two devices. We cannot raise our fist to God and then thank him for his mercies without schizophrenia and without assuming a posture as judge over God.

Then there is the cross. Pilate might have chosen to dismiss the charges. One of the Jewish authorities might have chosen to speak up in defense of Jesus’ innocence but no one did. Why not? It was necessary that Jesus die. God the Son freely chose from all eternity to be our redeemer, to interpose himself for us sinners. He took on true humanity. He involved himself intimately, personally, and completely in the mess that we made. He was utterly innocent and wholly and perfectly just and yet he died. Our free choices cost God’s only begotten Son (John 3;16) but it was not for nothing. It was for salvation and life. Perhaps Boston will convince some that humans made sinful choices because we are sinners? Perhaps Boston will cause some to look to the God-Man for salvation from the wrath to come?

So, we humbly bow our heads in the face of another difficult providence and ask for grace to trust and restraining mercies and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts and for the quickening power of the Spirit to bring Christ’s lambs to faith and for light in the darkness.

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  1. Just one objection: If Elmer is receiving a text from Buggs then the cat would be Sylvester not Felix. That aside very good words my friend!

    • I wondered if anyone would catch that. I don’t like Sylvester so I substituted Felix. It’s also a nod to Richard Cross, whom I heard give a great lecture on this in the UK. He used Felix. #WhenCartoonWorldsCollide

  2. Isn’t it the case also that God does not owe us good? By this I mean that God is under no obligation to prohibit calamity from falling upon humanity, not even his people. People, particularly the ungodly, assume that God is on their side or owes them a pleasant life; so when distress comes, they complain and even curse God. But it is actually the case that we should be awed by his kindness; yet people forget, ignore, and are unthankful towards God when everything goes well. This is one way in which our depravity is shown.

    Ultimately, there is no comfort for those outside of Christ, wheter alive or dead; there is no meaninful consolation for unbelievers in disaster. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a US soldier that dies in heroic service or a child that is murdered; all that awaits those outside of Christ is wrath. Whatever comfort we have to offer unbelievers is brief and not meant to endure. But the consolation for the believer is different ; as Paul says, we do not cry like those without consolation. In the end for those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, the Great Shepperd of their souls will wipe away every tear.

    • “there is no meaninful consolation for unbelievers in disaster. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a US soldier that dies in heroic service or a child that is murdered; all that awaits those outside of Christ is wrath. ”

      While the last clause after the semicolon may well be true, they obviously don’t see it that way. So they aren’t hunkering down in a corner in the fetal position worrying about hell like you apparently find it comforting to yourself to imagine. They take as much comfort in their belief that their loved ones have ceased to exist when they die as you do in believing yours went to heaven. Or they take as much comfort in the idea that all good people go to heaven when they die as you do in the belief that only Christians go to heaven. Generally, its not non-Christians who are in despair over a belief that their dead loved ones went to hell or their living ones will go to hell — its Christians who are in despair over that. Some simply because their sons or daughters switched Christian denominations! Some because they stopped attending as regularly but were still faithful Christians! Christians worry a lot about their loved ones going to hell. I don’t think unbelievers do.

  3. “This is why catholic Christians (i.e., those who confess the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) say ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ There are accounts of divine-human relations, e.g., so-called ‘Open Theism’ or ‘Process Theology’ or even ‘Middle Knowledge’ that, in different ways, seek to overturn the catholic (universal) Christian understanding of Holy Scripture.”

    I find this claim intriguing. Where in the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed do you find a refutation of Open Theism and Middle Knowledge? I think you ought to do a post on that! It would be interesting to see what the ecumenical creeds can bring to bear on the subject of Divine Foreknowledge. I must confess also, I have never understood and still don’t what “Process Theology” is exactly.

    • Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem
      “Πιστεύω εις Θεον Πατερα, παντοκράτορα”
      (I believe in God the Father Almighty).

      “Πιστεύομεν εις ΄ενα Θεον Πατερα παντοκράτορα, πάντων ορατων τε και αοράτων ποιητήν.”
      Credimus in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem; factorem coeli et terrae….”
      “I believe in one God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”

      The ancient church confessed the omnipotence of God against all pagan notions that God is contingent upon any other creation. That’s why they confessed creation ex nihilo, to refute the eternality of matter. The notion that God is contingent upon created wills is a pagan notion. I can’t think of a significant, orthodox patristic or medieval theologian who would have imagined that God, who spoke all things into being, was by nature or by will, contingent upon our wills.

    • I actually thought the Open Theists asserted that God is omnipotent but has freely limited his foreknowledge. Or maybe it was the Middle Knowledge guys who say that. Somebody says that.

      • No, the Open Theists teach that God cannot know the future relative to choices made by free actors. Some Arminians argue that God has voluntarily limited his will relative to ours. Middle knowledge asserts that God knows the possible choices of free actors but he does not know which choices a free actor will make.

  4. Jose,

    You are grossly misreading what I said. I take no pleasure knowing that someone is an object of God’s wrath, nor did I claim that unbelievers see it the way I do. My point is that unbelievers become more aware of God, at least in what they communicate, when calamity occurs and not when they experience the good things in life; from this they blame Him for what they seem to think God should exempt them.

    My point concerning consolation comes from knowing that God only works all things for good to those who love him. Therefore, we can’t really say to unbelievers that everything will ultimately turn out well for them. What comfort an unbeliever may receive, a hug or some words, is not meant to be permanent. The comfort for a believer is different and lasts because it comes from the Eternal One.

    I get the sense that you may be more inclusive than I am when it comes to Christianity. Switching denominations is a serious thing, particularly if that involves going towards Rome. Even switching between Baptist and Reformed is a serious thing, though I don’t think it is one which demonstrates reprobation. Also, church attendance is a mark of faithful a Christian, assuming the person has no impediments which basically prohibit attendance. A Christian that doesn’t go to church needs to be corrected for staying away from the visible church. I think Dr. Clark is re-posting some old blog entries concerning this.

  5. Never mind Jose, I just noticed that you commented under “On Churchless Evangelicals.” You are a bit different, to put it mildly. I’m fairly busy, so I’ll just let you know now that I probably won’t be commenting any further.

  6. Re: Greg Reynolds / den Dulk Lectures

    Just finished listening to the third lecture; near the end of it, I was pleased to hear Dr. Reynolds refer to my former pastor who is now at APC, indicating that he preached without the aid of notes (while an anonymous referral, it’s got to be him!). Though I miss him in my own church’s pulpit, as his friend I simply want to write to say that I’m proud of him! And–pertinent to this article–doubly so, for finishing this year’s Boston Marathon.

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