Discerning God's Will in Time

Here’s a rough draft of a paper I’ve written on classical, open, and what I’ve called covenantal theology; more precisely it’s on the concepts of freedom and God’s sovereignty. Notes, unfortunately, didn’t paste, so clarity may be lacking. Nevertheless I’d appreciate any discussion.

Discerning God’s Will in Time:
Freedom, God’s Sovereignty, and the Pursuit of Compatibility

Introduction: Theology in Crisis

Theology is in crisis when it comes to freedom. This crisis of freedom goes beyond theology—in that it is perhaps more appropriately called a societal crisis —but in no other area of study is it more apparent, or has it been more historically pronounced, as it is in theology. From its inception throughout its duration theology has been in crisis when it comes to freedom, for it finds itself having not only to fulfill the Biblical promise of freedom, but also to affirm God’s sovereignty, which exacerbates the problem since there has been an historical tension between these two essential terms. It is not enough that theology describe freedom; theology must do so while describing God’s sovereignty, and how these two are compatible with each other. The challenge of this complicated task makes it my working hypothesis that the history of theology can be construed as the pursuit of their compatibility, and that so long as this end has yet to be reached, theology will be in crisis, not only when it comes to freedom, but also when it comes to God’s sovereignty and everything else it holds dear. There is no rest for theology until both terms, and their compatibility, has been adequately described.

Thankfully many theologians are sensitive to theology’s needs and have been working hard to produce descriptions of freedom, God’s sovereignty, and of their compatibility that are so compelling and Biblically inspired that they bring permanent peace to the problem and put theology to rest. To give these theologians their due, then, it is my plan to describe some of the contemporary efforts that have been made to resolve the crisis, with the special purpose of marking the key steps taken by theology so that, from the last step, I will be in a good position to step even further, or so that at the very least I will be able to comment on what remains to be done. What this survey will show is that theology has been too preoccupied with the task of describing freedom, and has largely neglected the task of describing God’s sovereignty. Effectively, in its efforts to describe freedom theology has taken things as far as it can, for its description of freedom has landed on the question of God’s sovereignty, making it necessary for theology to answer this question if freedom is to be fulfilled. Theology cannot go further when it comes to freedom unless it changes its focus from freedom to God’s sovereignty, which is its most essential term.

Describing God’s sovereignty is what matters most when it comes to freedom, for it is only when God is sovereign that we are free, or that our freedom finds both its being and its meaning. God’s sovereignty is what fills out our freedom, and until theology has made progress in describing this most essential term, any description of freedom that it offers up will be necessarily malnourished, or without heart. The heart of freedom is God’s sovereignty, or letting God rule through our faithfulness to God. This means that God cannot rule, and we cannot be free, unless we know God’s rule. The urgency and neglect of this question by theology is what I will try to show in the following, and it is done in the hope of opening on to more positive work on this challenging, but I believe very possible question to answer. God’s will must be discernable in time, and we must be able to discern it. It is the task of theology to lead the way, and theology can’t shirk this responsibility any longer.

Contemporary Survey: Theology in Pursuit of Compatibility

In my survey of some contemporary theology my intention is to mark out the approaches taken by theology in order to resolve the problem of the compatibility of freedom and God’s sovereignty. In doing so, I hope to show signs of the crisis in theology, and more than this to show what the crucial insights of these theologies are in order to warrant what I have said in my introduction about the urgency of turning our focus away from freedom and toward God’s sovereignty. Taking these steps I hope to mark out a way that brings us face to face with the real crisis of theology, namely discerning God’s will in time, which we must do if we are to know what freedom is. The task of discerning God’s rule must be completed if God is to be sovereign and if we are to be free, making it absolutely critical for theology to complete this task. The pursuit of compatibility that I will mark out in this survey brings theology to a point where it can no longer neglect the question of God’s sovereignty.

i) Classical Theology

The first step that theology needs to take is through the crucial insight of classical theology, which tells us how freedom and God’s sovereignty work together. What we find in classical theology is that our freedom is not only compatible with God’s sovereignty, it is derived from it, so much so that the attention of classical theology is on God’s sovereignty, and when it is time to talk about other things, like freedom, classical theology speaks in a language that derives from this most fundamental fact, using terms like predestination and permission in the case of freedom. In classical theology God’s rule is what makes us free, so much so that all of the freedom that there is has been determined by God, through God’s good grace alone. Paul Helm describes this feature of classical theology when he speaks of a grace that is “causally sufficient for faith” and that, when received, “is liberating”, for in “receiving it a person is freed from his or her slavery to sin and granted spiritual freedom: the freedom to willingly and gladly serve the living and true God.” For Helm and classical theology, God is so sovereign and God’s rule is so perfect that the grace of God can’t be a measly necessary condition for our freedom but must be its sufficient condition, so that in the end our freedom is wholly determined by God.

Classical theology describes God’s sovereign rule (or grace) as sufficient for our freedom in contradistinction to a sovereign rule that is only necessary for our freedom, and which must be coupled with another necessary cause, namely our free choice to accept God’s rule, if there is to be all that there needs to be for our freedom. However it’s not altogether clear from what is said why this alternative must be rejected, and why God’s sovereign rule alone must be sufficient for our freedom. It seems the explanation is in classical theology’s insistence upon another point, namely the maximality or perfection of God’s rule, since if God is maximally or perfectly sovereign then God’s rule must, on its own, be sufficient for our freedom. In other words, to say that God’s rule is not sufficient to determine our freedom is to put limits on God’s sovereignty, and this simply cannot be for classical theology. Whether classical theology is right or wrong on this, what is clear is that the perfection of God’s rule means that God’s rule effectively reduces to determinism, in that God determines everything and we don’t really have a choice over how things turn out or over what we do. In a sense, we can just sit back and enjoy the ride, for no matter what choices we make, it will be according to God’s plan and not our own (or at least not our own in any meaningful way).

Classical theology effectively diminishes the role we play in history by absolving us from all that is done and making God responsible for everything, including evil. In order to explain this mess, classical theology does a number of things: It argues for our responsibility, it makes an appeal to mystery, and it doggedly asserts that no matter what happens it is for a wise and glorious end. Nevertheless, there is something very unappealing and at the same time unnecessary about this arrangement. Where classical theology goes wrong, viz., in its position that we play no role in history, is in its insistence upon God’s perfect rule, where ‘perfect’ means that every detail must be determined by God; but this idea of perfect rule can be scrapped without scrapping the idea that God makes us free, which is the first and necessary step that theology must take. In other words, while I think it is absolutely crucial for theology to unyieldingly assert God’s sovereignty, in that only through God’s sovereignty we are free, it can do so without asserting the perfection of God’s rule, or that God’s rule alone is the sufficient cause of our freedom. But even though it goes astray, classical theology takes the all-important first step, and the way is clear for open theology to take the next.

ii) Open Theology

God’s sovereignty is conceived in deterministic terms in classical theology, and this is precisely what open theology reacts so strongly against. Open theology doesn’t react against the crucial step taken by classical theology, viz., that God’s sovereignty is what makes us free , but rather it reacts against the idea that God’s sovereignty is so deterministic in nature, or that the future is closed and we have no choice in the matter. Open theology opens things up by insisting upon libertarian freedom, or the fact that we do play a role in history, and it goes even further and says that this freedom is God’s sovereign rule. For open theology we can’t just sit back and enjoy the ride like we can in classical theology, where God has determined everything, but rather we are partners with God in history, so that we each have our own share of the future to determine even as God works with us to bring about God’s own plan. The deterministic sovereignty of classical theology becomes a loving sovereignty in open theology, and in God’s loving rule we are made free. In this way, open theology takes the crucial first step of classical theology and it also takes the next, for it sees that God’s sovereignty is what makes us free and also that we are partners in history with God.

But while open theology takes these critical steps, it does so in a somewhat superficial manner, for as it takes these steps it maintains the classical theology position that God’s rule is sufficient for our freedom. It upholds this idea even as it seems to reject the idea that underpins it, namely the maximality or perfection of God’s rule (or the idea that God determines every last detail). The fact of the matter is that despite reacting so strongly against this idea and claiming to reject it, in fact it only softens it, and God still determines everything in open theology (it’s just that one of the things that God determines is our indeterminate choice). In maintaining that God’s rule is the sufficient cause of our freedom open theology also maintains the perfect or maximal sovereignty of God, albeit in a softened form that allows open theology to take the crucial step of opening history up to our determination. In open theology, God is perfectly sovereign even as we play a role in history, and are free, for it is precisely God’s sovereign rule that makes us free, sufficiently. The upshot of this is that, although open theology benefits from being able to locate evil in our free plans, and not in Gods, it still suffers from an inability to relieve God of the responsibility of being the root of all evil, or at the very least of having permitted it, and as such it is effectively stuck in the same predicament of classical theology.

iii) Covenantal Theology

God’s sovereignty is sufficient for our freedom in open theology, for in God’s loving rule God makes us free. But this implicates God in evil, even though the claim of open theology is that God loves us and wants us to be partners in history. However, in taking the step that the future is partially ours to determine, open theology opens the way for covenantal theology to take yet another step, which is at last to reject the idea that God’s rule is both perfect and sufficient for our freedom, and which at last releases God from any and all involvement in evil. Effectively, covenantal theology says that we are free, and God is sovereign, only when we are faithful to God’s rule in time. God does not make us free by granting us a role in determining history, but rather God makes us free when we serve God in time. In covenantal theology God’s rule is not sufficient for our freedom, but is only necessary for our freedom, and where the only other necessary condition is our determination to obey. Covenantal theology agrees with open theology insofar as it says that God’s sovereignty is what makes us free, and we are partners with God in an open history, but instead of freedom as libertarian and God’s sovereignty as perfect, it sees both our freedom and God’s sovereignty as contingent upon our faithfulness to God’s covenant. In covenantal theology freedom and God’s sovereignty are not fulfilled when we choose or determine per se, as in open theology, but only when we choose God or determine things according to God’s rule in time. This dissociates God from every evil by removing God’s rule from any causal association with evil, however it also intensifies the risk and raises a pressing concern.

Some Analysis: The Pressing and Neglected Need of Theology

The key steps taken by contemporary theology according to this survey are, from classical theology, that God’s sovereignty is what makes us free, from open theology, that we are partners with God in an open history, and from covenantal theology, that we are free and God is sovereign only when we are faithful to God in history. Having taken these steps I believe we are in a good position to comment on what remains to be done in order to resolve theology’s crisis, viz., the problem of the compatibility of freedom and God’s sovereignty. Simply put, what we see from this vantage is that theology has thought things through as far as it can without pursuing the question of God’s rule, or what God’s rule is, which due to the last step taken by covenantal theology we confront in a more pressing manner than ever before. In both classical and open theology the question of God’s rule wasn’t nearly so urgent, or timely, since God was assumed to be perfectly or maximally sovereign no matter what. Effectively, there was nothing we could do to jeopardize God’s sovereignty according to these theologies, and so the question of God’s rule was neglected.

In classical theology God’s perfect sovereignty means that God determines every last detail, including what we choose, and so we have no real motivation—beyond making sense of the mess God has made—to discern what God’s rule is. In classical theology our freedom doesn’t depend upon our knowing God’s will, so why bother trying to discern it? In open theology the question of God’s rule God has the possibility of being important, but ultimately we are made free according to open theology through no effort on our part, and so again, why bother trying to discern God’s rule when freedom is already granted? The only way that God’s rule becomes pressing for open theology is if it posits two levels to God’s rule and to freedom, the first level being that God rules that we be made free in the first sense, viz., that we have libertarian freedom and a role to play in history, and the second level being that God rules that we help rather than hinder God in history, which if we go along with makes us free in the second sense. But if this is done, then open theology effectively becomes covenantal theology, with the exception that by positing the first level of freedom and God’s rule it has the unfortunate quality of implicating God in evil. Covenantal theology doesn’t have this problem and yet still raises the stakes and makes the question of God’s rule urgent simply by making God’s rule and our freedom contingent upon our obedience. In covenantal theology we can no longer sleep well at night knowing that God’s sovereignty is guaranteed—even if just in a minimal sense—but rather we are made restless by the constant fact that it is up to us whether or not God rules.

Conclusion: Refocusing Theology

My point in all this is that theology can’t go on unless it addresses the question of God’s rule, which until now has been neglected. Theology must discern God’s will in time, so that in discerning it we can be faithful to it, and in being faithful to it we will become free. It is the question of God’s sovereignty in this timely mode that matters most, and that theology must answer if it is to say anything meaningful about the compatibility of freedom and God’s sovereignty beyond what has already been said. Knowing God’s rule is a pressing need for a theology that takes the step of covenantal theology, where there is always the possibility, should we be unfaithful to God, whether for lack of knowing what God wants or for denying God, that God doesn’t rule at all and there is no freedom whatsoever. Theology will be in crisis until a more positive description of God’s sovereignty comes to light, namely a description that helps us to discern God’s will in time so that we can say with Jesus “Thy will be done”, and at the same time know what it is that we are committing ourselves to when we say it. What my contemporary survey amounts to, then, is that theology must focus all of its attention on this pressing question and answer it beyond the formal facts that have already been uncovered, viz., that God’s sovereignty is contingent upon our faithfulness and that when God is sovereign we are free. Theology must take the next step and discern God’s will in time; the responsibility of completing this task can no longer be shirked.

Theology must be refocused. It is both in urgent need of, and has to a large extent neglected, the vital task of discerning God’s will in time. Theology has pursued the compatibility of freedom and God’s sovereignty as far as it can without tackling this problem, and so if it is ever to resolve the crisis it finds itself in then it must face up to this daunting task. Although it’s all too easy to avoid it, because of its apparent inscrutability, we should take hope in the life of Jesus Christ that it isn’t beyond our ability, and that God’s rule is discernable in time. So while I couldn’t agree more with the key steps taken by theology (classical, open, and covenantal), and the knowledge that these steps give us of the compatibility of freedom and God’s sovereignty, theology nevertheless has left us in the dark aside from vague expressions as to what God’s rule actually is. I find myself emboldened by Jesus to step even further and shed some light on this problem. However, if I were to take this step right now and offer up a description of what God’s rule is, I’m afraid it would be one of those great words, like love, which say so much but at the same time say so little. I’ll have to content myself here with refocusing theology’s attention on this most essential question, namely what God wills in time, with the hope of a future opportunity to explore it more directly, both in the history of theology and beyond.

Easy, God does not assert his sovereignty, since the Creation, while we’re alive in this universe at least, in order to preserve our free will (or freedom if you will). He has temporarily suspended his authority in order that He (and we) may know the choices we make when not under His influence.

Therefore theology, “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world”, is reduced to a simple God is either watching with great interest, or off playing golf in some other universe. Since the latter is unlikely (why create something and then just walk off, and couldn’t he do both at the same time anyway), theology is reduced to speculation as to why He created us for Him to watch.

Of course if you accept this, which you reasonably should, your paper is trash and you’d need to start over. :astonished:

So how would you explain the Bible’s depiction of God involving Godself in earthly affairs post creation (i.e., after the beginning)? How could God have “temporarily suspended his authority” if we see him doing such things as destroying Sodom and freeing Israel from Egypt? Your position is inconsistent with scripture, so perhaps there is hope for my paper after all.

We haven’t seen any such thing. The Bible is a fabrication of men. It does have wisdom, but again, it is also only the wisdom of men.

I said the Bible’s depiction… I never said anything about seeing it in the world.

The whole point of my paper is to awaken theology to the need of discerning God’s will in time so that God can be sovereign in history. My whole point is to chastize theology for thinking–by and large–that God is perfectly sovereign irrespective of what we say or do.

So? Is human wisdom any less wisdom?