Limiting God’s Greatness to (Presumably) Defend His Goodness

Hands TiedIn a recent discussion on Calvinism, the issue of God’s role in the existence of evil came up. Though I admit that it’s a thorny question, I’ve suggested that limiting God’s greatness in order to defend His goodness is even more problematic than acknowledging that He is in heaven and “does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).

As if on cue, Dr. Roger Olson, professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, does just that. He attacks Calvinism and its proponents, which is fine, but he offers an alternative in which He sells the farm:

“Many conservative Christians wince at the idea that God is limited. But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?

That seems more like the God of the Bible than the all-determining deity of Calvinism.

In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, ‘OK, not my will then, but thine be done — for now.’

And God says, ‘Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that’s one of my self-limitations. I don’t want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world.’

It’s a different picture of God than most conservative Christians grew up with, but it’s the only one (so far as I can tell) that relieves God of responsibility for sin and evil and disaster and calamity.”

Is it really comforting to think that God wishes things were otherwise, but is powerless to do anything about it? That he’s “not in control”? That He can “sometimes intervene,” if we pray enough to allow Him? Is it biblical? Say yes and you’re well on your way to Open Theism.

Tying God’s hands to relieve of of responsibility—according to our finite understanding—may be tempting, but it is a dangerous and irreverent proposition. He would stop suffering if He could, but He can’t. Dr. Olson’s solution reminds me of the defense of God’s goodness suggested by Harold Kushner in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People:

“God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can’t bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.”

In other words, God is good, just not great.

How about this instead: God is infinitely good. He is also infinitely great. Not even a sparrow falls (not to mention a bridge!) without His knowledge. He is in charge and in control. If we cannot fathom these things, the problem is with us, not Him. God doesn’t need us to defend His character. In fact, it is presumptuous for finite man to question the actions of the infinite God (see Job 38 and following). God ordains what we consider to be hideous things—including the grossest sin ever committed by humanity (Acts 4:26-28)—yet He is not culpable for them and men are still responsible for them (Acts 2:23). If we don’t understand that it’s because we’re not God. Indeed, could we fathom Him, we would be His peers. We’re not. So we believe what Scripture teaches and submit to it rather than arrogantly asserting that God is as helpless as we are.

I recognize that these are complicated matters—too deep for my little boat! I also know that there are a variety of apparently contradicting truths that need to be held in balance. However, I think it is both unbiblical and (from a pragmatic standpoint) hope-crushing to say that we’re merely the victims of circumstances and Satan and wicked men, and that God is merely watching as the world falls apart—grieved, but with His hands tied behind His back. The fact that God entirely good and entirely sovereign, yet sin exists may be beyond our comprehension, but it doesn’t make it untrue. God is not subject to our finite and fallen sense of justice. Ask Job. The only wise response is to acknowledge with Job that God does whatever He wants, that it is always right, and that we should quietly bow to Him in recognition of our smallness and sinfulness rather than attempting to dissect Him (Job 42:1-6).

Even children know these truths to be undeniable: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him”—not defend or doubt or question or limit Him. As if we could.

(HT: World from Our Window, etc.)

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7 Responses

  1. But Chris, this fellow isn’t saying what your opponents in this debate are saying. You might be erecting a straw man.

    This notion is repugnant and unbiblical:

    He would stop suffering if He could, but He can’t.

    But what about this instead:

    He could stop suffering if He would, but He won’t.

    And that is good. See Job.

    A four letter difference, but all the difference in the world, it seems to me.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Don, if it seemed that I was appointing Dr. Olson as a spokesman for your viewpoint, I apologize. That wasn’t my intent. I do think that when we argue against God’s sovereignty, this is a natural conclusion, though.

    Anyway, I agree with your take, the way you’ve adjusted the sentence, and I’m glad you reject Dr. Olson’s view out of hand.

  3. Wow. Way over my head, but let me ask this…what is our definition of “responsibility?” Was God “responsible” for the flood? Was God “responsible” for the fall of man? Was God responsible for the tempting of Job? How about the cruxifiction of Jesus, or the haulicost, or 9/11? How about the stoning of Achan or the stoning of Stephen?

    If you watched a person get robbed and did nothing about it, even though you had a gun on you, would you be responsible for the robbery? Not legally.

    No doubt in my mind that God CAN do anything. He could create the earth in 6 days (or 6 ages if he’d wanted to do it that way). God’s plan is so far above our heads that we can’t understand even the simplest part of it. Look at the books and discussions (some on this blog) about salvation. Yet we are told to come to Jesus as a child (Mark 10:15)

    We need to remember that the simplest thing for God (like saving us) is unfathomable to us.

  4. Rick Phillips, whom I’m appreciating more and more, comments on Olson’s statement here.

  5. I do think that when we argue against God’s sovereignty, this is a natural conclusion, though.

    I wasn’t going to add anything on this, but thinking about what you said here, I think more needs to be said.

    Calvinists yelp when those who are not Calvinists accuse them of determinism. Yet, just like this, it is a “natural conclusion.” Supposedly.

    Do you see how bothersome such ‘natural conclusions’ become?

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. You’re right, Don. To use an extreme as a “natural conclusion” of any position is unhelpful. As we said in junior high school, “I take it back.”

  7. Dan–to drive your list of questions to another level: Did God create some human beings with the intention of damning them? Do God’s enemies exist because He wills them to be His enemies?

    These are fair questions, I believe, and a biblically accurate answer is a difficulty for both systems (in different ways) as I understand them. One system tends to “protect” God’s greatness in spite of the biblical revelation of His goodness, and the other tends to “protect” God’s goodness at the expense of the biblical revelation regarding His greatness.

    That’s part of the theological can of worms that has caused me to back off from a system-driven theology. After a lot of reading and listening and discussing, I’ve decided that we simply don’t know the answer now. Maybe God will tell us in heaven, and maybe He won’t. Perhaps He’ll just tell us, as the Lord told Peter, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.”

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