Is God in control?

I would like to answer “yes,” emphatically, except, as my favorite Arminian Baptist theologian, Roger Olson, points out over on his blog, the statement “God is in control” gets easily misinterpreted or misunderstood—at least as far as we Arminians are concerned. (Methodists, please remember, are Arminians.)

If you’re a Calvinist, you have no such reservations about saying that God is in control. You mean “control” in the most literal and extreme way possible: everything that happens—down to the movement of the smallest subatomic particle—is foreordained by God for his glory. The Calvinist would say that while God opposes evil and holds human beings accountable for their sin, even sin and evil must play a necessary role, however inscrutable, in bringing about God’s ultimate purposes. Everything that happens, therefore, serves God’s good purposes.

Think of any ghastly, horrifying event in history. As ghastly and horrifying as it seems, God needed it to happen exactly like that in order for history to work out the way God wanted it to. It could be no other way. What you see is what you get, and what you get is good, even if you can’t comprehend how it’s good.

As cacophonous as this extreme view of God’s sovereignty may be to my Wesleyan ears, I can imagine its bringing comfort to people, especially as they go through a personal crisis. In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Olson shares an encounter he had with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a conservative Presbyterian. Koop spoke spoke for 40 minutes at a college chapel service on the topic “God Killed My Son.”

He related how his college-age son was killed in a mountain climbing accident a few years earlier and said that only his belief that God took his son’s life gave him any comfort. If God took his son’s life, it wasn’t really an accident but an event filled with meaning and purpose even if those are hidden for now.[†]

Notice how different this “meticulous providence” (as Olson calls it) is from saying, along with St. Paul in Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for good. Paul doesn’t (and wouldn’t!) say that everything that happens is really good, if only we could see things the way God sees them. In so many words—unless I’m badly misinterpreting Calvinism—this is what the Calvinist believes. (They would probably quibble over my use of the word “good,” but if everything that happens serves God’s glory and purpose, how could it not be good? After all, God ordained it to happen exactly this way.)

Regardless, there is a vast difference between believing in God’s sovereignty, as we Wesleyans do, and believing that God dictates human history down to the smallest subatomic particle. God is in control in the sense that God has everything “under control.” Nothing that happens in history—no matter how evil, no matter how contrary to God’s will—will thwart God’s ultimate purposes for his good Creation. This doesn’t imply that senseless, absurd, and evil things don’t happen in the meantime. Of course they do! And when they do, we can be confident that God is at work, even in the midst of them, and that God is caring for us.

One more thought: The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.

Nevertheless, Jesus makes clear, in Luke 13 and John 9, that there is no necessary link between suffering and God’s punishment. As Jonah reluctantly confessed, God is “gracious and compassionate… slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” God is always tending toward mercy, as James and John discovered when they asked Jesus about calling fire down upon some inhospitable Samaritans in Luke 9:51-56. We should therefore be very cautious and humble about ascribing disasters, natural or otherwise, to God’s hand.

By the way, if you’re a Calvinist, and I’ve misrepresented Calvinism, please enlighten me. Good heavens, we barely learn Wesleyan theology at a United Methodist seminary!

Roger Olson, Questions to All Your Answers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 46.

24 thoughts on “Is God in control?”

  1. Brent, I think this is about as “thorny” an issue as any we have to deal with in Christian theology. What about this limited view of the matter? God foreknows everything (which, by deduction, means it “has to happen that way”), but what he foreknows is based on what he saw we would freely choose to do. Given his foreknowledge of the type of people we would choose to be, he then “arranged things” where both (a) those “characters” of ours would “come out” or be displayed for what they are, and simultaneously (b) accomplish the general course of history which God intended (such as leading to the crucifixion and resurrection).

    While Koop should recognize the reality of evil and its consequences, he did correctly (I think) attribute the matter to God in the sense that God had some specific reason to allow that evil to transpire as it did. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (or at least its effect on Mary and Martha), but he had previously told the disciples that there was a reason why he waited to go until after the death had occurred. Thus, while deleterious natural causes were likely the genesis of Lazarus’ demise, yet God intentionally allow them to transpire that way to show that he had the power to raise someone from the dead, even after they had begun to decompose. (“Lord, by this time he is beginning to stink!”) So, while I think a lot of what happens can fall under what I call “the normal exigencies of life,” I do think that anything as significant as somebody’s death is something God “directly oversees.” “You knew all my days before there were any of them.”

    Case most immediately on point. Yesterday I attended a funeral of our minister of administration who just died from a burst hematoma resulting to a fall that had happened a couple of weeks before. Upon further examination in autopsy, it was discovered that he had contracted a ravenous cancer in his spine and ribs, which would have led to a painful remaining existence if he had not had his accident. So, while the accident was undoubtedly caused by some “mishap” from the immediate perspective of the event, God certainly “allowed” it to happen when and how it did to stave off a worse circumstance which would otherwise have transpired without it.

    As I say, this is a limited view of the matter and I am as prone to error as anybody else, but this perspective does give me some consolation when things appear to be going terribly wrong.

  2. I don’t disagree much with any of this. I don’t believe, however, that God “allowing” and “overseeing” is the same as causing. (Besides, you’ve only mentioned the “easy” cases. The strict Calvinist has to deal with human-caused evil and sin.) As I said, I’m not even ruling out God “causing” in some cases. It does seem merciful on God’s part, perhaps, to let your minister die in the manner described as opposed to some more painful way.

    Also, I don’t believe that just because God has “foreknowledge” (understanding that “fore”-knowledge isn’t the best word, since God is at this moment also present in all past and future moments), the future, therefore, “has” to unfold a certain way. First, whatever the future looks like to God, it looks that way in part because of the free choices and activity of God’s Creation. If it “looked” some other way to God, God could still accomplish God’s ultimate will. That’s one of the problems with Calvinism: it ties God’s hands in some way. It limits God: God may not “like” or “approve of” sin and evil, but without it, God couldn’t do what God wants to do.

  3. By the way, have you ever commented on Roger Olson’s blog? He knows this stuff much better than me. I’d be interested in how he would respond.

    1. I haven’t commented on Olson’s blog. Perhaps I will hop over there now!

      I agree (excuse me if I am mischaracterizing) that the universe could have gone every which other way if we had been every which other types of people. God could have molded a plan around all those other contingencies as well (or, be molding one, if you look at God as being “outside of time”). To the extent I am suggesting any “fixed,” it is only because we in fact turned out to be the types we are, so I think God then “planned accordingly” (leaving aside the question of the “temporal” aspect of the thing). I’m not trying to “tie God’s hands,” but I think (I think only) that once given God’s nature, and once we are given our nature (through the incomprehensible “choosing ourselves what we would be”), and once we are given all nature and its laws, there is then only “one way” things can go. God is “tied” only in the same sense that he is “tied” not to sin. He is going to act as his nature is given what he is interacting with. That’s not a “limitation” on God–it’s just a recognition of what God’s character and his creation are like.

      Things could certainly have gone other ways had God decided to create differently, which I don’t know of any reason why he could not have done that, so long as what he created was consistent with himself. Thus, he apparently decided to create angels in a “different way” than he created us, with different characteristics and different rules. But, having created angels as he freely chose to do, and us as he did, then he will follow the path that works out who he is in light of what he created. I guess that may seem a bit deterministic, but then “God is love” is a bit deterministic as well. God cannot act in a way that is inconsistent with love, not because God cannot do anything he wants, but because he always chooses to act consistently with what his perfect nature is. God is constrained only in the way that he has chosen to constrain himself, if you will.

      But, we don’t know what that path is, and God in fact used our ignorance in that respect as part of what would lead events to transpire as they will, and also in a way that “brings out what we are.” I don’t know that God’s resulting “foreknowledge” thereafter leads to history’s then being allowed to follow any number of different paths. There could have been innumerable paths God could have chosen to go down, but he chose this path, and therefore this path will most certainly be followed.

    2. Brent, I did hop over to Olson’s blog, and added this comment:

      I don’t think that God requires evil to accomplish his purposes. Instead, he created free choosers (perhaps incomprehensible, but nonetheless necessarily the case to avoid the absurdity of God’s condemning those who simply did as he “ordained” them to do), and then molded his plan around what he foresaw those free choosers would be like. (Leaving aside any “temporal” aspect of “when” God made such a decision–don’t know the answer to whether God is everywhere in time before that time arrives). However, once having so foreknown what type of characters people would choose to have, God then set those “choosers” in the times and places where their characters would “manifest” themselves as what they are and also accomplish God’s plan of redemption for such “sinners.” (See the example of Pharaoh in Romans 9–he put him where Moses would face him to show the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart–not because God caused Pharaoh’s heart to harden by pushing some inner “switch.”)

      This may seem “deterministic” in a sense, but I think only in the sense that God is always “deterministically” set in acting only in accordance with his character and nature. Given who God is, he will always act in a certain way upon encountering a certain circumstance. This sets no limit on God other than that which he willingly sets on himself. As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, once the magician makes the rules, he is obliged to obey them himself.

      But we don’t know what the future is (as God purposely designed), and therefore we act of our own free wills in every circumstance in which we find ourselves. Only, God has “set the circumstances” within which we will exercise our wills.

      This does not, I think, exclude “injustices.” Many injustices happen which are totally unfair to those affected by being in such “circumstances.” But this can be (and will be) “fixed.” Judgment Day and eternity are still waiting in the wings. To the extent that the free outworking of any evil person’s character impinges on someone else’s good character in a way they don’t “deserve” so that such a manifestation will occur and God’s redemptive plan be accomplished, then the evil doer will be appropriately judged and sentenced on Judgment Day and suffer his eternal reward, and likewise the person “wronged” will be rewarded for how he properly responded to such a “wrong,” and our present unpleasant circumstances are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us, as Paul says.

      So, the “magic” thing to make this all “work” is how God can create something which can “freely” choose against God. That magic we will have to wait to understand until when God calls us home. But it is essential to everything else being just, fair, and right, consistently with God’s character.

  4. Hi Brent,

    I haven’t posted on your blog before, but I wanted to reach out and offer a Calvinist/Reformed counter-point. While I can’t speak to the nuances of God’s involvement in the world – who can? – I can say that Calvin often gets a bit misrepresented in that area. For starters, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was always meant to be a word of assurance and parental care to God’s people. Calvin knew that Christians were wrought with anxiety regarding their faith and salvation and he desired to affirm them of their union with Christ and their inclusion in God’s story. He wanted to speak against a theology of chance or fate by affirming God’s sovereignty over all things. Now, Calvin did say some strong things about predestination – there’s no getting around that – but those things must be read in light of his prior assertions of God’s parental care.

    You might know this, but the theology of John Calvin often gets subsumed within the so-called “Calvinism” of TULIP and the Remonstrants, which came after Calvin himself. Unfortunately, TULIP caught on and has come to define Calvin ever since — even though Calvin, himself, never wrote such a harsh, tactless, bullet-pointed list. The theology of TULIP was concretized in the writing of the Westminster Confession, which still pulls a lot of weight in churches like the PCA. Yet, some (such as P.T. Forsyth, Karl Barth, James and Thomas Torrance, and Andrew Purves) claim that all this misrepresents Calvin and, to be sure, misrepresents God. They might point to the (also Reformed) Scots Confession as a more helpful expression of Reformed theology. They would also look to the wisdom of the early church (which makes them more palatable to someone like D.B. Hart). And above all else, they would say that, if you want to look at God’s interaction with the world, look first and foremost to Jesus Christ — because there you see God.

    And since you mentioned Roger Olson, check out his comments on this different, so-called “evangelical Calvinism” here-

    Lastly, there are a lot of Reformed Christians who have given careful and sensitive thought to the problems of suffering and evil in the world. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Lament for a Son”, John Swinton’s “Raging with Compassion”, and Allen Verhey’s “The Christian Art of Dying” for examples. All are Reformed and all offer, I think, gracious and nuanced looks at God’s involvement with human suffering.

    Hope this is helpful for the discussion. Keep up the good work!

    All best,
    Blake Daniel

    1. Thanks so much, Blake. You helpfully point out that Reformed theology is so much bigger than TULIP and some of the popular exemplars of Calvinism today, like Piper and the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. That’s mostly what I react against when I write about Calvinism. Those guys are so vocal!

      It’s funny: the most important and influential theologian of the past century (by far) was Karl Barth, yet I suspect that some of our YRR brethren have never read him! Why?

      I confess to having read and been influenced DB Hart’s Doors of the Sea. To Hart’s credit, although he reacts against popular (and, as you say, distorted) TULIP theology, he goes out of his way, it seems, to rail against Calvin’s words in the Institutes, rather than looking at the words of his followers. Or am I misremembering?

      1. By the way, Blake, I appreciate your words above about predestination being Calvin’s “words of assurance” about a person’s salvation. In a post I wrote earlier this summer,, I probably reinforce Roger Olson’s suggestion, in your link above, that Arminianism is “in the Reformed tradition”: in that every aspect of our salvation is made possible by God’s grace. Saving faith itself is God’s gift. God makes possible repentance and every aspect of our salvation. What we do in the process is merely a response to what God has already done for us. That is reassuring to me. If any aspect of my salvation is up to me, I’m afraid I’m lost. You know?

        My point is, as I wrote and reflected on that blog entry, I felt my Reformed roots coming through.

      2. Brent, here’s what I see to be the problem. Your adoption of the “gift only” view DOES put you very close to the “Reformed” position; i.e., predestination. All of God and none of me necessarily connotes that whom gets saved is simply the “arbitrary” choice of God. I don’t think I get how that is significantly different from at least some brands of predestination.

        Salvation has to be “something of me” to avoid all the horrors of those who go to hell receiving that fate simply due to the choice of God. In my view, God creates, provides the sacrificial lamb, and “stands at the door and knocks.” But we have to “open the door” before Christ will come in. How we open the door is to exercise faith. That is something WE do in response to God, not something that God does for us (or, moves in us to do, or whatever). I know we have discussed this point previously, but I can’t get around Jesus saying, “YOUR faith has save you,” not “MY INSTILLED faith has saved you.” It is almost as if Jesus is saying our receipt of salvation is up to us. As I say, he made all the provision and invitation to salvation, just as the king prepared the feast for his son’s wedding and sent out the invitations, but how God responded to those who were invited depended on whether they spurned the offer or not.

  5. I don’t disagree that we have to receive it, but what does “receiving” it entail? That’s where we differ. From my Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, “receiving” it is giving our consent to let God’s Spirit do the work. It’s no shame to say that on this point I’m close to the Reformed tradition, but the Reformed tradition ain’t all bad: the Church of England emerges out of that tradition (Cranmer’s original Book of Common Prayer reflects this tradition), and hence good ol’ Methodism. 😉

    One important difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is that God’s grace, from my viewpoint, isn’t determinative. God gives us grace to make a decision but doesn’t determine the outcome. And God’s grace isn’t selective: Grace is more like a nuclear bomb exploding (if I may be so vulgar) than a guided missile strike.

    1. Okay, but by saying we have to “receive” it, that has to be some conscious effort on our part; again, something we contribute to the equation before salvation is achieved. I prefer to think that “acceptance” is “THROUGH FAITH are you saved,” but whether we agree on that point or not, we have to agree on “something from me” to get salvation to avoid predestination.

      1. We agree! (I think.) We have to contribute something to the equation only after God’s grace makes such a contribution possible, though not inevitable. The contribution is very small, however. It’s a choice.

      2. Well, pretty close, anyway. “Small” in comparison to God’s contribution, but still pretty big in its own way since it makes the difference whether we obtain salvation or not!

  6. Just wanted to offer a word from George Hunsinger (a Barth scholar) on Karl Barth’s doctrine of salvation (which is, Hunsinger elsewhere notes, very similar to that of St. Athanasius). It’s a bit dense but hopefully helps think through the tension between God’s grace and our accountability:

    Two points above all seem essential to Barth about salvation. First, what took place in Jesus Christ for our salvation avails for all. Second, no one actively participates in him and therefore in his righteousness apart from faith. The first point constitutes the objective aspect, the second the existential aspect, of salvation. The objective aspect is determinative and creative, the existential aspect responsive and receptive, in status. These differences in status are not to be confused. The human act of faith is in no way determinative or creative of salvation, and the divine act of grace is in no way responsive or receptive to some condition external to itself as necessarily imposed upon it by the human creature. The divine act of grace is conditioned, in its response to and reception of the human creature, only by its own inner movement. Grace therefore confronts the creature as a sheer gift. The human act of faith, moreover, in no way conditions, contributes to, or constitutes the event of salvation. Faith therefore confronts the Savior in sheer gratitude and sheer receptivity (which is not the same as mere passivity), and is itself inexplicable except as a miracle of grace. (See G. Hunsinger, “How to Read Karl Barth”, p. 106).

    1. This statement is a lot to unpack, but aren’t words like “the human act of faith is no way determinative… of salvation” merely an eloquent way of drawing a circle around the “I” of TULIP? If it’s “in no way determinative,” it’s not clear to me how faith-as-“sheer receptivity”—which Hunsinger points out (at the risk of being obvious) is not “mere passivity”—is consistent. Or is he not talking about “the human act of faith” anymore; rather, faith as divine gift? (I’m thinking out loud here.)

      1. It sounds like he (the author, interpreting Barth’s view) is saying that God’s grace meets God’s gift of faith in the center of a human heart. The human being himself is just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, I guess!

        No, I don’t mean to be flippant, but if this statement represents Barth’s view, well… there’s a reason that Barth is known as a Reformed theologian. Again, I don’t know why the YRRs don’t pick him up and read him sometime.

    2. I don’t doubt Barth’s contributions to theology; agreeing here, however, with your comment that this particular point is “a bit dense.” You say that Barth says, “no one actively participates in him and therefore in his righteousness apart from faith.” Yet, also, “The human act of faith, moreover, in no way conditions, contributes to, or constitutes the event of salvation.” How can something be the prerequisite to “participation in him,” and yet “contribute nothing” to salvation?

      I think the reluctance to say that a person has something to do with his salvation is misplaced or unfounded. Why is it a thing obnoxious to say that while God does so much, yet the creature he created to have a choice, and a meaningful participation in the world and history, is almost an irrelevancy in the greatest of all choices and contributions? I don’t think it “takes away” from God whatsoever to allow God to relegate to a person the “final step” to salvation which God so otherwise graciously makes possible? The “grace” of the matter is simply that we can be saved by “faith,” as opposed to “works,” which latter would require perfect obedience, allowing for bragging, and also defeating any “grace” aspect of the transaction. “Not of yourselves” is not referencing “faith” but rather “grace”-God’s choice of how salvation would be obtained. We have no “claim” to salvation, or the manner in which it is obtained-that is all “of God.”

      Jesus says, “Unless a man take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple.” This seems to require a pretty significant step on our part to move into the status of being a disciple! Faith, in fact, is at least in part a recognition that having a relationship with God far eclipses having anything else, which is why we are willing to give up everything else which might compete with the requisite allegiance, if necessary. “Yet you lack one thing. Give up all your goods to feed the poor, and then come and follow me.” But he went away said, for he had many riches. “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God!” I don’t see much of anything in what Jesus says that takes away from us the “final step” of obtaining salvation, nor a statement that this step is some “minor thing.”

      1. I’m very sympathetic with these words, on the condition that the “doing” is merely agreeing to let the Spirit do. Yes, there’s work on our part, but even the work is a continual response to the Spirit’s work within us. Our efforts don’t achieve the holiness of heart and mind that we seek. It’s the Holy Spirit.

      2. Would you agree that the Spirit does not take up residence within us to lead us as we go (among other things) until we take the “step of faith” to bring us into the Kingdom, and therefore his indwelling, in the first instance?

  7. I almost agree with this, Tom. I only don’t like the words “in the first instance.” In the first instance is God’s grace. Then, by all means, our response. Everyone has already been touched by grace, whether they’ve become Christians yet or not. God doesn’t leave us alone until we respond. God’s Spirit permeates our lives, seeking to woo us into a relationship with him.

    1. But the “wooing” is as what the bridegroom does with the bride (apt scriptural analogy). It is not until the bride says, “Yes,” and thereby agrees to “forsake all others,” that the marriage occurs. And “forsaking all others” is a big thing! And it is the bride’s thing.

  8. This discussion reminds me of the ancient quarrel between Augustine and Pelagius. Perhaps a retread of their arguments might help us think through things (although if you wanna talk about “dense”…).

    Brent, you mentioned that you felt your Reformed roots coming through… I wonder if that’s because these questions of salvation and agency are so timeless that they transcend our categories of Arminian versus Reformed. They are such Christian questions!

    I am reminded of friend and fellow Durhamite Jeff McSwain’s conversation here: Maybe it will be helpful. But again, it’s from a Barthian point of view.

    Alright, I’m leaving the rest up to you fine gentlemen!

    1. I’ll pass on reading the argument between Augustine and Pelagius, although my Augustine prof, who had a man-crush on Augustine, admitted that he was frail and not at his intellectual best at the time. I half-jokingly said that Pelagianism is the best heresy, if you have to pick one. Only half jokingly.

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