Wednesday, May 15, 2019
A source of moral confusion
A deadly dichotomy: Separating God's will from God's commandments
A very unfortunate doctrinal development that is popular among many modern Christians has a direct effect first on all moral reasoning. Somewhere, perhaps in the Middle Ages (or so I would argue), a tendency entered into the thinking of the Church, especially in the West, to emphasize, among the revealed attributes of God, will and power above love. The result on eschatological reasoning has been to make a clear separation between matters having to do with “God’s plan” – so to speak -from serious theological principles, especially anything to do with the unchanging nature of God. As people collect various ideas about fulfillment of predictive prophecy, pulling facts from history just a little here and there, or from current events (with heavy speculation about seemingly inevitable future developments), they create an entire system of biblical interpretation and doctrine in which unchanging and eternal principles of theology have no place. And, before you might dismiss this as a problem that exists only among the lesser educated masses, the fact is that it can be found just as readily in the strongholds of ecclesiastical academe.
Closely related, and rooted in the same emphasis of divine will and power over divine love, is the dichotomy that such a doctrinal emphasis creates between the will of God and the commandments of God. This can be traced back through many centuries. It must be seen clearly for what it is: It is a destructive problem that often corrupts the minds of Christians, about God and about all matters of ethics and morality. It is thoroughly interwoven into many systems of theology that have achieved the utmost respectability. Let us see, for example how it distorts basic truths of the Gospel itself.
Can it be denied that Jesus, in all four of the Gospel books, sees His death on the cross as the will of God? Can it be denied that He quite willingly pursues that very death because it is His Father’s will? Indeed, He does. The cross for him, in his human nature, is the crowning act of obedience to God (Phil. 2 :1-11). And, in His divine nature, it is no less his own will as the Logos and only begotten Son of the Father (due to divine love, Gal.2:20).
Right at this point, however, we come to a crossroads (no pun intended). One of two interpretations must govern how we understand the cross, and thereby how we understand the will of God, and thereby how we think of God, and thereby how we understand every moral and ethical question. Also, at this point we must get the answer right, or else we can never attain to the highest of all virtues, charity (I Cor. 13:13). We simply cannot afford to misinterpret this.
The famous “Love Chapter,” that thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, speaks of the ultimate good to which we are called, the highest virtue we are meant to acquire. It clearly teaches that growth into perfect love, the love of God that only the Holy Spirit can create and nurture within the human heart, is, for each disciple of Jesus, the revealed will of God. In order to learn this we have to see that the will of God is always made known to us in His commandments. We must face this simple sentence for all that it means: “[Love] does not rejoice in injustice, but rejoices with the truth (v.6).” In terms of consistent theological principle, and what has been revealed to be the unchanging nature of God as himself the revealed abiding reality of that love (“God is love” I John 4:8, 16), we have to be clear in our thinking as to what this means concerning the details of the crucifixion of our Lord. In what way were the betrayal of Judas, the false condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the brutality of the Roman soldiers, and all of the human sins committed to bring about the cruel death of Jesus Christ, the will of God?
“For in truth both Herod and Pilate, along with the gentiles and peoples of Israel, conspired in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do what your hand and your counsel designated should happen in advance…(Acts 26:27, 28).” That echoes the words of the patriarch Joseph, concerning the callous sin of his own brothers who had sold him many years earlier into slavery in
: “And Joseph said unto them, ‘Fear not: for am I
in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God
meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to
save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and
your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them (Gen.
50:19, 20 KJV).” Egypt
In both the crucifixion of Christ, with its details of grievous sins, and in the sin of Joseph’s brothers, we come across God accomplishing his will through the evil acts of men. If we take this to mean that God predestined each of those human sins to be perpetrated, that is that those sins were the will of God, and that the men who committed them had no free will to choose otherwise, then we must live with a dichotomy between God’s will and God’s commandments. That dichotomy is rooted in placing divine will and power over divine love. A belief system that contains that dichotomy has produced many tragic results because it cannot fail to create seriously flawed ethical and moral reasoning, rooted in a distorted mental image of God that denies His impassibility and the consistency of divine simplicity. Such a view cannot contribute to a saintly life, for divine love has to be removed or greatly relegated to make way for some sort of supposedly higher considerations within a complex and even varied divine nature, one inconsistent with the agape St. Paul had so eloquently described to the Church of Corinth.
If that is the case, then what can we mean by saying that God is good? Can divine love have, within itself, hatred? Was
wrong? Does light indeed have fellowship with darkness? Did God’s “hand and
counsel designate” such malicious sins themselves? In the eternal will of God,
did Judas have to betray the Lord? Did the Sanhedrin have to perpetrate
injustice to the point of judicial murder? Did the soldiers have to crown Jesus
with thorns and mock him? Did the brothers of Joseph have to hate him, and sell
him? The answer that many Christians have been taught to accept is yes. They
take literally the words from Malachi: “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated
(Mal.1:3).” Although such language
merely used a Semitic idiom to say that God chose
Jacob and rejected Esau, I have come across
those who interpret this in a thoroughly modern western emotional sense,
ignoring the true meaning (and the theological issue of what Jacob was chosen
for, that is, the place of Israel in the large Messianic theme of Salvation
History, as any intelligent reading of Romans chapters nine through eleven
makes clear, once one’s head is free of the baggage). For them God hated Esau,
so he predestined him to go to hell, making sure he would never receive divine
mercy and salvation. And, so too, for them the cross teaches both divine love
and a distorted picture of what must be called, honestly, divine cruelty – at
best divine indifference. St. Paul
So, if we accept this doctrinal paradigm, light must have fellowship with darkness, hatred fellowship with love, and specific sins must actually be the outworking of God’s will. How can this completely distorted doctrine help but cause an image of a schizoid god divided within himself, preventing the believer from approaching any question of morality on the firm basis of consistent theological principle, and thus render the attainment of charity always beyond one’s reach? For, no one can rise to a higher moral level than what one worships as God. It is psychologically impossible.
However, what if the reality of what God’s eternal counsel and will determined was something other than, even excluding, the actual sins? Getting back to the question I posited above, “In what way were the betrayal of Judas, the false condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the cruelty of the Roman soldiers, etc., the Will of God?” The answer is, those sins were not at all the will of God. God has revealed his commandments in no uncertain terms, simply stated in the summary of the law to love God with one’s whole heart, mind and strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself. God’s will is revealed in those commandments, and anything contrary to them is not the will of God, never has been the will of God, and never can be the will of God.
But God foresaw, and made use of, the outworking of history. God’s will was to save
and preserve them in the
time of famine. So, when the brothers of Joseph did what was inevitable,
foreseen by the God who knows all things, Israel
produced what was good. In no way could their evil acts prevent the will of
God; indeed, because He “enacts all things in accord with the counsel of his
will (Eph. 1:11),” even the most sinful acts have to result in bringing about
the good purpose of Almighty God. It was never the will of God for Judas to
betray Christ, nor for the Sanhedrin to falsely convict Him, nor for the Romans
to go about their violent and murderous acts with such schadenfreude. But, as a master of Chess makes use of every move by
his opponent, God works providentially. Providence
Now, it was the will of God for the Son to offer Himself willingly for the sins of the whole world. It was the will of God for Jesus to surrender himself as the obedient suffering servant. The inevitable evil of a world hostile to God and to all goodness was very much within the foresight of the Almighty. Carrying out his will, to do good, was not prevented by human evil; indeed, whatever evil men do, God has the almighty power, nonetheless, to turn it to good. Therefore, inasmuch as he cannot be defeated, even evil acts result in his will being accomplished. But, to believe that God must rob man of the freewill that is inherent in the creation of the human race (else, the “image of God” becomes meaningless), and therefore wills any sinful act as something divinely “predestined,” must cause all of the theological confusion, and therefore moral confusion, I have described above.
You will not find the genuine revelation in revealed religion unless you reject such intricate, and therefore fragile, designs of the human mind – or worse. The fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah is often misquoted to give the impression that God’s will is an insolvable problem, as confusing as a physics formula on a chalkboard to the uninitiated. But the passage is not about the secret things; it is about those things that are revealed (Deut. 29:29). The details of that famous passage in the Book of Isaiah are overlooked; for what it states is that God’s ways and thoughts are too high for the wicked and unrighteous man; but they should be the ways and thoughts of each one of us because the thoughts and ways of God have come down to us like the rain and snow. God has made his will known. He has commanded you to love him and to love your neighbor. It is never God’s will for you to do otherwise.