God's Will and Naturalism

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The Blogdom of God discussion on God's will continues at New Covenant, Jollyblogger, and Adrian Warnock's blog.

It occurred to me that one of my reasons for taking the view I've endorsed, which seems to have been at least closely approximated by Jollyblogger and some of the others in the discussion, has to do with my opposition to naturalistic influence on Christian thought. There are two ways this can happen.

One view is to say that God doesn't speak to people in extraordinary ways, which usually goes along with the view that extraordinary miracles don't take place today. This view usually takes some of the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament to have ceased, usually placing such a cessation at the death of the last apostle, John the son of Zebeddee. For one thing, the arguments based on scripture for that view are about some of the worst proof-texting I've ever seen, always ignoring the context and sometimes even involving torturous readings of the Greek. But perhaps even worse is the assumption involved in this view. It's basically giving in to the naturalistic worldview, not whole-hog but in any way that affects ordinary life. So I think it's important to affirm that God does do extraordinary things even today.

Then there's the view that we should expect miraculous and extraordinary interactions with God all the time. That's what my comments before had been primarily intended to address, and I get the impression that Jollyblogger also had the same purpose in mind. Some people tend to think this idea is prominent in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles but not in the rest of evangelicalism, but I think that's false. The main difference between those two groups is strictly over the issue of which miraculous gifts are prominent or even continuing today. The issue I'm looking at is whether the working of God should primarily be described as miraculous and extraordinary intervention or interfering with the laws of nature as we learn them when we study science. I think the answer is no. God's primary method of interacting with us is through his ordinary working out of all things through his sovereign ordering of the universe. This is done mostly through the natural laws he himself set up at the very beginning.

It's a little bit harder to see how the second view is influenced by naturalism, since it quite obviously involves more supernatural intervention in the natural world. However, that's the problem. It places a distinction between the natural world and the supernatural world and assumes that the presence of the supernatural involves a breaking of the natural order. It requires an assumption that the natural world continues on its own as much as possible, and then God breaks in with various things from time to time. Thus it minimizes God's role in everyday life, in ordinary events. It thus gives up too much to naturalism. The Christian view, as developed in the Bible itself, is that God ordains events even on the level we would be tempted to describe as natural. All along in this post I've been influenced by naturalism even in describing them that way and in making a distinction.

I would even argue that the ordinary method of God's work, the level that we should always be expecting God to work, is the level we'd be tempted to call natural. Given the scores of years between God's interactions with Abraham, the model of faith offered up by Paul, it's pretty clear that the so-called supernatural, miraculous, and extraordinary don't necessarily become the norm even in the lives of the people involved with the crucial events of God's revelation of himself in salvation history. However, they are most strongly focused at such events.

I conclude that it's arrogance to assume that God will speak to me, either audibly or with a subjective sensation I feel inwardly. It's good to pay heed in case there are any such sensations, but it's also good to pay heed to what the scriptures say and to submit my subjective sense to the wisdom of my brothers and sisters and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others. I've seen too many people make awful decisions on a whim, describing it as God's will revealed clearly through an inner sense. One involved a direct violation of a command in scripture. Another resulted in a highly unloving action and an unwillingness to reconcile, which amounts to the same thing.

I want to conclude by saying that every single spiritual gift mentioned in the New Testament, including those normally described as charismatic gifts (which is a serious misnomer), can be described as fitting into God's working out of all things from beforehand through what are normally called natural laws. It would mean what we call the laws of physics aren't a complete description of the natural laws (to allow things like resurrection, miraculous healings, and supernatural knowledge). Still, the model that God has to be intervening only in little bitty ways here and there is not necessary even for the strongest charismatic view that one might want to hold. So this is clearly not about issues between charismatics, non-charismatics, and anti-charismatics. I do have views on those issues, but that's not the issue here.

9 Comments

Jeremy,
I think your article on "Does God have the right person picked out for me, may stand in opposition to teh God's Will blog at the New Covenant website.

I made a couple of comments there, that I am too lazy to write out. Check them out ther if you get a chance.
- Raj

Jeremy, your article on "Does God have a person picked out for me ?" might rely on a view of God's will and decision making - that stands in opposition to the blog posts at the NewCovenant website. My comments are there. I am too lazy to reproduce them here.
-Raj

I keep getting a wierd error when i try to comment here.
Go figure.

If he's simply denying the view that God is always giving special revelation to us, then he may not differ too much from me. If he's going all the way to the other side to say that such special revelations never happen, then you're right that his view is different from what I'm arguing here. I was saying much the same sorts of things as he is when I was simply trying to argue against the "always special revelation" view.

Good post. I like what you say about how we view "natural." I want to post on that... maybe this weekend.

My post(s) on the subject of Decision Making and God�s Will follow the line of reasoning of Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason. The basic premise is that the Bible does not teach that, as a normative procedure, we receive guidance for decisions in our lives through �being led by the Spirit,� �having a peace about it,� the laying out of fleece, confirmations, or open / closed doors. It does not mean that directives have not occurred via special revelation in the past (they have), or that they cannot occur in that manner today (they can). A study, though, of the instances of special revelation from God (particularly in Acts) shows that such directives are intrusive (i.e., uninvited), clear, supernatural and, by virtue of their nature, to be obeyed. This stands in stark contrast to the widespread teaching that God has an individual plan for our lives and that we are supposed to search out (through the methods described above) and discover just what God�s decisions are (for particular decisions we are faced with).

The model which the Bible does teach, with regards to decision making, can be referred to as the Wisdom Model. It involves an understanding of God�s Moral Will (completely revealed in the Bible), in conjunction with wisdom (per the Bible, counsel, research, etc.), and personal desires / concerns. Encompassing this entire spectrum is the knowledge and submission (in attitude) towards God�s Sovereign Will.


I'll leave this thought running on the side. I'll do the research later.

1. To say that everything that an human being ought to do to reach a certain goal, is based upon theirs following a set of instructions, codes, rules, etc... reminds me of Turing Machines. It makes it seem as though human beings are moral turing machines.

2. But somethings are incomputable. Somethings cannot be reached by following some set of rules and guidelines. There may be certain states that turing machines cannot reach no matter the set of rules that they follow. So, for similar reasons, a set of instructions are not enough.

I see the Bible's model as more of a virture/character approach and less a set of rules. There are rules, but they reflect general character traits that God desires for us to develop and act out. The Bible isn't presented as an exhaustive set of rules, anyway.

Excellent post Jeremy. I may quibble with you on the cessationism point - I do buy the argument that some gifts had a particularly revelatory significance that no longer applies with the closing of the canon. However, in saying that I don't mean to say that God does not lead us through some types of subjective impressions. I think you and I are in agreement on the place of the subjective. I just posted a long article on charismaticism and cessationism - sorry I didn't read your blog before I did so. We are tracking, especially on the idea of the extraordinary/ordinary distinction. The analogy I use is to say that God's power is the necessary explanation of my last heartbeat, the typing of my fingers on the keyboard, as much as it is the necessary explanation of the parting of the Red Sea. I disagree with the hyper end of the charismatic view not so much because it makes too much of the extraordinary, but because it makes too little of the ordinary.

... some gifts had a particularly revelatory significance that no longer applies with the closing of the canon.

I haven't had a chance to read your long article yet. I would say that some manifestations of certain gifts coincide with particular movements of the Spirit in particular locations. Those centered around the central events of all salvation history are especially notable, therefore. So what we see in the gospels, as performed by Jesus, point to his own identity, and what we see in key moments in Acts, performed by the apostles, point to the significance of that moment in salvation history. I don't think it should be any surprise to see a much larger concentration of such gifts and workings to signal the outset of the end of history that we've been in since Pentecost.

I don't think it follows that there's no place for such gifts since the closing of the canon, first because some of the significance of those gifts aren't merely revelatory in ways that the canon replaced and second because some parts of the world are as if the canon isn't complete, because Christianity is just being introduced there without a Bible translated into their own language. Reports of missionaries in such areas testify to a higher concentration of the sort of miracle we see in Acts. Other gifts, like tongues in I Corinthians (as opposed to the kind of tongues in Acts), don't seem related to revelation at all, however, since Paul clearly describes them as prayer, so there's no reason to think that should cease.

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