Language: January 2008 Archives

God the Decider

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I've been reading through the second edition of D.A. Carson's How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Last night I came across a passage that I had to read a little differently now than when he first wrote it in his first edition of 1990. Carson was responding to the view that predestination-language in the Bible is basically referring to God knowing ahead of time what people outside his control will do, which takes its start from Romans 8:29's "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Consider his criticism:

This way of wording things, of course, makes the human being the pivotal "decider"; God's decision is not predestination in any meaningful sense, but a kind of ratification-in-advance. Moreover, too little attention is paid to the fact that this text does not speak of foreknowing that such and such will take place, but that God foreknows the person. Many have shown that in Semitic thought "to know" a person can have overtones of intimacy: if a husband "knows" his wife, for instance, he has sexual intercourse with her. For God to "foreknow" certain people, especially in the context of Romans 8:28-30, means (as most serious commentators point out) that God has a personal relationship with the individual in advance. Those whom God foreknows in this sense, he predestines "to be conformed to the likeness of his Son". Besides, it is a strange method that takes a doubtful definition of one occurrence of "foreknowledge" and pits it against the many references in which it is clearly stated that God has chosen his people (e.g., Deut. 4:37-39; 7:6-9; Ps. 4:3; Matt 24:22, 31; Luke 18:7; John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Gal. 4:27, 31; Eph. 1:4-6; 2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:2).
This is part of Carson's longer argument that theological discussions of free will shouldn't first assume a particular meaning of a controversial term (in philosophy, there is no consensus on what counts as freedom) and then read the biblical text in terms of such an account of freedom, particularly if the text itself assumes a different concept of freedom. Three things came to mind as I read this paragraph.

1. Given that this use of "foreknow" is based on the Semitic concept Carson explains (which I think is highly likely if not almost certain), there is an alternative interpretation of this passage as merely corporate. God choose a people and then lets individuals decide if they want to be in it. A lot of Wesleyans and Arminians hold such a view about other passages involving predestination. I find it thoroughly implausible for other reasons, but given its availability and commonness, it's a little strange that this individualist interpretation at odds with the Semitic language persists.

2. This view makes the predestination-language pretty dumb. Why should Paul bother to add it in? If all God is doing is seeing that someone will do something and then agreeing that they will indeed do the thing that he sees them doing in the future, what's the point of saying that he predestines people? If predestining is simply foreknowing, then it's redundant, in fact tautologous. It basically means, "For whom he foreknew that they would do it, he agreed that they would do it." That's not very informative unless you're inclined to think God engages in self-deception. I'm not too fond of interpretations of Paul that make him out to be an idiot.

3. The first sentence struck me as extremely funny given a certain political moment of a couple years ago. Carson doesn't use the exact term "the decider", but by implication he's saying that God is the ultimate decider, and the view he's responding to makes humans the decider. This is pretty much the exact sense of the term the president was using when people made fun of him for calling himself the decider. So a very intelligent professor from Canada with a Ph.D. from a top U.K. institution, one who I note is very particular about his language, can write in a way that pretty much got universally made fun of as dumb Southerner hick language when the president of the United States used it. (Carson does acknowledge something funny about using the term this way by putting it in scare quotes, but the president was speaking extemporaneously, and Carson was not only writing in a prepared way, but it passed through the editorial review process and then did so again when he revised the book five or six years later.)

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