As every Christian can affirm, Bible study groups can be frustrating. Whether in a traditional Sunday school setting or a friend’s living room, studying Scripture can easily digress from a warm exchange of theological pleasantries to a spirited debate, and end in heated disagreements. I remember such an occasion in a large Sunday school class I visited after I had graduated from seminary.
The teacher was a kind and gentle man, long on love but short on theological acumen. His method of teaching was typical of many well-meaning lay teachers. He was basically a group facilitator who relied heavily on the Sunday school curriculum notes supplied by his denomination that were carefully crafted to avoid anything that might be considered controversial. With no emphasis on exegetical or contextual considerations or any appeal to sound doctrine, the content was as shallow as water on a plate, a mixture of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and anecdotes. It was a typical, all-you-can-eat-for-cheap smorgasbord designed to attract seekers who want a “Disney World” life with a guaranteed entrance into heaven. The lesson writers had an uncanny ability to make the obvious even more obvious, causing the student to be comfortable, even smug, in his perceived theological prowess. This is yet another example of how to market the faith as if it were some cheap commodity for those who want a personalized spirituality rather than an accurate theology anchored in sound doctrine that will produce a genuine devotion to the glory of God and an ever-deepening love of the Lord whose “lovingkindness is better than life” (Ps. 63:3).
As the class enjoyed their coffee and doughnuts and bantered about various ideas, it was obvious no one had a firm grasp of Scripture. It was basically an opportunity for everyone to voice their opinions. Not once did anyone refer to a passage of Scripture as the basis for their position. In fact, to my dismay, most of the class did not even have a Bible. They only had their lesson manual.
Eventually, to the consternation of the teacher, the ebb and flow of a very boring conversation drifted into the issue of the origin of sin. Suddenly, like dowsing a bunch of sleepyheads with cold water, the whole class came alive. But I truly felt sorry for the dear teacher. He unexpectedly found himself in a very uncomfortable position when one curious, and perhaps cynical, class member asked a question that went something like this: “If God is in charge of everything, and if He hates sin, why would He allow Adam and Eve to sin?” As if rehearsed, the rest of the class immediately nodded their heads and warmly grunted their shared concern with an uneasy sense of, “Gotcha!” His question obviously struck a nerve. Although they did not express it, they were all starving for meaningful, life-changing truth. Instantly the insipid conversation disappeared and the class was electrified with curiosity.
Caught off guard and clueless, the teacher played the card many teachers have up their sleeve and answered professorially, “That’s a great question!” After a pregnant silence and at a complete loss for words, he then added, “That’s not part of our lesson today, but let’s talk about that for a minute. How would you answer that? Anyone?” What happened next was nothing short of the pooling of ignorance. It reminded me of the old adage, “Opinions are like noses: everyone’s got one.” And while none of them, including the instructor, had a biblical understanding of the issue, I did appreciate their desire to grapple with it.
I found myself in an awkward position. I wanted to defend what I was convinced to be the truth found in Scripture. But being a visitor, I thought it might be presumptuous. So I bit my tongue—at least for a while. Finally, I could stand it no longer. So I held up my hand and asked if I could humbly offer another position for their consideration. Of course the teacher kindly agreed. Knowing only a few of them had a Bible, I read to them Paul’s words in Romans 9:23-24 and briefly explained what I will elaborate upon in a bit more detail in this blog, and a few more to follow.
THREE COMPETING THEOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
Technically, this subject falls under the efforts of theodicy, man’s attempt to rescue the character of God for allowing evil to enter His perfect creation for reasons He never fully discloses. In fact, God makes no attempt to justify His actions; He is not subject to any human court. For this reason, our best efforts to explain Him in this regard are woefully inadequate. However, Scripture does give us some general categories of thought that give us some basic understanding. My attempt here will be to deal with this very simply and avoid the complicated and often tortured arguments of the philosophical disciplines of ethics, axiology (values), and the theological disciplines of philosophy of religion and apologetics.
In retrospect, I realized that the various positions of the Sunday school class represented three common theological systems found among evangelicals—two very popular and one despised. Although they did not realize it, some aligned themselves with the tenets of Process Theology, a contemporary philosophical system that denies the sovereignty and immutability of God (among other orthodox Christian doctrines), believing instead that God is forever changing and learning in response to the cosmic processes of the universe and reacts accordingly. They would argue that God was surprised when Satan rebelled against Him and equally shocked when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden. Therefore, He had to learn from these events and develop a remedy to hopefully resolve them. This position absolves God from any wrongdoing, lest someone blame Him for creating or even allowing sin to enter the world. This system requires a denial of the sovereignty of God, a heretical position that preserves man’s rabid commitment to self-determination by making man, not God, the one ultimately in charge of man’s destiny.
Others in the class held a similar position but with a slight twist. They argued that God did not ordain or in any way cause sin to come into existence and is therefore not responsible for it. In an effort to preserve the freedom of the human will to make moral choices while at the same time clearing God of any blame for causing evil to enter the world, they argued that God merely allowed Satan and Adam and Eve to make their own decisions without divine intervention. Then, on the basis of their sin, He developed His plan of redemption. This position is the classic Arminian position and is by far the most popular among Christians today. Like Process Theology, Arminianism attempts to clear God from any charge of being responsible for the origin of evil. Arminian Theology, named after the views of its founder Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), denies the sovereignty of God and argues that, as a result of the Fall, man has inherited a corrupt—not a totally depraved—nature. It states that God did not impute Adam’s sin to the entire human race, but rather, all people inherit a corrupt nature as a result of Adam’s sin, therefore, no one is condemned eternally on the basis of original sin. Arminianism also avers that election is conditional based on the foreknowledge of God whereby He knew who would, of their own free will, believe in Christ and persevere in the faith; that God’s grace can be resisted; His atonement was universal; that man, not God, initiates salvation; that salvation can only occur when man cooperates with God through the provision of prevenient (preparatory) grace; and since man, not God is sovereign over salvation, he can choose to apostatize and lose his salvation.
While I believe this position to be unbiblical, it certainly seems plausible on the surface to explain the origin of sin and so many other sticky issues pertaining to the doctrine of election and so forth. As a young man, I held to Arminianism (though I didn’t know that was what it was called early on) because it was acceptable to my naturally biased, man-centered understanding of God’s character and man’s responsibility.
As fallen creatures prone to self-worship, we like to have a compelling explanation for everything. We hate uncertainty and will strain the cords of logic to the breaking point to justify our position, even if it is as ridiculous as the ancient medical practice of bloodletting. We also proudly demand to be free from what we perceive to be divine coercion. We insist upon being independent to choose what we wish. Those who hold the view that man, not God, is responsible for evil, are quick to argue that God could have created totally righteous robots that would have eliminated any threat of evil entering His creation. But that would have eradicated man’s free will, which—consistent with their values—He deemed far more important. They would therefore assert that to say God is completely sovereign and acts as the primary source of man’s choices would not only violate the higher good of man’s autonomy, but also make God responsible for evil—an injustice from which God must be absolved at all cost!
The problem with the popular positions of the aforementioned Sunday school class, reflective of the majority of Christendom, is that they cannot be reconciled with the sovereign God of the Bible. They are at loggerheads with His revelation of Himself. To imply that God values man’s will more than His own reduces Him to being little more than man’s servant. Notwithstanding the inscrutable mystery of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the biblical record makes it clear that God has indeed ordained to allow evil to exist in His created order as an integral part of His plan and purpose to glorify Himself (the position I will defend in subsequent blogs).
Daniel described God as the One who “does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (4:35). This hardly sounds like a God who is more concerned with man’s will than He is with His own. If we make the Creator subservient to His creation by denying His sovereignty over all things that exist, we disregard His revelation of Himself as the One who, “(declares) the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa. 46:10). Whether we like it or even believe it, the God of the Bible reigns supreme over His creation as the One who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). He is God, and we are not. This introduces the third and least popular theological system, the Reformed position, anchored in a biblical soteriology (doctrine of salvation).