Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I am a Compatibilist

In the previous article I discussed Jonathan Edwards' explanation of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be compatible. Edwards argument is important because it demonstrates that the teaching of the scripture that God is in control, and also that He justly holds people accountable for their actions, does not involve a logical contradiction. His arguments, and others like it, however are not the basis for why I am a compatibilist. I am a compatibilist because I believe that the Bible teaches it.

The basic question comes down to whose will is determinative for whatever events occur. Is it human choices and intentions that determine what happens or is it God’s choices and intentions? There are many Biblical examples that I think require us to answer that question in a way that asserts that both are the case. As the old theologians used to say “God works through means”. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The Joseph Story (Genesis 37:18-28, 45:1-8, 50:15-20)

Notice the pronouns in the first part of this story. The text is clear that it is the brothers who are making these choices. If we ask who decided that Joseph would be sold to the Ishmaelites we have to answer based upon this section that his brothers did.

They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:18-28 ESV)

When the story picks up a few chapters later we are given another perspective. This time we see the intention of God introduced. In fact, in the same sentence we see two different wills connected to the same event. Joseph says that his brothers sold him into Egypt but then he says that it was God who did it. He emphasizes God’s providence in their actions by telling his brothers “it was not you who sent me here, but God”. It is clear from the overall narrative that this statement is not intended as a denial of the fact that the brothers had sent him but rather his way of emphasizing that God’s purposes are fulfilled even through their sinful actions. Even their rebellious choices end up being part of the means God uses to bring about His ends.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8 ESV)

As we reach the end of the narrative the brothers clearly understand that they are responsible for what happened to Joseph. They did not, however, understand Joseph’s faithfulness and trust in God’s providence that he shows in his famous statement “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. I have heard many teachers and preachers explain this verse by saying that God used the actions of brothers to bring about His purposes as if God simply made the best out of what happened. This is not, however, what the verse says. Joseph says that “God meant it”. If we ask the question “who is responsible for Joseph ending up in Egypt” we must give two answers. The brothers are responsible but so is God. God didn’t force the brothers to do what they did, their choices were their own. They did what they desired to do and chose according to their own sinful and selfish natures. Their choices, however, were part of the larger plan of God to provide for His people.

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:15-20 ESV)

The Crucifixion (Is. 53:10, Acts 2:22-23, 4:26-28)

We see a similar dynamic with regard to the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bible tells us that it was the plan of God that Christ would be sacrificed. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah revealed God’s intentions in the death of His Son.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; He has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:8-10 ESV)

Peter, in his well known sermon recorded in Acts 2, also touches upon both the human and the divine intention when discussing the death of Christ. He makes it clear that human choices led to the death of Christ but like Joseph’s story this is also part of the plan that God has willed to bring about.

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV)

Again in chapter 4 when Peter and John are released from custody and are praising God both the human and the divine wills and intentions involved in the crucifixion are mentioned again.

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:26-28 ESV)

The Bible teaches that there are two distinct purposes at work in the death of Christ. There are the sinful acts of human beings but also there is the plan of God. God did not force these people to do what they did; they acted according to their own desires and their own motives. There was, however, another purpose and another cause of these events. If we ask who determined that Jesus would be crucified we must provide two answers if we are to be consistent with the teaching of the Bible.

We see in both of these examples that God’s plans infallibly come to pass. He determines what will happen but He does so in a way that does not violate the ability of people to act according to their own desires. To deny the human intention and agency in bringing about these events is to deny the Biblical witness that those people were responsible for those choices and that they were indeed real choices. If we deny the divine intention then we deny the Biblical witness to God’s purposes in history and perhaps His sovereignty as well. These people made choices that proceeded from their own desires, their own natures, from who they were and God working through them according to their nature accomplishes His own ends. Therefore in these examples we see an illustration of what Edwards was talking about. God is in control and His sovereignty means the outcomes are certain even though people are making free choices for which they can justly be held accountable. There are many other Biblical examples that we could have looked at but these are the most well known and I think they are sufficient to make the point. Compatibilism is not just a speculative philosophical position but is a conclusion based upon a careful reading of the Biblical text.

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