Revisiting the Biblical tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility – thoughts from D. A. Carson

Divine sovereignty and human responsibilityHeard a sermon today that left me pondering, among other things, the long-felt tension between God’s sovereignty (and the extent of his sovereignty, but we’ll leave that one alone) and man’s responsibility, primarily in the sphere of salvation.  A book on the subject that I’ve turned to over the years is D. A. Carson’s Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical perspectives in tension.  For my sake, and perhaps yours, I’ve decided that it’s my responsibility today to record here in this blog several sections from this book.

And lest you, the reader, think that this is one very dry topic and you’ll now turn elsewhere to find something more refreshing, Carson’s handling of the topic is really good, his writing really is interesting, and the topic really is relevant to every moment of your life and mine.

The first quotation comes from the introduction:

…it is important at the outset to see that the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility not only embraces the well worn theme of how soteriological election is to be construed, but also stands intertwined with christology and eschatology.  And because it deals comprehensively with the nature of God and the nature of man, it cannot escape questions of anthropology and of ‘theo’-logy proper.  [in other words, this ‘tension’ affects ALL of life, not just salvation]

I frankly doubt that finite human beings can cut the Gordian knot; at least, this finite human being cannot.  The sovereignty-responsibility tension is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is a framework to be explored. [emphasis mine – I love that sentence!]  To recognise this is already a major advance, for it rejects those easy ‘solutions’ which impose alien philosophical constructions upon the biblical data, or which dismiss those elements of the biblical data not conducive to the investigator’s system.  To explore this tension is to explore the nature of God and his ways with men.

Yet although we must not too readily adopt simplistic ‘solutions’, neither must we too easily succumb to the viewpoint that the tension is intrinsically illogical.  To admit we do not possess enough pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture is a far cry from saying that the pieces belong to quite different puzzles and therefore could not be related to each other even if we were given the rest of them.  In other words, part of the purpose in exploring the sovereignty-responsibility tension theologically and exegetically lies in the value of a mature reflection on the problem, a reflection which deals fairly with the data and is simultaneously resistant to charges of irrationality and incoherence.

Then from the last few pages of the book, in a section titled “Historical and Practical Observations.”

Perhaps no area of doctrine has been more consistently debated throughout the twenty centuries of Christianity’s life than that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  This debate has waxed warmer since the Reformation.  Some of the polemic is little more than ignorant name-calling; but not a little is immensely erudite [learned, profound] and, because of the language barrier, still unavailable to the person who is unversed in ecclesiastical Latin.  Even to begin to comment on this rich heritage would immediately double the length of this book…

It seems to me that most (although not all) of the debate can be analysed in terms of the tendency toward reductionism.  I have argued at length that a fair treatment of the biblical data leaves the sovereignty-responsibility tension restless in our hands.  If a person disagrees with this conclusion and seeks final solutions to the problem, we will enjoy little common ground in the debate.  Suppose, for example, that my opponent is so impressed with God’s sovereignty that he constructs his theological system out of all the texts and arguments which support this important truth, and then with this grid filters out evidence which could be taken to call some of his theological system into question.  My instant response is that his procedure is methodologically indistinguishable from the person who first constructs his theological system out of those texts and theorems which seem to support some form of human freedom, and who then filters out election and predestination passages until he can safely defuse them by re-defining them.  The name of the game is reductionism.

In fact, reductionism doesn’t really work.  Even if we discount the fact that it plays with the evidence selectively, reductionism never solves or eliminates the sovereignty-responsibility tension, but only changes its shape.  For example, believers of a more Arminian persuasion tend to argue that a man has a free will (i.e. including absolute power to contrary) at the point of deciding to become a Christian.  But only very rarely have I seen such believers tackle the much larger question of God’s relation to the countless thousands of decisions each person makes every day.  If God in some sense controls such decisions, why not the decision to become a Christian?  If he does not, in what precise sense does his sovereignty control history?  Or must we retreat to God the master chess player?  Even in that case, it is difficult to see how the divine permission to play the game differs from the divine decree, if it be acknowledged that God is omnipotent and omniscient.  In other words, for the monotheist there is no escape from the sovereignty-responsibility tension, except by moving so far from the biblical data that either the picture of God or the picture of man bears little resemblance to their portraits as assembled from the scriptural texts themselves.  It is no answer to me to tell me that my presentation of the sovereignty-responsibility tension still embraces certain unresolved tensions.  Of course it does.  But to correct me you must not claim to resolve all the tensions, for such delusion is easily exposed.  Rather, if you wish to convince me that your theology in this matter is more essentially Christian than my own, you must show me how your shaping of the tension better conforms to the biblical data than mine does.

And finally…

A more subtle form of polemic in the historical debate springs out of fears that the deductions that may derive from the other person’s position could prove disastrous to one’s own position.  For example, a preacher may encourage his congregation to believe, repent, choose — and he is doing nothing but what Scripture sanctions by its example and precept.  A believer with strong Calvinistic convictions may fear that such exhortations will encourage people to think that they enjoy a power to contrary which limits God, and therefore argue against the theological legitimacy of such exhortations.  Conversely, an Arminian (let alone a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian) might hear a preacher insist on the primacy of God’s elective action in salvation, and conclude that such a doctrine must prevent the preacher from being an evangelist.  History shows the assessment to be false. [again, emphasis mine]

In other words, it is essential to recognise that the functions of each side of the sovereignty-responsibility tension are subject to abuse of a sort which might illegitimately eliminate some other aspect of the truth; that the particular aspect of the tension appealed to in this biblical passage or that often springs from the circumstances which the writer was confronting; and that pastoral attempts to resolve the tension may only serve to distort the balance which the Bible preserves in its treatment of the tension.

Biblical balance is difficult to maintain in any area of doctrine; but perhaps it is particularly difficult here.  Two little booklets in my library come to mind.  Each is titled, Why I am a Christian.  The first gives an answer in terms of divine, gracious, sovereignty; but its evangelistic appeal is virtually nil.  The other gives a large number of standard reasons: the person of Christ, fulfilled prophecy, personal experience of forgiveness, the evidence for the resurrection, and the like; but it absolutises free will, and fences God off from the important decisions.  The unfortunate aspect of the first book is that in providing the true ultimate reason, it seems to suggest that no further apologetic is needed, or even permitted.  The unfortunate aspect of the second is that it treats its answers as if they were ultimate, and thereby ends up limiting God.  The evangelistic practices reflected in the New Testament forbid both of these approaches.

I would be prepared to argue that any Christian leader’s handling of the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility will affect large areas of his theological understanding, evangelistic practices, and ecclesiastical methods.  This is not to say that the tension by itself is determinative, still less that genuinely devout men and women can be found only within the camp of one ecclesiastical or theological tradition.  Nevertheless, the sovereignty-responsibility tension certainly affects the outlook of the individual.  More significantly, the local church, or some larger identifiable group such as a denomination or segment of a denomination, is massively influenced by the shape of the sovereignty-responsibility tension which is promulgated (implicitly or explicitly) within its borders and believed to be true.  Obvious examples would make up a long chapter, a chapter sometimes painful, sometimes humorous.  But the benefit which could accrue to the Church as Christians ruefully saw such reflections of themselves might well repay the person who carefully set out the record.  Perhaps some theologically minded Church historian will take up his pen where I put mine down.

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