Sunday, June 15, 2014

Having mercy on whom he will

I'm going to comment on a post by Arminian theologian Randal Rauser:

Let's set the stage for why God hardening Pharaoh's heart poses such a problem for Arminian theology:

i) Arminians (e.g. apologists, philosophers, theologians) typically argue that human agents can do otherwise in the same situation. They consider this a necessary precondition of human culpability. Moreover, they think this exculpates God. 

But in Exodus, God hardens Pharaoh's heart to prevent Pharaoh from giving in too soon. If Pharaoh had the freedom to do otherwise, he'd be in a position to scuttle God's design. Divine hardening ensures his resistance to the divine command.

ii) Apropos (i), the narrative distinguishes between God's secret will and his revealed will:

2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt (Exod 7:2-3).
On the one hand, Pharaoh is commanded to liberate the Israelites. Yet God's ulterior purpose is to make Pharaoh disobey his command. That's instrumental to God's goal (Exod 7:5; 9:14; 14:4). God subverts compliance to further his ends. 
Yet Arminians consider the distinction between God's secret will and God's revealed will duplicitous–especially when God commands what God prevents.
iii) In addition, Paul uses the divine hardening of Pharaoh's heart to illustrate divine election and reprobation (Rom 9). But double predestination is anathema to Arminians. 
Now let's turn to Rauser's argument:
Let’s shift gears for a moment and take a look at a passage from Psalm 104 which describes in eloquent terms God’s action in the world. In the following passage the psalmist describes God’s role in the flood...Note that this passage links the flow of water directly to the divine will. And it isn’t just the flood. The rest of the psalm continues in similar fashion in that it describes events in nature as resulting from the divine will acting directly upon the world. God governs the flow of waters into ravines (v. 10), he makes grass and plants grow (v. 14), he makes wine (v. 15) [presumably this means God controls the process of fermentation], he controls the cycling of the celestial bodies (v. 19) and the coming of night (v. 20), he feeds creatures (v. 27), he sustains life by giving his Spirit (v. 30) and takes life by withdrawing his Spirit (v. 29).Needless to say, this ancient near eastern conception of the God/world relation is very different from the way people think about divine action today. If we want to understand the flow of water in a flood, we turn not to the oracle or prophet. We turn to the hydrologist. To be sure, this is not to exclude instances of special divine action in the world. But it is to understand any such instances of special divine action to be occurring within a world of nature in which created things have their own increated properties, potentialities and law-like relations.
Several glaring problems with Rauser's analysis:
i) There was no ANE conception of "the divine will acting directly upon the world." For one thing, that's because most ANE cultures were polytheistic. Israel was the conspicuous exception. In ANE religion generally, there was no one God who made everything happen.
i) Rauser acts is if Ps 104 is teaching occasionalism. That natural events happen apart from second causes. They are the unmediated effect of God's direct causation. But the psalm itself belies that. In v15, did the Psalmist think God ordinarily provides us with instant wine? No. Wine production ordinarily requires viniculture. Indeed, that's alluding to in v14.
LIkewise, in v21, did the Psalmist think God made freshly killed prey fall out of the sky to feed lions? No. In order to eat, lions still had to hunt. Indeed, that's alluded to in v21. 
So the Psalmist doesn't think divine provision bypasses natural means or mechanisms. Indeed, the Psalm is describing natural processes. God doesn't quench the thirst of animals apart from watering holes supplied by streams and rainfall. Ps 104 is describing an ecosystem, involving intramundane causality. 
We still read Psalm 104 with profit as an inspired poetic hymn while recognizing we don’t share the same thought-world as the original author. We can share with that original author a sense of the divine sovereignty and providential governance without sharing his direct command framework for divine action.
i) What does Rauser think providence means if not natural periodic processes? 
ii) Also, notice that despite his throwaway line about the inspiration of the Psalm, he repudiates the teaching of the Psalm regarding the nature of divine action in the world. "Inspiration" is a cosmetic word he uses to maintain pious appearances, but he considers the Psalm to reflect an outmoded notion of how the world works. The Psalm makes false claims about divine agency.
I noted above that we can share the writer of the psalm’s view of God’s sovereignty and providence without accepting his denial of an autonomous sphere of nature.
Notice the false dichotomy. The fact that natural events are normally the result of physical cause and effect relations doesn't render them autonomous in relation to God. God can always override the automatic setting–and sometimes does. 
Now let’s turn back to the Exodus narrative. Countless readers have been perplexed by the seamless way the author describes God hardening Pharaoh’s heart with Pharaoh hardening his own heart. The picture of God directly determining the human will calls to mind the images in Psalm 104 of God directly determining the water’s course and other natural events.This brings us to the conclusion. Just as the ancient authors of scripture freely saw nature as the product of direct divine willing, so it was for human agents: the interrelation of divine will to human will was as seamless as divine will to water flow.
Having misinterpreted his prooftext (Ps 104), Rauser then deploys his misinterpreted prooftext to misinterpret Exodus. At least he's consistently wrong.
But today we understand an autonomous sphere of human mind and will as surely as we recognize an autonomous sphere of hydrological laws.
Notice how he begs the question. Many philosophers reject the attempt to compartmentalize the human mind and will from the causal nexus in which human agents exist and operate. 
Likewise, we can accept the writer of Exodus’ view of God’s sovereignty and providence without accepting his denial of an autonomous sphere of human willing.
i) Rauser admits that if you accept the text as is, divine hardening contradicts freewill theism. 
ii) His solution is to disbelieve what the text says is true. At one level, I appreciate his concession speech. Arminianism can only defend itself against Calvinism by denying the witness of Scripture.
In each case, God accommodates to ancient theological thought-forms to communicate important theological truths. We can recognize the truths presented without accepting the ancient thought-form through which they are conveyed.
i) That's completely ad hoc. How does he separate the true elements of the text from the false elements of the text? The text itself doesn't split into true and false elements. That distinction is imposed on the text in spite of the text, from the outside. It artificially pries the text apart.
ii) Moreover, his treatment cuts against the grain of the text. If, in reality, Pharaoh was an autonomous agent, then he could relent at any stage of the confrontation with Moses. The whole point of divine hardening is that God acts on Pharaoh in such a way as to ensure that Pharaoh won't relent prematurely. Rauser's dismissive treatment of the text makes the "truth" the polar opposite of what the text enunciates. The text says God hardened Pharaoh to guarantee his noncompliance with the command. Rauser counters that Pharaoh's will operates in an autonomous sphere, which shields it from the very thing the text asserts. So Rauser's treatment systematically falsifies the text. 
i) Since Paul's use of Exodus came up in the course of Rauser's discussion, let's consider that as well. Here's one attempt to deflect its force:
I suggest you check out N.T. Wright. He refocuses the context of Romans 9 from soteriology and on to ecclesiology where it belongs. Wright critiques both Arminians and Calvinists for reading the text through a Pelagian/Augustinian grid. Piper is an obvious example of that kind of reading which is, to my mind, a profound misreading.

i) But that's demonstrably false. In Rom 9-11, Paul is answering the question of why most Jews in his own day rejected the Messiah. For Paul, that's a salvation issue. Accepting or rejecting Jesus goes to the heart of the Gospel. Putting faith in Jesus saves you from the wrath of God. Believing in Jesus justifies you. It is about going to heaven or hell when you die. 

ii) Moreover, as Rauser admits, it would be counterproductive for Arminians to side with Wright, for Arminians traditionally read Romans (Galatians, &c) soteriologically. 

iii) More recently, some Arminians (e.g. Brian Abascino) resort to corporate election. But one basic problem with that interpretation is that, in Rom 9-11, Jews aren't hardened by God because they reject Jesus; rather, they reject Jesus because they are hardened by God. The corporate elective interpretation has the cause/effect relation exactly backwards. 

That's the question Paul is addressing. Why do so many Jews in his own day reject the Messiah? His answer: because God has hardened them.

Conversely, some Jews in his own day did believe in Jesus. Paul himself is a case in point. So are his fellow apostles. What's the differential factor? Some believe while others disbelieve because some were chosen to believe while others were hardened. That's Paul's explanation. 

Now, some commentators think that's temporary. They think Rom 11 teaches an endtime restoration of the Jews. Even if that's the case, it's too late for Paul's contemporaries. That generation was doomed–apart from a remnant.  


  1. Romans 9 is crystal clear. God hardens whom He wishes, and shows mercy to whom He wishes. There really is no argument on this, it is so clear. However, we like to think we know better than God and act as if man is the measure of all things, he isn't; God is the measure of all things.

  2. One thing to keep in mind is that God does not force people to sin. Yes God sovereignly orchestrated Pharaoh's actions, but Pharaoh acted according to the desires of his heart. I believe that when God hardened Pharaoh's heart, it wasn't that God was putting evil into his heart, but that God was lifting his hand of restraint and allowing the evil already present in his heart to have its way -- God simply directed it to His own ends and for His own glory. Does anyone think that's an accurate assessment?