Part two in our series: Bound and Determined to be Free.

Although it will be argued that the notion of the bound will, the belief that human beings are fundamentally powerless before God, is a wholesome and comforting doctrine, like with the law and gospel, the diagnosis proceeds the cure. In this case, as much as we would want it otherwise, our first problem is with God himself.

In The Limits of the Coded World, David Egginton writes:

Theologians have spent a great deal of time ruminating on the problem of determination. The Catholic response to the theological problem of theodicy — that is, of how to explain the existence of evil in a world ruled by a benevolent and omnipotent God — was to teach that God created humans with free will. It is only because evil does exist that humans are free to choose between good and evil; hence, the choice for good has meaning. As the theologians at the Council of Trent in the 16th century put it, freedom of will is essential for Christian faith, and it is anathema to believe otherwise. Protestant theologians such as Luther and Calvin, to whom the Trent statement was responding, had disputed this notion on the basis of God’s omniscience.

Indeed, Luther considered his book, On The Bondage of the Will, his most important work, and Calvin’s insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God is well known; nevertheless, few contemporary churches, even those who are self-consciously protestant, would fall under the condemnations of Trent, because while major Christian churches can’t agree on a common creedal confession, most can all rally around the one truth that we know to be self-evident: whatever is wrong with the world, God is not to blame.

The answers to who is to blame, however, and how God fits into that situation are many and varied. Some will try and mumble something about God’s permissive vs. perfect will on their way out the door, others will say that God chooses to self-limit so as to protect our freedom, while others say that God is not all-knowing but really on our side, sort of like a really cool older cousin who might buy us beer if we behave.

Why does God need such apologies? This does not seem like the God of the Bible, the one who thundered to Job out of the whirlwind, ““Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?,” or the one who said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). It is this very God before whom the Apostle Paul was laid low in Romans chapter 11, when he, quoting this verse from Exodus, writes:

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

In fact, these verses are so clear in their meaning and implication that Kant cited them in defense of his rejection of supernaturally revealed religion in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. As Gerhard Forde, in Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life, observes, “Kant saw the issue clearly long ago when he said that if there is such a thing as historical revelation, so that faith in this historical revelation is able to make new persons of us from the ground up, then everything connected with such a revelation and faith would resolve itself to an unconditional decree of God: ‘he has mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens.’ Which Kant says, “. . . taken according to the letter is the salto mortale (the death leap) of human reason.” (63)

In other words, if there is a faith that must be revealed, that must be bestowed upon someone from outside of them (like a gift, perhaps), and not only purports to recreate the person in toto as opposed to augmenting or supplanting their natural abilities, then this faith can not be apprehended by reason or argument and, as such, is wholly dependent on God. This faith, argues Kant, is incompatible with human reason. Well, I couldn’t agree more.

When it comes to questions of human autonomy vs. God’s sovereignty, the obvious and scriptural answer—that God (as gods are wont to do) does whatever he wants—is too offensive and terrible to comprehend, so we devise ways of getting God off the hook, to absolve him/it/her/them of whatever is bad and attribute only the good. The problem with this is that in our attempts to absolve God do not actually help with our problem. Is it actually better that our God is either too powerless or too disinterested to help out? While we gain an apologetic to the mystery of theodicy--how can a good God allow evil and suffering–we lose any concept of a God worthy of the designation and are left with only a weak, ephemeral projection of our ever-fleeting hopes in the face of stark realities. Like bleedings and hair-implantation, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

What Kant saw clearly is the essence of the Gospel, the folly that is the proclamation of the Cross, because it is not a key that unlocks the mystery of human suffering and evil nor is it the pattern of life we are to model, it is the death of God in the world, by the world for the world. That God chose to reveal himself in this way is an offensive affront to our ideas of justice, our sense of morality and, in short, our beliefs about God.  

The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, the one that Kant finds reprehensible, goes hand in hand with a non-existent view of free will, because faith in God qua God—the one who created heaven and earth–is the one thing that is impossible to engender. We can believe in gods that are not powerful, or that are only nice, or that are only interested in our own welfare, but the one who “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) remains too terrible and too awesome to comprehend. Furthermore, when this view of faith as a gift from outside of ourselves–extra nos–AND our worthiness is taken out of the equation—as it is with the idea of faith alone—then we are left with nothing but reliance on the mercies of God in Christ.

It is at this very point where we begin to affirm the triune nature of God, that the same God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob is he who was incarnate from the Virgin Mary, was made man, etc. Because, contrary to popular belief, the idea of an omnipotent God is not incompatible with the revelation of Jesus, it is only furthered and strengthened. God is not sitting the sideline hoping and cheering for us to “make a decision for Christ;” he has made the decision in Christ and came to seek and save the lost. As those who were once lost, who know that it is “by grace [that we] have been saved through faith. And this is not of [our] own doing; it is the gift of God”(Eph. 2:8), we have some inkling of what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he cried:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.(Romans 11:33-36)

Naturally, there is more to be said about all of this, and our next installment will look at the concept of human freedom as it relates to the distinction between law and gospel. But, until then, fight the temptation to defend God or let Him off the hook; he has spoken for Himself.