A Dip into the Depths of the Doctrine of God: Discussion of the Non-Competitive View of Divine and Human Agencies
by Roger E. Olson
with additional comments by R.E. Slater
August 19, 2013
Recently I posted here an imaginary conversation between a Calvinist and an Arminian (see next article below) - about God’s sovereignty. At one point I inserted a common comment made by especially intellectually-minded Calvinists about the non-competitive nature of divine and human agency. But it’s not only Calvinists who bring this up in discussions of God’s agency and creatures’. Some of the Christian thinkers I most admire in terms of their intellectual prowess and insight insist to me that I am risking idolatry when, as an Arminian, I insist that God’s agency and creatures’ are competitive.
Now it’s time to explain.
The issue can be stated many different ways; this is just one way. When a creature such as a human person makes a decision to act and then acts according to his or her desire and decision, what is God doing? A deist, even one who doesn’t call herself that, says God is observing. At the opposite end of the theistic theological spectrum a process thinker says God is observing. On that one point deists and process panentheists agree. God does not act in and through a creatures’ actions in such a way as to be directly involved. To put it another way, both deists and process thinkers agree that human creatures (and perhaps other creatures as well) have such a degree of autonomy from divine power as to be capable of acting on their own without requiring God’s corresponding action in them....
Sidebar: Panentheism asserts that God is dependent upon His creation even as His creation is dependent upon Him - this process was initiated at the moment of creation. As such, Process theology understands God as becoming part of the human experience and not apart from it (austere deism vs. classical orthodoxy's view of God's willing and necessary involvement in our lives and in the world's economy). Now whether God is rigorously involved (Calvinism: meticulous sovereignty) or not (Arminianism: concording sovereignty as here explained) is what divides Orthodox Theists committed to orthodox doctrine from non-orthodox positions of divine separation and sterility (deism).
The conundrum has been how to approach a process-driven theology while retaining a classically-driven position of sovereignty (whether Calvinistic or Arminian).... At Relevancy22 we have been promoting a process theology that is theistically-driven as a synthesis between all positions involved. My theological choice for this synthetic reconciliation has been to utilize the position of Relational Theology (or relational theism, or relational thought) - that views God's love and loving relationship with His creation as a way to combine the good from both the classic orthodox positions and the process theological positions. Why? At its heart, process theology has always been understood as a relational-process theology which it later seemed to have dropped when emphasizing God's finiteness in dependent relationship with His creation. But a relational process theology can re-orient Scripture back towards God's "Otherness" without loss to His "Closeness" to creation.
At the same time a relational process theology may help elucidate classic orthodoxy's non-biblical, artificial constructs of God's perceived relationship with His creation, as presently understood.... Meaning that, both God-and-His-creation are together evolving in experiential relationship with one another. Where the futures of both God and cosmos are unknown (though not unplanned - especially as God redeems His creation's separation from Himself, even as His creation willingly participates in this redemption).
Lastly, as a matter of personal preference, I wish to nuance all relational, Creator-creature discussions through the lens of an Arminian view of Relational Theology. Thus my emphasis upon understanding human free will and divine agency through Dr. Olson's Arminian discussions. I find them as a helpful offset from Reformed Calvinism's more austere views of God, world, church, and self. - res
... [Now] I realize some who call themselves process thinkers may disagree; I am talking about the major process philosophers and theologians such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, et al. There are many theologians now who attempt to modify classical process theology to correct what they see as some of its excesses—especially its tendency to make God finite. However, classical process thought and theology was not embarrassed to talk of God as finite except insofar as God is immediately present to every actual occasion giving it its initial aim and luring it toward that. The same can be said of so-called “Boston Personalism” (Brightman, Bowne, et al.).
The vast majority of Christian thinkers of all tribes have always insisted that human beings, creatures in general, have no autonomy over against God such that they can decide and act without God’s “concurrence.” The classical, orthodox Christian doctrine of God, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (including Arminianism) has always included “divine concurrence” as part of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, providence, and agency. (I discussed this in some detail in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.)
Stepping farther back for a moment: Classical Christian doctrines of God’s sovereignty, usually in the doctrine of divine providence, have traditionally held to three modes of God’s sovereignty in providence (history and individual lives): sustaining, concurring, and governing. Orthodox Christians, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant (of all traditional types up until Boston Personalism’s and process theology’s appearances) have held that God:
(1) sustains everything that is and without God’s immediate sustaining power the creature and creation as a whole would fall into nothingness;
(2) God concurs with creatures’ decisions and actions or else they would be powerless to decide and act (I would qualify this as "positively concurs, or positively acts", so as to hold all humans accountable for their own sin, and not God for their sin and transgression - res); and,
(3) God oversees, governs, even directs the course of history and human lives such that nothing can happen without God’s permission or causation (or both). [Again, this classic statement overreaches without discriminating from man's sin and sinful actions. - res]
The gist is that God is infinite and self-sufficient while creatures are finite and dependent. Put another way, God is autonomous in being, deciding and acting while creatures are not (as strictly defined under classical orthodoxy - res).
This is classical Christian theology. Yes, to be sure, there are variations of it. The devil is in the details, so to speak, of how theologians work out God’s sovereignty. But that God is sovereign in the ways I just described is basic Christian orthodoxy. Otherwise, God would not be infinite and could be regarded as just another creature, even if one without beginning. Creature in the sense of dependent on things outside himself or at least limited by them.
So what do theologians (and here I use the term broadly to include all who attempt to think Christianly about God) mean when they say that God’s agency and creatures’ agencies are “non-competitive?” That puzzles me. If they only mean what the doctrine of divine concurrence means—that creatures are not so autonomous as to be capable of deciding or acting completely apart from God’s permission and power—then I am in complete agreement. All orthodox Christians are.
However, in many discussions with Christian theologians I have detected they are accusing me of something more when they say I am pitting God’s agency and humans’ agencies against one another and thereby violating a principle of non-competitiveness between God’s agency and ours. This usually occurs when I insist, as I always do, that, when it comes to evil, God is not involved except in terms of permission
and agreement. And by “agreement” I mean “concurs”—reluctantly permits and gives power to act. All creaturely power is “on loan,” as it were, from God.
I agree with those who insist on a non-competitive view of God’s agency and creatures insofar as we are talking about the good. According to Philippians 2:12-13 every good thing we do must be attributed to God being at work in us. In other words, when we are most active doing good, God is most active. And when God is most active in us we are most active. But that’s only true when we’re talking about the good. God’s agency and ours is strictly non-competitive in the realm of the truly good. Otherwise we could boast of the good that we do.
However, my problem with a “non-competitive view” of God’s agency and ours arises when we are talking about evil. Nothing in Scripture points to that! When we (or any creature) do what is truly evil, then God is still involved (sustaining, concurring, governing) but there is also competition—between God’s agency and ours. In other words, there can be no parallel principle along the lines of Philippians 2:12-13 when it comes to doing evil. Paul could not have written truly, under divine inspiration, and we should not believe or say “Work out your own evil inclinations and plans, your corruption and damnation, for God is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
When theologians, Calvinist or non-Calvinist, tell me I must avoid a competitive view of God’s agency and ours, my mind goes immediately to the problem of evil. Of course, I want to say, that’s true when we are talking about good or neutral decisions and actions (if there are neutral ones) but not when we are talking about evil decisions and actions.
But some theologians I have talked with about these matters want to take the non-competitive view all the way—to saying that God’s agency and human agency are never in competition. They are on distinct planes altogether with God’s completely surrounding and underlying, so to speak, creatures’. (These are spatial metaphors that cannot do justice to what is meant by “noncompetitive agencies” when divine and human agencies are under consideration.)
My objection to that is that, while it may protect theology from idolatry and God’s being from finitude, it falters in making theodicy impossible.
Unless all is meant is divine concurrence. But that does not seem to be the case in many cases. Both Calvinist and non-Calvinist theologians often insist to me that any talk of creatures acting against God’s will, doing what God does not want done, thwarting God’s perfect, antecedent will introduces an element of creaturely autonomy that ultimately finitizes God. [Here is a case of an artificial theological construct caught-out between classical orthodoxy and its differences with relational theology.... it begins innocently enough by assertion of a logical argument but quickly devolves into additional syllogisms and logical arguments for-and-against-God couched within an infinite variety of biblically-sounding statements. What results is paradox and enigma, mystery and riddle. Though these theological differences cannot be defined without removing oneself further and further into adjudicated argument I find returning to a Postmodern, narrative form of theology often more helpful than the Enlightened era's systematic statements about God, world, church and self as derived from the days of the Reformation. - res]
While I do not wish to do that, of course, neither do I wish to imply that evil dispositions, decisions and actions fit within divine agency except concurrence. And with the proviso of divine concurrence I must admit that I view divine and creaturely agencies as somewhat competitive—commensurable in the sense that they can conflict....
[Like myself, Dr. Olson wishes to adhere to a defined system of thought (mine is more probably blended than his as my preference leans towards relational-process thought)... herein he has been utilizing classical theological arguments while rejecting classical process thought as he here defines it.... So that by using classic orthodox arguments he has removed the idea of God's finiteness, or limitedness, within sinful mankind's actions... even as process theologians grapple with seeing the same sinfulness within mankind from their own perspective by positing man's limitation of God when man sinfully acts. Each are saying the same thing but from within a different theological structure. As such, Dr. Olson's article today is an even better illustration between classic orthodoxy's perception of an individual theological doctrine against that of a classical (non-relational) process theology. He begins with his perceptions between Calvinism and Arminianism but quickly devolves into his own qualifying perceptions between classic orthodoxy versus classic process theology. - res]
res - ... Without process thought a classical orthodox position must say the following:
I do not think that requires me to adopt a deistic or processive view of God as a finite being limited by creatures (a lá William James or Alfred North Whitehead or any of their faithful followers). Why not? Because I hold to the doctrine of divine concurrence. I can do nothing, not even evil, without God’s agreement and aid [per Dr. Olson's classic orthodox summation - res]. However, an element of competition of agencies enters in the moment I suggest that God only agrees and aids (concurs) in the evil that I do reluctantly and that the evil I do cannot be attributed to God’s agency as its primary, efficient cause. Whatever good I do I attribute to God’s primary, efficient causation (Philippians 2:12-13). Therefore I cannot boast and can only confess “What do I have that I was not given?” However, when I do evil I attribute it to my own causation as efficient and instrumental and to God’s causation only in terms of Aristotle’s (and Aquinas’s) final cause (making it possible and directing it to its ultimate “place” in God’s overall plan).
The problems I have with any consistently noncompetitive view of God’s agency and ours is that it problematizes theodicy [("theodicy" is the branch of theology concerned with defending the attributes of God against objections resulting from physical and moral evil - res)] and, while seeming to pay God metaphysical compliments, conflicts with the biblical narrative in which God is portrayed as horrified by evil as that which he does not intend or cause—even indirectly (through secondary causes).
I would describe my view, as briefly outlined here, as “biblical personalism”—a term I borrow from Emil Brunner. God is a person (or three persons in perfect community of will), not an object or force. While I am reluctant to identify God, or talk about God, in objectifying ways (i.e., as “thingy”), following the biblical narrative and avoiding speculation, as much as possible, I have to talk about God as a “Thou” who encounters me in a genuine, personal “I-Thou” encounter and not as an energy or force or principle or whatever who is impersonal or suprapersonal (whatever that means) or even infinite in the speculative, philosophical sense of “the Absolute” (a lá Hegel or Tillich and, I fear, much negative theology).
[By the end of his article Dr. Olson also sees a theology based upon God's relationship with man as a way out of the classic theological box of syllogistic debate. Meaning that, as a well-versed historical theologian he senses classic orthodoxy's need to evolve into a postmodern perception of relationality utilizing time and process, openness and evolution. For myself, Dr. Olson has always been a good barometer in reminding us of our classical theological boundaries while pursuing more blended forms of theology and ministry. It also reminds today's postmodernist of our orthodox birthright even as it propels us forward towards newer systems of discovery and discussion in both their limitations and brighter prospects for the postmodern Christian faith. - res]
* * * * * * * * * *
A Conversation between a Calvinist and an Arminian about God’s Sovereignty
by Roger Olson
August 7, 2013
Calvinist to Arminian: “You Arminians don’t really believe in God’s sovereignty.”
Arminian: “You Calvinists don’t really believe in God’s love.”
Calvinist: “Oh, but we do. You’re so wrong! The Bible is clear about God being love.”
Arminian: “But you don’t believe God loves all people, so how can you believe, as the Bible says, that God is love?”
Calvinist: “God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways.”
Arminian: “Uh, you seemed to be in a trance as you said that. Are you sure you didn’t just hear that somewhere and are repeating it like a mantra—without really thinking about what you’re saying?”
Calvinist: “No, that’s what I really believe!”
Arminian: “How does God love those he predestined and foreordained to hell?”
Calvinist: “He gives them many temporal blessings.”
Arminian: “You mean he gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in.”
Calvinist: “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way.”
Arminian: “That’s what it sounds like to me.”
Calvinist: “That’s because you don’t understand God correctly. God is infinite and beyond our comprehension. So God’s love is not the same as our love. [His love]
It transcends [our love] it.”
Arminian: “How is that different from saying God is ‘supercalifragilisticexpialadocious’?”
Calvinist: “Look, you Arminians have a low view of God. That’s your whole problem. You don’t understand the glory of God. Why, you don’t even really believe in the sovereignty of God—as I said.”
Arminian: “No, you’re wrong. We do. But God’s ‘sovereignty’ is different than any of our notions of human sovereignty—even the best and highest of them. God is infinite and transcends our categories.”
Calvinist: “Wait a minute. ‘Sovereignty’ means absolute, total control.” [sic, meticulous sovereignty, as defined. - res]
Arminian: “It might in your vocabulary or even in your dictionary but that doesn’t matter. ‘When we attribute something to God we have to realize it’s totally different in God than in us because of God’s glory.’ At least that’s so if we play the theology game your way. If you can say you believe in God’s love but God’s ‘love’ is different than our highest and best concepts of love and that it’s even compatible with what we know as hate, then surely we can say, without you objecting, that we believe in God’s sovereignty even if our concept of God’s sovereignty is totally different than any concept of sovereignty you think is normal or compatible with human knowledge or experience.”
Calvinist: “Okay, I see. You’re trying to turn the tables on me.”
Arminian: “I’m just trying to get you to put aside double standards and play fair in your rhetoric about Arminianism. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You can’t appeal to God’s infinity and incomprehensibility to defend your unusual (to say the least) meaning of ‘God is love’ and then turn around and object when others use words about God in ways beyond what you think is normal understanding.”
Calvinist: “Well, we Calvinists are just going by what the Bible says. We have to understand God’s love by what we see clearly revealed in Scripture about God’s actions.”
Arminian: “Well, we Arminians are just going by what the Bible says. We have to understand God’s sovereignty by what we see clearly revealed in Scripture about God’s actions.”
Calvinist: “Now you’re mocking me.”
Arminian: “No, I’m just trying to point out that two can play that game.”
Calvinist: “Well, I don’t even know what you mean. God’s sovereignty in Scripture is clearly absolute control [(sic, meticulous sovereignty, again. -res)]. That’s how God acts in Scripture.”
Arminian: “And what about all those times when God didn’t get his way and regretted things because of what humans did to thwart his plans and will? And what about Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and saying he wanted to…but they would not? Et cetera?”
Calvinist: “Oh, well, that’s easy. Those are anthropomorphisms.”
Arminian: “And so could be all those times in Scripture when God controlled circumstances and people.”
Calvinist: “No, those must be taken literally.” [based upon an inerrantist position of biblical literalism - res]
Arminian: “You are coming to Scripture with a preconceived idea of God and choosing what to take figuratively and what to take literally based on that. Your starting point is a philosophical idea of God drawn from reason and then you use that as a Procrustean bed of hermeneutics.”
Calvinist: “Wait. I think you’re trying to turn the tables on me again. That’s what we Calvinists say you Arminians do—with free will.”
Arminian: “Oh, really?”