“Better to Limp Than to Rush” :: Michael Horton on God, Evil, and Mystery

Michael Horton’s Does Calvinism Make God a “Moral Monster”? is intriguing and important. He concludes:

Any view that makes God the author of sin does indeed turn the object of our worship into a moral monster. However, any deity who merely stands around reluctantly permitting horrible things for which he has no greater purpose in view, is equally reprehensible. In the one, God is sovereign but not good; in the latter, God is neither. Once you acknowledge that God foreknows a sinful act and chooses to allow it (however reluctantly) when he could have chosen not to, the only consolation is that God never would have allowed it unless he had already determined why he would permit it and how he has decided to overcome it for his glory and our good. Mercifully, Scripture does reveal that God does exactly that….

Reformed theology has maintained consistently that Scripture teaches God’s exhaustive sovereignty and human responsibility. God does not cause evil. In fact, God does not force anyone to do anything against his or her will. And yet, nothing lies outside of the wise, loving, good, and just plan “of him who works all things after the council of his own will” (Eph 1:11). That God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true, no serious student of Scripture can deny. How they can be true is beyond our capacity to understand. As Calvin put the matter, following Luther, any attempt to unravel the mystery of predestination and human responsibilty beyond Scripture is a “seeking outside the way.” “Better to limp along this path,” says Calvin, “than to rush with all speed outside of it.”

This answer may not satisfy fully the philosophical mind nor scale the depths of theology, but I find it hard to disagree given the witness of Scripture.

5 Comments on ““Better to Limp Than to Rush” :: Michael Horton on God, Evil, and Mystery

  1. Excellent quote. I’d want to qualify the first sentence of the second paragraph however. Sadly, Reformed theology has not “maintained consistently” (in my experience and understanding), which is part (but not all) of the problem of the Calvinism/Arminianism tension and debate through the ages. What Calvin and Luther taught on this has not always been faithfully understood. However, I think it fair that Reformed theology at its best has “maintained consistently”.

    I think the worst part of the Arminian tack on this issue is that to be consistent you end up, in all the worst parts of this life, with a God who couldn’t do anything or simply wasn’t there.

    • Good eye, Carl. Did you have specific Reformed authors in mind who have not “maintained consistently” the teachings of Calvin and Luther in this regard? From what I recall of the issues surrounding the justification debate between Piper/Wright, the latter has said the same of the former.

      Yes. The Arminian position, as I understand it, does seem to leave us with a God who is constrained by human freedom or, like the Deists’ God, merely sits back to watch the show of creatures carrying on with their free willed antics. Of course, that’s based upon my experience of the Arminian position, which may be under-informed.

  2. On a personal experience level, I’ve been in Reformed pastoral conference circles (mostly a mix of standard evangelical Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian) where, though they certainly would not be classified as hyper-Calvinists, still have a difficult time not subjugating the “free will”/”human responsibility” to the biblical idea of God’s sovereignty. They would certainly consider themselves, and be fairly classified as, mainstream Reformed. Though I can’t find a particular author-reference, my understanding is that the generations of Reformers right after Calvin rarely kept in tension what Luther and (especially) Calvin felt free to simply hold in tension. Which is why generations later you had say, Charles Wesley and (especially) Charles Finney so against Calvinism. I specifically remember reading Charles Finney’s account of having difficulty reading Calvin – it was clear the problem was not John Calvin but reading Calvin through the lens of the Calvinism he was raised in. I think the biggest problem is that, at least by the Synod of Dort, the 5 points became a rallying point and too centralized in focus.

    Concerning Piper and Wright, I think the issue is related but a little different as I distinctly remember reading Wright’s criticism. I lent the books out but basically, Wright retorts that Piper puts “Reformed” in too small a box; which I think Wright is right on (tongue twister yet?).

    Concerning the Arminian position, obviously they wouldn’t agree to seeing God that way; I have many friends who are and don’t. But I think too much contingency is attributed to God, which sadly has a necessary corollary that is simply not granted by godly Arminian Christians.

    Getting back to “the biggest problem” at bottom of my first paragraph, it seems to me that another very problematic issue in the whole debate is that way too many Calvinists have assumed, and are debating against, a Libertarian definition of free will rather than a Compatibilist definition.

    • [Found the reply button ;-)]

      Sadly, your experience is far too similar with mine. I suspect it has to do with pastoral responsibilities are allowed to eclipse the hard thinking required for a consistent theology. Moreover, most pastors I’ve known have never had a philosophy class or critical thinking course (indeed most eschew philosophy!), which facilitates their blind spot of not being able to identify gaps and inconsistencies.

      As for those who came after Luther and Calvin, I think you’re right. The intellectual climate has much to do with this insistence on failing to hold in tension certain things. As we moved closer toward the Enlightenment, all intellectual humility was less tolerated. We became very proud of our knowledge and insisted that reason alone can reduce or eliminate the tension. Sadly, a robust Reformed way of doing theology and biblical exegesis suffered and continues to suffer greatly.

      Re: Wright and Piper, I had the privilege of hearing Wright last year in Atlanta at ETS. After reading much of his work and trying to expand my lenses to include his broader framework, I too see no reason to adopt a Piperian notion any further. While some questions remain outstanding for me, Wright is right, as far as I understand.

      Speaking of being “right,” I agree with you that much of the debate sits on weak assumptions about the nature of free will. Unless and until terms are defined, we have little to argue for (thank you, Socrates!).

Add your thoughts...

%d bloggers like this: