Defending God’s Sovereignty (Who is God?, Part 2)

The title of this post is a lie: I’m not going to defend God’s sovereignty, not really anyway. I’m not not going to do it for two reasons. First, because I have no theological belief about God’s nature or power or personality or sovereignty firm enough to qualify as something that I am genuinely capable of “defending.” Frankly, God is a mystery to me, and I tend to believe that He wants it to be that way, for His own mostly unknowable reasons. Second, because to engage in a defense means to present an argument–in this case, one against the position that Jason has sketched out, which presents some questions and possibilities in connection with the idea that the Mormon notion of God presents Him as vulnerable, not sovereign–and while I’d like to think I’m at least minimally well-read in the theological literature, my disagreement with him, and my belief that the God which Christians like ourselves worship is not essentially vulnerable, but rather is essentially sovereign, is rooted in other perceptions that lack the rigor of theological argument. The best I can do, then, is talk about where those perceptions came from, and what they’ve meant to me.

Before I begin I will make one argument though, and that is against Jason’s Weberian assumption that accepting the idea of the sovereignty of God necessarily entails a confrontation with the problem of how our church is lead. This isn’t a major part of the case which he makes, but it colors everything that comes after it. Since, as he notes, “in our post-monarchical age most of us are probably pretty uncomfortable with sovereignty,” presumably an idea which might oblige us to believe that “the current status quo in the Church…perfectly reflects the will of God as revealed to living prophets” is also one that most of us (or most BCC readers, at least) might be uncomfortable with. Yet this highlighting of sovereignty as uniquely problematic because of what it says about living in a hierarchical church only works if one accepts beforehand a monopolistic (this is where Max Weber comes in, with his famous definition of sovereignty as that which retains a monopoly over the use of physical force) relationship between God and our hierarchical church. One is, of course, free to accept that idea; obviously it is built into a great deal of official church rhetoric (“only true church,” “God will not allow the church to be led astray,” etc.) that many people find truthful. I, however, don’t–so absent some persuasive evidence that leads me to assume God has any more particular or direct relationship with the LDS Church than with the Community of Christ or the Roman Catholic church or really any other human organization, I’m going to dismiss with the idea that I ought to especially worry about the possibility of God being absolute sovereign simply because of my worries about the church I happen to be a part of. Other Mormons can cite general authorities and claim what they like, but philosophically speaking, questions and concerns about the church are really a matter regarding “the church,” while questions and concerns about the nature of God are really, well, matters regarding God. They’re two different issues, one political/historical/sociological, the other theological, I think.

So, that being said: why do I tend to believe in–or at the very least, have long found myself incapable of rejecting the plausibility and, indeed, the emotional appeal of worshiping–a fully sovereign, immutablen and omnipotent God, in the classic Christian sense? Because, I suppose, the following got into my head and heart at some point, and haven’t ever left:

1) The Book of Job. I read it when I was in high school, perhaps under the urging of a seminary teacher, and I guess something about what kind of a reader I was perhaps allowed me to see in it more than was typical amongst my fellow Mormons. Especially this conclusion:

Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job strikes me, and has always struck me, as an absolute declaration of God’s omnipotence, uniqueness, and unknowableness. And of course, this has been the usual and best interpretation of this powerful poem for thousands of years of Christian history (one which, as Michael Austin has explain at book-length, most American Mormons have unfortunately mostly blinded themselves too). The idea that we could enter into any kind of covenant with Him, and through our own actions somehow assume that He is therefore obliged to act towards us in any way, much less one that we have willed, has long struck me as a rather cheap notion. (Even the Puritans, who exhaustively explored what they termed “covenant theology,” never dreamed that God’s involvement in said covenant was in any sense biddable on our part.) Serving a mission plagued by Grant von Harrison’s hideous and damaging “binding God” nonsense certainly strengthened this revulsion of mine, but I think the haunting story of Job long preceded it. And it is a story which finds echoes throughout even those scriptures most centrally associated with Joseph Smith, despite his apparent (but in fact, I think, more usually inconsistent) dislike for claims to an absolute divide between Creator and creation. Moses 1:10 is an obviously example (“And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed”) but there are others.

2) The Book of Romans. Why did I read the ancient, legendary story of Job and take so readily from it the idea of an inscrutable, unchallengable God, one that is lovingly cognizant of–yet fully and existentially removed from–human concerns? Probably because my deepest, oldest, strongest spiritual intuition is that having human concerns–that being human itself–is no especially noteworthy significance at all. In fact, “being human” is, I think, nothing that any person who holds out any ultimate hope for love and grace would want to have associated with the God they worship. Humans sin, all the time, because unlike God, we are fallen–we have imperfection built into us, as Paul clearly taught:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Very simply, if sin–the unwillingness or inability to actually act on that which the law of God tells us is (and which we know to be, though His light) good, even when we want to–is a natural part of the human condition, and God is to be taken as a source of power and authority that is not compromised by sin (because He is the author of the law), then presumably He cannot be human. His sovereignty would have to be of an entirely different and higher order than that which we humans make use of. My reading of Romans is guided by Martin Luther, whose summarizing of our condition before God–simul justus et peccator, simultaneously sinner and saved–has seemed undeniably true to me ever since I first encountered it, but I’d been haunted by the idea that God’s majesty and love emerges from a source utterly removed from human brokenness and double-mindedness long before I’d ever read a word by the good German. If nothing else, Luther’s analysis of Romans and Galatians echoes that which I learned from King Benjamin’s great speech (Mosiah 3:19–“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father”).

I recognize that my responses to these scriptures is selective. What about the God of the Patriarchs, who haggled with Abraham, made deals with Jacob, and changed His mind about Pharaoh? What about Moses 7:28-29, which as Jason notes is the cornerstone scripture for the “vulnerable God” thesis advanced by Terryl and Fiona Givens? And moreover, if I want to defend my sense that God, whatever else He may be, is actually and truly sovereign and immutable and unknowable, then surely I have to address all sorts of problems which an omnipotent God brings along with Him, do I not: the problem of evil, the philosophical conundrum of transcendence, etc.? Well, I would have to consider all of that…if I were making an argument. But I’m not; I’m spelling out my impressions and perceptions of what, on the basis of the record of God’s interactions with human beings which we hold to be in some sense authoritative, I happen to feel. I do, in fact, have some opinions about how to address the issue of theodicy (I tend to think the whole “problem of evil” is a philosophically mis-framed concern) and about the scriptures which may suggest a contrary message (for example, I’m fairly confident the Pentateuch needs to be accepted as a set of ancient founding myths which the Israelites of Jesus’s time had long since worked into an ethical framework which we can acknowledge today without making use of them for theological purposes–and as for Restoration scripture, I’ll happily set my Trinitarian reading of the BoM against the Givens’s interpretation any day)….but for now, I just want to make an account of what I tend to believe. Which leads me, of course, to music.

3) The Proclaimers, “The More I Believe.” Everyone once in a while, you hear a song that some part of you just responds to, embracing it as truth. That’s what happened the first time I heard this tune, and more than 20 years on it still has the effect upon me (though the fact that it’s about as fine an extended riff on the implications of Matthew 16:25 as I’ve ever heard certainly helps):

The life that I’ve been living
From the day I first drew breath
Has been my way of forgetting
I’m on the journey to my death
You make my soul rise up
You make my eyes to see
When I place my faith in you
And I lose my belief in me

The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee
The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee

I don’t believe in beads or crystals
Instant karma or mother earth
I don’t believe that what I think
Makes any difference to what I’m worth
I don’t believe in reincarnation
I’m not coming back as a flower
I don’t bow my head to kings or priests
‘Cos I believe in your higher power

The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee
The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee

Oh you’ve given me a plan
That I don’t understand
‘Cos I’ve wandered over half the world
But I’ve remained an ignorant man
One thing that I know
Is when the final bell tolls
Human love won’t be enough
Good deeds can’t save my soul

Well I’m not afraid of dying
But I am afraid of you
Because you hear me when I’m lying
And you see the things I do
So the hands go round the clock
As the light goes from the room
And I can’t help thinking to myself
I’m going to find out much to soon

The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee
The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee

Oh you’ve given me a plan
That I just don’t understand
‘Cos I’ve wandered over half the world
But I’ve remained a ignorant man
One thing that I know
Is when the final bell tolls
Human love won’t be enough
Good deeds can’t save my soul

I believe
I believe
I believe
I believe

You make my soul rise up
You make my eyes to see
When I place my faith in you
And I lose my belief in me

The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee
The less I believe in me
The more I believe in thee

There are other hymns and songs which could mention here, I suppose, as having shaped my perception of scripture and my understanding of my relationship with God: “Amazing Grace,” “Dead Man’s Rope,” “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing,” “I Have Decided,” “The 23rd Psalm,” “Hallelujah,” “Simple Gifts,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “More Holiness Give Me,” etc. But I think you’ve gotten the point by now. I suppose I really don’t know what it means to worship a God who is utterly and transformatively unlike and above me, but it gives me hope to believe that is the case, as my greatest spiritual longing is to believe that there will be, sometime, somewhere, Someone who could enable me to transcend and escape the all-too-obvious limitedness, alienation, confusion, and weakness of my all-too-human life. And in the meantime, I’m grateful that He’s given me–and, I think, all of us–such gifts that we can see and hear and respond when He, in His sovereignty, reaches out to us all.

Comments

  1. Nathan Paul Gines says:

    Looks like your link is broken.

    Nathan Gines | Graphic Designer Publishing Services Department The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 50 E. North Temple St.; Floor 24 | Salt Lake City, UT 84150-0019 Office 801-240-6146 | Cell 801-682-6200 ngines@ldschurch.org

  2. I took the post down temporarily, Nathan, but now it’s back. Thanks for checking!

  3. OK I admit that this kind of OP drives me crazy. Here is at least of of the “why” it drives me crazy. Nothing is defined in terms of what “sovereign” “immutable” “vulnerable” etc. mean. I can see no reason that God cannot be (and if fact is) appropriately sovereign and also vulnerable. By which I mean that he can insure his loving and righteous purpose and also feel so deeply, richly and completely that he participates in and experience the depth of our fully human emotions and life. These kinds of discussion mired in continental skepticism seem more like reading scripture through the lens of post-modern fog than the light of the restoration to me.

    It drives me crazy when someone cites Martin Luthor’s “simil iustis et peccator” without realizing that it involves absolute moral sovereignty whereby God declares what is pleasing to him without regard to any objective or moral fact about the sinner or saint — it a a thorough-going voluntarism whereby God simply decides arbitrarily who will be predestined to salvation and who will be predestined to damnation (double predestination) in a way that is completely arbitrary. God regards some of us, but not others, as acceptable before him even though we all deserve damnation — and it has nothing to with anything but God’s arbitrary will. I know few Paul scholars who accept that Paul taught anything remotely like such a developed theological voluntarism. Certainly those who adopt the New Perspective on Paul are horrified by such a misreading.

    It drives me crazy that Job is so mis-understood. The first chapters let us in on what God is up to — agreeing with Satan that our loyalty to him means nothing until it is thoroughly tested in real life tests and not even God can know it until he sees it for himself. The rest of the book in fact emphasizes how inscrutable God’s ways are to us or all of the challenges with which he has to deal (like the chaos embodied by Leviathan or Rahab) or even the extent of his power that is beyond us — but it certainly does not make a statement about unlimited sovereignty. Job is not in on the divine secret to what God is up to — but the one attending the drama has been told in the prologue what the play is about.

    As for the God who is unknowable — Paul rejected that notion because Christ made him known. It seems to me that the approach in the OP renders him no more disclosed than the Greek philosophers and poets had access. Paul certainly did not think he was limited in knowing God.

  4. Well, I am certainly not in the same league with most of you when it comes to these deep theological musings, but I will admit to being strongly influenced by McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. I guess that I have come to believe in a God who transcends humanity, by becoming something greater than human, while retaining that which is most transcendent in humanity, ie compassion, love charity, etc. To that extent, Givens “vulnerable God” feels at least remotely connected to me because he can share in our sorrows, our griefs, as well as our joy. The completely sovereign God seems a bit too remote, too unknowable.

    In addition to the Moses 7 account of a sorrowing, weeping God, we have Jesus Christ, as premortal Jehovah, who seems genuinely surprised to find out that the brother of Jared has seen his finger, or the account in 3rd Nephi 17 of a compassionate Christ who fully intended to leave the Nephites to ponder his words, but is moved by their tears to stay, and to heal, and to minister to their children. That’s the kind of God that I find most comfort in during my darkest moments of failed human frailty, one who knows my suffering, my good intentions, and my weaknesses, and loves me anyway.

  5. Shawn H says:

    “The idea that we could enter into any kind of covenant with Him, and through our own actions, somehow assume that He is therefore obliged to act towards us in any way, much less one that we have willed, has long struck me as a rather cheap notion”

    This. I too served a mission where this ridiculous idea of binding God was pushed (we called it the “Covenant Program”), and it always seemed terribly bizarre to me. How arrogant of me to presume I can tell God what will or will not happen. If he wanted me to give away 3 Books of Mormon before we went in for lunch, then he would ensure three people would be receptive when I tried to speak to them in the street. It is His work and glory, not mine. He will dictate what will happen in life, not me.

  6. Grant von Harrison’s hideous and damaging “binding God” nonsense

    Those words don’t come close to describing the loathing I felt for that book when I read it.

  7. Blake,

    These kinds of discussion mired in continental skepticism seem more like reading scripture through the lens of post-modern fog than the light of the restoration to me.

    I will free admit that what you term the “light of the restoration” often seems pretty foggy to me, so postmodern theological reflection suits me well. But your mileage may vary, of course.

    It drives me crazy when someone cites Martin Luther’s “simil iustis et peccator” without realizing that it involves absolute moral sovereignty whereby God declares what is pleasing to him without regard to any objective or moral fact about the sinner or saint — it is a thorough-going voluntarism whereby God simply decides arbitrarily who will be predestined to salvation and who will be predestined to damnation (double predestination) in a way that is completely arbitrary.

    It doesn’t drive me crazy when I read someone who claims to understand Luther better than many theologically trained life-long Lutherans who have guided my own understanding of the man’s writings and the theological sensibilities which they have opened up to readers like myself over the centuries, but it does give me pause. For whatever it’s worth, two responses: 1) for my purposes in this post, my invocation of Luther’s formulation is important solely for what it suggests about my relationship as a fallen human being to a sovereign God, and not for anything having to do with predestination, and 2) I think you’re quite wrong in associating Luther with double predestination. Here is a short essay that conveys my understanding of his writings well.

    It drives me crazy that Job is so mis-understood. The first chapters let us in on what God is up to — agreeing with Satan that our loyalty to him means nothing until it is thoroughly tested in real life tests and not even God can know it until he sees it for himself. The rest of the book in fact emphasizes how inscrutable God’s ways are to us or all of the challenges with which he has to deal (like the chaos embodied by Leviathan or Rahab) or even the extent of his power that is beyond us — but it certainly does not make a statement about unlimited sovereignty. Job is not in on the divine secret to what God is up to — but the one attending the drama has been told in the prologue what the play is about.

    Again, it doesn’t drive me crazy when someone treats the framing story of Job as containing a meaningful theological proposition as opposed to serving as an obvious poetic staging ground for a long, lyrical exploration of the unknowableness and absolute dominion of God, but I do find it curious. You really ought to read Michael’s book.

    As for the God who is unknowable — Paul rejected that notion because Christ made him known.

    Okay, now that is a good counter-argument, one I don’t have a ready response to. I suppose my feeling is that the Unknown God against which Paul preached is a god which the Greeks included in their capacious acts of worship because they assumed that the position which God, whomever or whatever He was to them, occupied in the universe and the human heart was utterly unknown. But you are right that we do know that there is a God who loves and judges us (a God who is sovereign, in fact, at least by my way of thinking). I suspect that was Paul’s point; God–His will and love and power and majesty–has been revealed to us through the Person of Jesus Christ. So we know who He is. What we don’t know–and this is what I think is properly captured by the idea of “unknowable”–is His perspective and His actions; those things remain, as Isaiah said, “not our ways.”

  8. I feel much like kevinf in terms of not being in the same league with many of you in discussing these subjects. However, a remark I heard Richard G. Scott say keeps coming to my mind when reading this (“Who is God?”) series. I attended a small-ish, informal one-hour meeting with apostle Scott immediately prior to Stake Conference. He mentioned that it was his opinion that the church has not taught the differences between God the Father and Jesus Christ very well – at least in terms of prayer. Elder Scott (as I understood him) felt that most LDS do not adequately understand *who* we pray to. He said something akin to (and he spoke passionately) “When you pray you are addressing THEE SUPREME HEAD of ALL!!” – the emphasis he gave to it, and the way it resonated in me just struck me with a kind of astonished awe – it was as if he wanted us to grasp this concept that prayer was access to the highest of the highest, the holiest of the holiest thrones, a God to whom NO God was higher, and how very differently it was to be considered or framed in our minds than when we think of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s quite possible that I misunderstood or have misinterpreted Elder Scott – I am open to being wrong in my summary here, but my prayers have never been the same since hearing him describe it.

    I am assuming the “God” to whom this series is referring to is God, our Heavenly Father (?), or is that an incorrect conclusion?

  9. Jason K. says:

    My earlier post notwithstanding, there’s a fair bit here that I agree with. I’m sympathetic with Luther’s Two Kingdoms theory, which informs your ecclesiology at the beginning. I think that putting the church in the Kingdom of Men, as Luther does, nicely resolves some of the concerns you raise.

    I’m also sympathetic to your reading of Romans, even though I side with Erasmus in his debate with Luther. (Explaining why might be better done in person, or at least when I’m not typing on my phone.) I buy the severe limitation on our capacity to effect the good, even though I can’t believe that it’s an absolute limitation. My soul revolts against this aspect of Luther’s teaching.

    I also like your invocation of Job against the idea that our relationship with God is contractual in nature. (I’m reading–and loving–Mike Austin’s book right now.) Still, I think that the final revelation of the sovereign God is supposed to be persuasive and troubling at the same time. After all, God does refuse to address Job’s questions, and the general impression is, as Blake said, one of an arbitrary and voluntarist God. (Although I must own to the fact that what Blake calls a “postmodern fog” is simply my experience and has been for a long time.)

    Ultimately, I have to believe, as you intimate here, that God and humans exist in a non-zero-sum relationship, because the apparent contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human agency depends on an assumption (shared, I’d argue, by both Luther and Erasmus) that their relation is zero-sum, and that each can only exist at the expense of the other. That I believe to be false.

  10. Jason K. says:

    Jen K. Yes, we’re taking about the Father (unless Russell wants to disagree).

  11. Jason,

    Thanks for the generous response!

    I buy the severe limitation on our capacity to effect the good, even though I can’t believe that it’s an absolute limitation. My soul revolts against this aspect of Luther’s teaching.

    I wonder how much daylight actually exists, and can be philosophically argued for, between “severe” and “absolute.” I’m pretty certain my belief in God’s sovereignty isn’t nearly firm enough to insist upon the latter, and thus would prefer your formulation….but when I’m presented with arguments for the “absolute” formulation (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and such), I don’t find them revolting. The idea of our essential powerlessness doesn’t strike me as impossible to believe, nor to I feel affronted as a human being to contemplate such a prospect (which is suppose is also why a non-Calvinist notion of predestination doesn’t strike me as horrible to contemplate either). Can you explain more specifically what you find “revolting” about it all, Jason?

    I think that the final revelation of the sovereign God is supposed to be persuasive and troubling at the same time. After all, God does refuse to address Job’s questions, and the general impression is, as Blake said, one of an arbitrary and voluntarist God.

    Absolutely troubling! The poet who sketched out the meat of the book of Job was wrestling with exactly this possibility: that the best arguments of human beings just might, in the eternal scheme of things, be reduced to dust in the face of a God who acts purely according to His will, and that behind Paul’s law lays only God’s divine decision to make it such. I can’t, in my own heart, dismiss the power (even, on a certain level, the perverse existential appeal) of a God like that. Can you?

  12. Jen (and Jason),

    Jen K. Yes, we’re taking about the Father (unless Russell wants to disagree).

    Well, I wouldn’t outright disagree, but if this were a discussion about the Godhead I might want to insist on complicating the ontological waters here a little. But as we’re not talking about the identity of God, but rather about His power, I say: yes, we’re talking about our Father in Heaven, the entity we address (and whom Jesus addressed) in prayer.

  13. Russell: Thank for your response. I know that the scriptures do not say that “clarity never faileth,” but it seems like a really good virtue to me.

    With that in mind, by far and away the majority view of Martin Luther scholars take him to teach double predestination with gusto: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/double_luther.html See also: http://www.contra-mundum.org/essays/mattson/Luther-predestination.pdf Even the article that you quote makes clear that it is modern Lutherans who reject double predestination; not Martin Luther. But that is largely beside the point — his view entailed double predestination even if he later stated that he refused to speculate about predestination. His views were certainly based on voluntarisim. I take it that you would be as uncomfortable with such a view as I am — I believe it is just downright pernicious.

    But I like a variant of the teaching that goes like this: God accepts us as justified before him and loves us just as we are even in our sinfulness and accepts us into justified relationship the moment we turn turn him and accept his love; and this loves inspires us to repent so that we can have a more complete relationship that reflects his love for us. It is not quite sola gratia, but it is close. So I can see why you would like Luther as modern Lutherans prefer to read him (or as they wish he had stated).

    Further, we are in complete agreement that we do not know God’s perspective or what he is up to (at least not the vast majority of the time). I also agree that God’s ways are largely opaque and that God’s glory and power are so far beyond our experience that it is an abuse of language to suggest that we understand it.

  14. Jason K. says:

    Russell,

    I see very little daylight between Luther and Erasmus, both of whom view the human contribution to salvation as infinitesimal, with the difference that Luther understands it as zero and Erasmus as non-zero. I see this as the essence of their disagreement, arising from the fact that the conceptual tools for thinking about infinitesmals had yet to be developed. My soul revolts because it feels like Luther’s absolutism erases a fundamental human dignity (a dignity, no doubt, that he would term “pride.”) I’ll side with Richard Hooker any day.

    As for Job, it’s not that I object to a God who is all-powerful in the way depicted in the LORD’s speeches, but rather that I object to a God who plays the “I’m all powerful, so shut up” card. And I very much take Mike Austin’s point that the question to ask isn’t “Why is God this way?” but “Why would the poet depict God this way?” To my mind, the poet’s choice has the effect of showing that the rejection of a God bound by contract has its downsides, too. Granted, this may reflect my modern sensibilities more than the ancient author’s intent.

    As for the Father, I’m with you on a willingness to trouble the ontological waters, but that’s another conversation.

  15. Meekmildmagnificent (or Blake–I feel like this is a response to you, but if it’s not, my apologies for the confusion),

    far and away the majority view of Martin Luther scholars take him to teach double predestination with gusto….his view entailed double predestination even if he later stated that he refused to speculate about predestination. His views were certainly based on voluntarisim. I take it that you would be as uncomfortable with such a view as I am–I believe it is just downright pernicious.

    Your links take me to the same article by Brian G. Mattson both times, so I’m not so sure they can be taken as demonstrating the truth of your “the majority view of Martin Luther” claim. I will, however, freely admit that it’s a contentious issue; several different Lutheran congregations have all but gone to war with each other over the issue in the past, and you’re right that attempts to settle the issue with a compromise tend back towards Luther’s determination late in his life to never speculate about the issue again. I’m not a Luther scholar, but I happen to be of the opinion that, yes, his mature and developed views presented God’s salvation as voluntarist but not as comprehensively voluntarist, because it only includes election, not damnation.(Here’s another piece which spells out the differences between Luther and Calvin on this point.) And that notion of voluntarism, as I said to Jason above, does not strike me a pernicious–at least, no more pernicious than the idea that we ought to worship as Almighty God a being who actually does not know the beginning to the end. (I’m happy to take advice and learn all I can from someone who has a pretty good idea about how to achieve eternal happiness and rest, but I’m not going to acknowledge and worship as God someone who doesn’t, in fact, in the fullest sense, know what eternal happiness and rest consists of.)

    All that said, I obviously could be wrong about all of this. If I am, then I will just have to say that what speaks to me about simul justus et peccator is the way the Lutheran tradition has developed it, if not every association which Luther’s own phrasing of it implied. Truth is, I like your restatement of the idea of how we are justified through God’s will and grace–“this loves inspires us to repent so that we can have a more complete relationship that reflects his love for us”–because it allows us to understand God’s willed intervention into our brokenness and His blessing us with spiritual gifts as not just an example of His sovereign power, but also as a step He takes so that we can aspire to model the sort of saving empathy He has in our own relationships with others. If my agreement with that reading means that I’ve hedged a little in my implicit defense of Luther’s Bondage of the Will (which I actually really do think is a powerful and insightful work), well then, so be it. I’m not an orthodox Mormon, so I could hardly expect to be an orthodox (closet) Lutheran either.

  16. Jason,

    My soul revolts because it feels like Luther’s absolutism erases a fundamental human dignity (a dignity, no doubt, that he would term “pride.”) I’ll side with Richard Hooker any day.

    Well, as I wrote above to Meekmildmagnificent (and/or Blake), I’m not positive I accept that the absolutism which Luther defended is a comprehensive absolutism. But even if it is, I’m not sure how much that will trouble me. One of the first lasting lessons in reading the scriptures closely which I got from Jim Faulconer was that Paul’s references to being a “servant” of God really meant “slave,” and I had to ask myself: does that trouble me? And I had to answer: if we’re talking about God being the master, then no, I’m not sure it does. I’m not much into dignity, as anyone who has seen me dress or act in public knows. I’m a strong believer in recognition and respect and proper roles, but those are all for civic purposes (which, as any reader of Augustine knows, have their place!). When it comes to the relationship between me and God, I suppose I really do think that the differences between “dignity” and “pride” are about as subjective and infinitesimal as, well, those between Erasmus and Luther. (Ask me my opinion about original sin sometime. I dare you.)

    I very much take Mike Austin’s point that the question to ask isn’t “Why is God this way?” but “Why would the poet depict God this way?” To my mind, the poet’s choice has the effect of showing that the rejection of a God bound by contract has its downsides, too. Granted, this may reflect my modern sensibilities more than the ancient author’s intent.

    Oh, I’m not sure about that; I think it’s quite possible the author of the poem was seeking to capture, in the downside of a God who can make a bet with the adversary, allow you to mourn and rage for days, and then pummel you with His power without actually answering the question you asked, the “perverse existential appeal” which I referenced above. Consider: if you repent in sackcloth and ashes, there’s no more doubt where you stand, is there? You’re not standing: you’re on your knees. So there is a definite downside to a non-contractarian God, but in that downside there a strange, rueful kind of enlightenment, one which those poor saps who always insist on standing on their own two feet may never know. (At least, that’s one kind of argument I can make to myself, sometimes.)

  17. Shawn H says:

    in that downside there a strange, rueful kind of enlightenment…

    Russell, I agree with most of what you’ve said tonight, but I can’t agree with your use of the word enlightenment. What are we enlightened about in this situation (I’m actually asking, not arguing)? That God is in charge, and that our will and desires are not taken into consideration? If so, what does that provide us in our daily lives, other than that at root, we are truly and completely powerless if our will doesn’t coincide with God’s? And to agree with the poet of Job, if God chooses not to answer us when we ask what his will is, then we’re merely playthings for him. I can’t call that enlightenment. I call it nonsensical, but that’s how I’ve come to see life.

  18. Jason K. says:

    Russell: I hope I’m not claiming to be standing on my own two feet here. What I’d much rather do is (and this will be a ridiculously bold claim) deconstruct the way that the debate about human capacity has been carried out at least since Augustine inveighed against Pelagius, since I find it to be structured in a way that treats any positive human capacity, no matter how slight, as a hubristic claim to absolute self-sufficiency. This is what I’m getting at with the business about infinitesimals (which all derives from Aristotle’s way of not addressing Zeno): things can be positive and really small at the same time. It’s possible to assert some positive human capacity (or dignity) without derogating from a God of infinitely greater capacity. (Another mistake as I see it that the Augustinian tradition makes is to treat an infinite God as susceptible of subtraction.)

    So while we may seem to be simply rehashing the Luther/Erasmus debate, I hope to be about something different.

  19. Thokozile says:

    Thanks for the playlist!

  20. Shawn H.,

    I can’t call that enlightenment. I call it nonsensical, but that’s how I’ve come to see life.

    Which is actually what I’m getting at–not that I agree with you (I’m really not sure that’s how I’ve come to see my own life, though I’m often tempted by it), but that I can grasp how it is that people can “come to see life” in this way. Maybe “enlightenment” isn’t the right term for it, but it’s a realization, an eye-opening: it’s Moses on the mountaintop, seeing something about his position vis-a-vis God which he had never before supposed. There’s this spooky, not-often-remembered final chapter in Lewis’s The Great Divorce where the protagonist asks his angel guide something to the effect of: “Hey, I can’t really actually be seeing the choices of human souls to forget themselves and accept God or to hold on to themselves and remain damned in real-time, so what is actually going on here?”, and the angel in response says “It’s a hard teaching,” and then shows him a chess board, in which we are all both players and pieces, watching ourselves, perhaps fated in our moves.

    Jason,

    It’s possible to assert some positive human capacity (or dignity) without derogating from a God of infinitely greater capacity. (Another mistake as I see it that the Augustinian tradition makes is to treat an infinite God as susceptible of subtraction.)

    That’s a good and thoughtful response. It is certainly possible to read in Augustine (and Luther, following him) a treatment of infinity or omnipotence which equalizes it to a set of some qualities; the existence of any other potency outside of that set must therefore be a lessening of the previous set, and hence an attack on God’s position. Hence the zero-sum approach. What if the problem with talking about the dignity of man vs. the sovereignty of God isn’t the zeroing out side of the equation, but the other side: the idea that what we call “infinite” or “perfect” is a sum at all? This hearkens back to many attacks on the project of theodicy, which basically asserts the issue has been misunderstood: evil isn’t something which is to be accounted for (which of course makes us think in terms of who is accountable, and thus leads us to ask why God allows evil things to happen), but something to be responded to. Perhaps God’s sovereignty isn’t set of properties which can be tabulated up or subtracted from, but rather a relationship we have with Him? God isn’t a set of properties, then. I could absolutely get behind that way of thinking–though it should be noted that such a way of thinking about God’s love and power arguably leads us away from the very literal sort of embodiment which Joseph Smith (I think rather simplistically, though perhaps defensibly) insisted upon.

    Thokozile,

    You’re welcome! It was fun putting it together.

  21. Shawn H says:

    Thanks Russell, for your response. I suppose I should also clarify what I mean by nonsensical. I don’t mean it with a negative connotation, coming from a cynical place. I mean it as life is non-sense, that is, we are unable to make sense of it. We have no insights, no real understanding. It’s not depressing or frustrating; it just is.

  22. Russell: it appears that my last attempt at this comment, hastily typed on my phone in what turned out to be a vanishing pocket of signal, didn’t make it up, so let me just briefly say that I really like your last comment, though I’ll have to chew on the implications re: embodiment.

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