Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jonathan Edwards and Positive Agency

dsMany of my friends here at Loma Linda are big fans of the well-known writer and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, John Piper. One them gave me some of his sermons on a CD last year and I was quite impressed by what I heard. Since then I've been a somewhat regular reader of Piper's blog and have enjoyed what I've read there. My introduction at Loma Linda was not my first to Piper though. When I was at Asbury, Piper was one of "those Calvinists," with whom we loved to disagree. Even at Asbury, the little I knew about Piper caused me to respect him in the same way I respected Al Mohler. I knew I had some serious disagreements and I was convinced that they would probably see my form of Christianity as deficient but I respected them both as bold defenders of Biblical Christianity.

On Sunday, after a week of midterms I was at Barnes and Noble to get a book on surfing but I also decided to browse the Christian section. Piper's Desiring God, a book I've wanted to check out for a while, stood out to me on the shelf so I decided to pick that up also. I've read the first two chapters so far and especially appreciated his chapter on Conversion where he takes on the idea that you can just say a little prayer, and experience no repentance or change in your life and yet somehow that makes you a Christian. But as I've read I've also struggled with a Calvinistic idea that I find very problematic: the complete and utter determinism by God of all events in history that Calvin seems to imply in his Institutes and that Calvinist leaders like Piper seem to embrace today. This blog post is not going to be any sort of in-depth exploration of the matter as I don't have the time to spend on it. But I was impressed by something I read in one of the appendices to Piper's Desiring God yesterday.

The appendix is entitled, "Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be?" And the section that I found helpful is called, "Is God the Author of Sin?" Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards quite a bit in this section and adds in some of his own analysis:

Is God the author of sin?

Edwards answers, "If by 'the author of sin,' be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing. . .it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin." But he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God's permission, but not by His "positive agency."

God is, Edwards says, "the permitter. . .of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted. . .will most certainly and infallibly follow."

He uses the analogy of the way the sun brings about light and warmth by its essential nature, but brings about dark and cold by dropping below the horizon. "If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness," he says, "it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness in the nature in the sun." In other words, "sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.
I have no disagreement with the way Edwards presents sin here and how sin relates to God's "positive agency." It is the idea that God has "positive agency" in the real moral evil of this world that causes me to have serious doubts about what I have understood to be the Calvinist position. Piper frequently reminds us in Desiring God that we should have a God-centered and not a man-centered view of the universe. With this I completely agree but I think part of having this God-centered view is not embracing a theology which in any way infringes upon an important attribute of God, His goodness. And I realize that as sinful humans we have a deficient understanding of what real goodness is but at the same time when we call God "good" that idea of "goodness" must have a strong relation to what we would normally think of as "goodness" or else it is completely meaningless to say that God is good. I know that many of the things that might seem evil to us in this world are really a blessing or a judgment from God but at the same time I don't believe that there is anything in Scripture which would ever cause me to believe that God has any "positive agency" in the horrendous moral evils committed by free creatures in the universe.

I look forward to continuing on in Desiring God, a book which one of my housemates called the most influential book in his life, second only to the Bible. I also expect more theological conversations with my classmates and more posts like this one as a result of my reading.


Joshua said...

While I was in Texas last week at Christ For The Nations I heard something that stuck with me and relates to this.

The worship leader of CFNI mentioned that many Christian's use the cliche: "God is in control" as a way to make themselves feel better. He said that God is not in control. He is in fact sovereign but that does not mean He is in control of every situation. When a little girl gets raped and killed was God in control of that?

The earth was made for man to rule and reign and at the fall we lost our authority over it. Now that Jesus has taken those keys back from Satan and has given them to the Church we have the ability and command to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God in all the earth. I would like to submit the idea that the Church has fallen from its God intended place of authority and because of that the kingdom of darkness has been allowed to continue it's business in the earth. But people all over the world are waking up out of religious slumber with the revelation of the kingdom of God is at hand.

Or in a nutshell: God is good, the devil is bad. :)

Matt Perkins said...

Hey brother,
Yeah, I'm definitely closer to the point of view you articulated above than what I've understood to be the Calvinist point of view.