Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Human freedom and Nebuchadnezzar, God's servant

This says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jer 43.10).  

One of the persistent debates throughout the history of Christian theology concerns the question of the relation between human freedom and divine providence. How much control does God have over the course of history and human agency, and how does he exercise this control? Does God foreknow what human persons will do, and if he does, on what basis? 

The Bible seems to give a paradoxical answer to these questions. On the one hand, it seems clear enough that human beings often act and operate independently of God's control and wishes. Whereas God's word and utterance was sufficient to bring the whole world into existence (as described in Genesis, for example), it is not sufficient to get human beings to act in the way he wants. The evidence of this is the great number of cases in which God commands his people to repent of their sins, to obey his commandments, etc. This suggests that human agency has an existence and operation independent of God's control—or at least that God leaves some decisions for some persons up to them. 

On the other hand, there are also many cases in the scriptures in which it seems God can guarantee that certain actions will take place. Consider the text I quoted above. After Jeremiah tells the people not to flee to Egypt in order to escape the Babylonians, they disobey and go anyway. So when they are in Egypt, Jeremiah tells them that God will bring Nebuchadnezzar all the way to Egypt, in spite of what they thought they would accomplish. He even calls Nebuchadnezzar God's servant, as if he is always doing God's bidding. 

How are we to understand this? What sense can be made of this paradox? It seems to me that, in spite of the temptation to systematizing everything the Bible says, we ought to maintain the tension as we find it without neglecting either side. Human beings normally operate independently of God's volition and desires, but it is possible that God makes use of the choices and will of human persons for his providential and purposes. 

Indeed, it may be that at times he even interferes in some way with the wills of human creatures for his providential purpose. Consider the case of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Origen argues that this instance in scripture demonstrates human freedom, for if Pharaoh's heart were naturally bent towards evil and disobedience, if goodness and obedience was naturally impossible to him, there would be no need for God to harden his heart. 

So this is a very tricky issue!

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