Context
This is an attempt to understand what the Bible says about God's sovereignty.
It is not an attempt to cover all that the Church has taught on the subject,
or to tell you what you should believe.

Introduction

The Christian scriptures consistently affirm that God is sovereign.  But what does this actually mean?

Saint Augustine had a clear understanding of the sovereignty of God, and communicated his understanding clearly and effectively.  His understanding has been, by and large, accepted by the mainstream churches ever since - but it was significantly influenced by Greek philosophy, and it was very different from the understanding of the early Church.  He brought his own understanding of God to his reading of the Biblical text - as people had done before him, and have continued to do after him.  And (as is too often the case), because his understanding of God was not taken from the Biblical text, he was effectively ignoring much of what the Bible actually says about God.

Augustine thought that God was in total control of everything that happens: he believed that everything happens because God wants it to (see below for some illustrative quotes).  But the Bible is full of stories, from the Garden of Eden onward, which show very clearly that much of what happens is not God's will.  Jesus tells us to pray for God's will to be done because, all too often, this does not happen.  The New Testament uses the term 'Almighty' ('Pantokratōr' in the Greek) to refer to God: this means that His rule extends over all things, just as the rule of Elizabeth II extends over all the United Kingdom - but ruling over everything is not the same as controlling everything.  God has the authority to make laws and the power to punish those who break them, just as our Queen (acting through Parliament) does - but neither of them control all that happens in their kingdom.

When the Bible talks about God as Sovereign, this means that He has the right to make laws, to tell us how to live; it also means that God outranks every earthly King and Emperor so, when their commands conflict with God's, "We have to obey God, rather than men." (Acts 5:29)  God's Sovereignty limits the power of human leaders: they cannot require absolute obedience from us; it reminds them that they too are subject to God's laws - rulers may feel (and they may claim) that they are the top dog, but in the end they are answerable to Him.

When the Bible talks about God as 'all knowing', this may be intended to be taken literally: nothing can happen which God is unaware of.  But when the Bible talks about God as 'all powerful', this is poetry, not not intended to be taken literally.  Why are we not intended to take it literally?  Because the Bible does not take it literally: what the Bible tells us about power, and about God's power, is far more nuanced.  Amongst other things, it says that God gives us power, and Satan has power, and describes how sometimes we take power.  Here are two brief examples.

  • In Genesis 1:26, just before the human race is created, God says; "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule".  The purpose of the human race is to rule, to exercise sovereignty, like God.
  • Even more tellingly, Satan is described (2 Thessalonians 2:9) as having 'all power'.  Clearly, God and Satan can't both have all the power. 

The 2 Thessalonians passage is not an example of the Bible contradicting itself, or of some deep spiritual paradox: it is simply the way we usually talk when we speak of power.  We happily talk about an 'all powerful' human ruler, knowing that they do not literally have all power: the term simply means that they have more power than anyone else in their realm - they are all powerful because nobody has more power than they do, so nobody has the power to stop them doing what they want.  And this is exactly what the Biblical writers mean when they talk of God being all powerful.

As a technical detail: we are talking here about what the Bible tells us about God's authority and activity.  Some people teach that God has the power to control everything which happens in the universe, but chooses not to exercise this power.  However, we are not talking here about abstract ideas concerning God's abilities and nature, only about what the Bible tells us of His authority and activity.  What matters is what God does: people are free to speculate about what He could do if He chose to act differently, but I really don't see the point.

Sovereignty

In the Bible, as in ordinary life, a Sovereign is not someone who is in total control.  We can summarize quite easily some key aspects of Sovereignty as it is portrayed in the Bible.

  • A Sovereign has the right to make laws, but cannot make the citizens keep them.
  • A Sovereign has the power to issue commands, but only issues specific commands to specific people or groups. 
  • A Sovereign has the authority to impose punishments on people who break the laws, and to exercise mercy regarding punishments.
  • A Sovereign has a moral duty to act wisely and well: to use these powers for the wellbeing of their people, not for their own convenience, comfort or enrichment.

A Sovereign can make laws and issue commands, but cannot tell their subjects what to do in every detail of every day.  Life generally goes on for most people without the active involvement of the Sovereign: they decide what to eat and drink, who to marry, what crops to plant; they trade and celebrate feasts, sing songs and tell jokes.  A more contemporary illustration: your satnav can tell you to take the third turning on the right, but it does not tell you whether to squeeze through as the traffic light changes, or whether to allow someone waiting in a side road to pull out in front of you.

In the Bible, God is described as the ultimate Sovereign, as the 'King of Kings'.  Many earthly Kings are subject to other Kings, but all earthly Kings are subject to the heavenly King, whether they recognize Him or not - just as Elizabeth reigns in England, whether I recognize her rule or not.  The Bible describes God's rule in exactly the same way as other Sovereigns, except that God does it perfectly: He rules with justice and in love.

It's clear that many earthly Sovereigns do not behave as they should.  Actually, none of them behave entirely as they should.  And the Bible is full of counter-examples: poor Sovereigns who made their people suffer by their foolishness, selfishness and short-sightedness.  We should not be surprised: Samuel warned the Children of Israel that they were better off with God as their King - a human King, having human failings, will treat his subjects as slaves.

Satan is also portrayed as a Sovereign.  A key difference in the New Testament between the reign of God and the reign of Satan is that Satan seeks to control us, while God seeks to set us free.  People who, like Augustine, understand God's sovereignty as God controlling us, are effectively confusing God's rule with Satan's.

Augustine

Just to be clear: there are several Saint Augustines, but we are talking here about Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  He was not the first to redefine divine sovereignty as total control, but he took the idea further than other people had at the time, and he was clearly the most influential person with these views.  He also said and did a lot of good things, but we're not talking about them right now.

Augustine embraced an understanding of God which was mainly derived from Greek philosophy: in his view, God was perfect and unchanging; God acted on the world, but the world did not act on God.  Augustine was a Neoplatonist before his conversion, and his God has more in common with Plato's ideals - an ultimate reality existing beyond our physical world - than the passionate and involved Hebrew God.  Here are a few illustrative quotes from Augustine.

"whatever is said of [God's] nature, unchangeable, invisible and having life absolutely and sufficient to itself, must not be measured after the custom of things visible, and changeable, and mortal, or not self-sufficient"
"For He is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever."
"The will of the Omnipotent is never defeated . . . The omnipotent God never does anything except of His own free-will, and never wills anything that He does not perform."

Suffering

This is where this academic discussion of doctrine starts to deeply affect the lives of real people.  We struggle with suffering - we always have done - but, almost without exception, when people talk about 'the problem of suffering' and how it is impossible to square the fact of suffering with belief in God, the sort of God they have in mind is the God of Augustine, not the God of the Bible.

God's Will

Sovereignty is not the only relevant concept, although it tends to be the most prominent in many traditions because of the place it occupies in Augustine's and Calvin's teachings.  The Bible also talks about God's will, God's purpose, God's plans and so on.  It is easy to assume that these passages support Augustine's teaching, but they actually give us a very different picture of God.

The Bible is clear that God has a plan - but not everything that happens is part of this plan.  We sin, we make mistakes; at times, we participate in God's plan, at other times we get in the way.  The narrative around Jesus' birth is a good example of the way these things work.  Here are some of the details we are told.

  • It is God's plan that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem.
  • Gabriel approaches Mary and tells her that God wants her to be the mother of the Messiah - a difficult and dangerous task requiring courage.
  • Mary responds in faith and obedience, and becomes part of God's plan.
  • Joseph, too, is presented with a difficult task, but responds in faith and obedience, and becomes part of God's plan.
  • Zechariah has a part to play: he does not respond in faith; his part is changed, but he is not written out.
  • Caesar decides to have a census, and the consequence is that the baby will be born in Bethlehem.
  • Angels appear to the shepherds, who decide to go and see what they have been told about.
  • Herod is told of God's plan, and attempts to thwart it by killing the infant Messiah.
  • God intervenes, responding to the threat from Herod: an angel warns Joseph to take Mary and the child to safety.

Many people are caught up in this plan.  Joseph and Mary choose to be part of God's plan.  Perhaps Mary was not the first young woman Gabriel approached: we are not told.  It is reasonable to assume that, if Mary had chickened out, someone else would have had the honour, and the pain.  God's plan will be fulfilled, but we may not be part of it.  Caesar is part of the plan: you can say that he is used, but he is only used through doing something he may well have chosen to do anyway; he is - we assume - not aware of being part of any plan.  And, presumably, if Caesar had not decided to have a census, God could have found some other way to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Herod attempts to prevent God's plan; God intervenes to ensure the attempt fails, but doesn't prevent Herod from doing what he has decided to do.

We see God's plan being fulfilled, but the details are all dependent upon the choices and responses of the people involved.  God know what He wants to achieve, but achieves it entirely through the participation of the various individuals involved, and almost entirely through their willing participation.  There is nothing in the text to suggest that God makes Mary, Joseph or the Shepherds respond as they do, and the early Church never imagined that this might have been the case: they are celebrated as people of faith precisely because they were free agents who were able to reject God's will, but chose instead to accept it and participate in His purpose.

The picture we are given is not an orchestra, with everybody playing only the notes written in advance for them; instead, it is more like a jamming session where the group has a leader taking the music somewhere, trusting the other players to contribute when they are invited, and improvising as the performance develops in response to those contributions.

To put it another way: sometimes, God decides that something specific will happen; He arranges events and intervenes in individuals' lives to enable, guide and warn them, but He never makes anybody do anything.  If they cooperate, then fine; if they resist, He finds a way around the problem.  His will is done, in the end, but the details of how it is done depend entirely on the people involved.  The God of the Bible is big and powerful: nobody is able to stand in His way, to prevent His will from being done; but how His will is done, and the part we play in doing it, depends entirely on our willingness to participate.

In summary, the Bible is quite clear on two important points: firstly, that God's will is always done; and secondly, that many things which happen are not God's will.

 

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Comments

  •  "A key difference in the New Testament between the reign of God and the reign of Satan is that Satan seeks to control us, while God seeks to set us free".

    My response to this would be that if true it suggests that the church throughout history was not 'confusing the rule of God for the rule of Satan' but was actually doing Satan's work.

    • Sadly, I can't disagree with you.

      At least, I accept that is a fair judgement on most of the Christian Church, through most of history.  It is a fair judgement on the institution of Christendom, where the Church and State explicitly shared control of the people.  But there have always been Christians, and Christian movements, which have opposed the exercise of power, and rejected it as an option for the followers of Jesus.

      As you know, the Chrstian tradition I most identify with is the Anabaptists, who rejected the use of force and the exercise of power.  They followed the example of many small nonconformist groups throughout history who believed that God wants people to be free, and chose to live as though that is the case.  Consequently, they were persecuted and killed by both Catholics and Protestants.  But their ideas have survived, and I believe that one day the world will come to recognize that love and freedom are the only basis for a happy, healthy and successful community.

    • I came to see this during the final few years of my time within an evangelical church (and I suspect it is true of the majority of churches). Of all the teachings in the Bible about human behaviour, surely the most prevalent are those to do with how we treat one another, especially those who are poor, marginalised, sojourners in a strange land etc. The teachings of the old and new testaments are almost communist in their tone, certainly socialist. And yet, bring up this in most churches and the congregation is told not to get 'political'.  But of course bring up the areas of social interaction the church is obsessed with, abortion, sex outside marriage, homosexuality etc and we were encouraged to engage in the political process to see the law changed, which had it happened would have the effect of making more peoples lives a misery. I'm afraid my perception now looking in from the outside is much worse - the hypocrisy is utterly damning. 

  • Paul

    Your perception of my thought processes is probably fair. You say:

    “It seems to me that your struggles with the problem of suffering make absolute sense if you believe in the God described by Saint Augustine.  More than that, I think suffering is an unanswerable problem if you believe in Augustine's God - but it is not an unanswerable problem if you believe in the God of the Bible”.  

    I grew up with the Augustinian theology of the Plymouth Brethren, and it has been deeply ingrained in me. Even though I now reject it, for the reasons that we have discussed, I still default to it as my perception of “standard” Christianity. I am still moved by the old hymns – Rock of Ages, What a Friend we have in Jesus, etc, far more than by anything that current Christian music has to offer (but I also don’t listen to post-1980 secular music very much!). I then sat under the Arminian, Spiritual Warfare theology of Gerald Coates and then Roger Forster for longer than I was ever in the Brethren, and would have said that I subscribed to it. But the solutions that it offers I found to be inadequate. For instance, you say:

    “The Bible is very clear that there are things God cannot do, but this does not mean that God is fallible.  God cannot find a fix for everything (but, to be fair, He does find fixes for quite a few things) - but this does not mean that He makes mistakes, or tries to do things then discovers He is unable to do them after all”. 

    My problem is that I can’t round the idea that this makes God into a being who is greater than humans only in degree rather than in a fundamental way; who can bend the laws of physics to some degree but not totally, and if he is worthy of worship, then only to a greater degree than that to which humans idolize a great ruler or celebrity. The Eastern religions would recognize such a God. And of course the more primitive parts of the Bible, the book of Job, and the Creation story in Genesis, do portray a God that seems to be in a duel with his evil counterpart, but nevertheless proclaims to humans that he is super-powerful if not all-powerful: the God of William Blake. Of course the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is morally superior to most of the ancient Gods: he doesn’t turn into a bull or a swan and rape women, as Zeus is supposed to have done, and he certainly didn’t castrate his father, as Saturn/Chronos is supposed to have done to Uranus. Neither does he demand human sacrifice.

    Perhaps these questions can never be answered and Christians do have to be prepared to live with uncertainty, as theologians such as Rob Bell or Philip Yancey have said. The bible becomes a guide-book, not a rule-book. Maybe that contradicts Jesus’ teaching “You shall know the Truth”, but then again Greek thinking insists on Truth being a concept or a doctrine, not a Person as Jesus meant.

    But I wonder if all I have done is take the conclusion of this one step further than you have done. You have developed a looser (as it seems to me) concept of God and the bible than the Augustinian one. Without wishing to sound patronizing, that is where I was ten or fifteen years ago! But for me, if I am to live with uncertainty, as it seems I must, then a restatement of Christianity seems to only paper over the cracks of that uncertainty. As I have said previously, Atheism cannot be ruled out as the truth of all this but it comes with its own uncertainties and fudged issues; maybe a God is necessary to fill the gaps in our knowledge of science; maybe he/she/it isn’t necessary; we don’t know yet. So if there is any kind of God, I go one step further than the liberal Christian position towards a Unitarian or Pantheistic position. Neither of those are the concrete positions that the Rationalist in me would prefer, but they avoid the meld of dogma and uncertainty of the liberal Christian or Jewish position. Enlightenment Rationalists such as Hume, Voltaire etc advocated Deism, the idea that God created the Universe and then left it alone: which begs the question “Why would he/she/it do that?” Pantheism leaves room for a God of some kind being involved, but without being limited to the dogma of the bible or any other kind of revelation: it was the philosophy of Spinoza, spoken of approvingly Einstein. I do not want to attach a label to my own position; just to say that if I am going to live with uncertainty then I will question more than just the Augustinian Christian position.

    • This is a very delayed response to Adrian's post from 18 March.

      It has been delayed, in part, because I am really unsure how to respond to a few things you say.

      "I can’t round the idea that this makes God into a being who is greater than humans only in degree rather than in a fundamental way ... The Eastern religions would recognize such a God."

      I have been trying to understand how you might arrive at this conclusion.  I have been arguing that in some important aspects, the God of the Bible is much more like humans than many later theologians have been willing to recognize.  So, for example, I said that "I do what I can to help [my children] live well and avoid unnecessary suffering", and that the Bible describes God as behaving in essentially the same way.  But to suggest that humans are like God in some specific ways (which is, after all, an explicit claim in the first chapter of the Bible), is not to claim that God "is greater than humans only in degree rather than in a fundamental way".  Quite the opposite: the statement of the similarities - God creating humans in His image, in order that humans might act like Him - is given in the context of this God being presented as the personal unique creator of the entire universe (leaving no space for any other god), and humans being one small part of that created universe.  It seems to me - and to most people I talk with - that God's ability to create a universe from nothing, and my inability to create anything from nothing, is a fairly fundamental difference: it is a difference of kind, and not a difference of degree.  I suspect there may be one or two other fundamental difference between myself and God, but one is enough for now.

      And the idea that Eastern religions would recognize this God is ... odd.  Some Eastern religions are willing to accept all religious ideas as true (don't get me started on what this means in practice!) - so your claim is true by definition for these.  But for the others - I'm not aware of a single one which provides any room for a personal unique creator of the entire universe, leaving no space for any other god.

      "Perhaps these questions can never be answered and Christians do have to be prepared to live with uncertainty, as theologians such as Rob Bell or Philip Yancey have said. The bible becomes a guide-book, not a rule-book. Maybe that contradicts Jesus’ teaching “You shall know the Truth”, but then again Greek thinking insists on Truth being a concept or a doctrine, not a Person as Jesus meant." 

      As you recognize, "You shall know the truth" is followed a few chapters later by Jesus' claim, "I am the truth".  So, yes, in this context, the truth is a Person, and in this life we will never know another person completely.  But the promise is a useful one: the more truth we know, the greater the freedom we find.  Mistakes and lies imprison us, but truth sets us free.

      Questions about the nature of God are unlikely to be fully answered in this life, but that does not stop us seeking answers, and it does not stop the answers we find from helping us discover a deeper freedom.  Christians, like everyone else, have to be prepared to live with uncertainty.  I have always argued with Christians - and anyone else! - who make false claims to certainty concerning things we do not - and possibly cannot - understand.

      "I wonder if all I have done is take the conclusion of this one step further than you have done. You have developed a looser (as it seems to me) concept of God and the bible than the Augustinian one."

      I am, quite frankly, horrified by this summary.  It is what I have been struggling to respond to in a helpful and constructive way.  What you are describing is the precise opposite of what I understand and believe that I have been doing.  If I understand you correctly, it also undermines the historic Christian faith, making Augustine's theology the authentic form of Christianity, and relegating the Bible to the role of source material for the great theologian.

      Firstly, I don't think I have developed anything.  I am articulating an understanding of God which is clearly present in (and throughout) the Bible, and has been held by Christians from many traditions through the centuries, both before and after Augustine.  I can't list them all, but The Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache both pre-date Augustine significantly, while The Cloud of Unknowing is centuries later, as is Revelations of Divine Love.  The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize and draw upon these treasures of Christian teaching, and vastly outnumber the Brethren you grew up in and the House Churches you were involved with later.  Please don't imagine that the limited parts of the Christian tradition your teachers were comfortable with are the full extent of the Christian faith.  Of course, I am not suggesting that everything in those works supports the understanding I have presented, but even where they don't, they are generally much closer to this than they are to Augustine.

      And, secondly, I am absolutely not starting with Augustine and watering him down: I am starting from the Bible and seeking to understand it, then comparing what the Bible says with what Augustine (for perfectly understandable reasons, given his job and his location in place and time and the challenges he was facing) sought to make of it.  My argument is that Augustine significantly distorted God's character and nature.  He did it for pragmatic and understandable reasons, but it is still a distortion.  Of course, if you believe in Augustine, then his words are not a distortion, but a 'development' of the Biblical teaching, 'clarifying' the 'true' meaning of the text, as (many people believe) the Holy Spirit empowered him to do.  But, if you don't believe in Augustine, then the alternative perspective is simply that he got it wrong.

      And, finally, I would like to take issue with the idea that what I am describing about the God of the Bible is somehow a looser, 'watered down' version of the God of Augustine.  What I am trying to say is precisely the opposite: Augustine watered down the richness of the Biblical description of God, imposing a far smaller and rigidly consistent picture in its place.  it is 'looser' only insofar as Augustine imposed a small but rigid framework upon the rich variety of the Biblical text.  I think it is very unhelpful to see the Bible as a looser version of Augustine's teaching: the historic reality is that Augustine offers a smaller and more constrained version of the Bible's teaching.

      Finally finally, a brief personal note.  I grew up, not directly with Augustine for the most part, but with John Calvin.  Calvin sought to build on Augustine's foundation, and he did it very well.  I have Calvin's Institutes sitting on my bookshelf - and still refer to them from time to time.  It is an incredibly impressive piece of work, an astonishing intellectual achievement, and an expression of an amazing vision.  It contains much, I believe, that is true, good and helpful.  But the central premise - the nature of the God Calvin is talking about - is fundamentally flawed, and Calvin really struggles to reconcile his teaching about God with many parts of the Bible, and with the world he lived in.  As I discovered theology beyond Calvin, my own experience was not one of watering down my understanding of God, but of moving from grayscale to colour, from a 405-line black and white image showing cartoons to an incredible HDTV in wonderful colour showing nature documentaries.  God is so much bigger and more wonderful than Augustine or Calvin allowed themselves to believe.

      P.S.  To provide a little more balance: I made a disparaging reference to "the limited parts of the Christian tradition your teachers were comfortable with", but that is not entirely fair.  The paragraph is too long already, but I really should note that I know Roger Forster, one of those teachers, was very familiar with a wide range of Christian writings, including the few I identified above.  I'm sure he knew them better than I do.  He may not have made reference to them in his sermons, but I'm sure they fed into the depth and compassion of his messages.  But far too few preachers and teachers are like him: many people I hear seem to know nothing beyond the narrow confines of the tradition they embraced, whatever that may be.

    • Paul

       This is a reply to your post of 12th August 2022, which was a reply to mine of 18th March.

      There are two themes here. The first is about the nature of the Christian God. I had said that if he [the bible mainly uses “he”, which may be an uncomfortable truth for liberals but lets avoid that discussion] is not in total control of the universe, does not know the future, and could be not always stop either Satan or humans doing bad things, then he must be greater than humans only in degree. You agree that the bible does in fact present humans as being like God in some ways, especially in the creation story. But then you say that if God is the unique creator of the entire universe he must be different in a fundamental way from humans, which by itself seems logical, but what I can’t get my head round is the seeming contradiction between that God and one who is not totally in control, if they are said to be the same. As we both say, we may never know, and some Christian traditions (those that don’t attempt a Systematic Theology, of Saint Augustine for instance) accept this. But to me, it seems that they require a greater leap of faith than believing in a such a System: even though if you accept a systematic theology you then have to work out its contradictions (which we have been discussing and I will come back to in a moment).

      I invoke the Eastern gods as examples of those who are merely super-humans, which you question. All I meant here was that it suggests a common theme among religions, which at least some parts of the bible share. Perhaps I should have chosen the Greek or Norse gods, who are always jealous of each other and acting like spoilt entitled humans: but stories about Vishnu and the other Hindu gods sound a little like that (and the account in Job of God having a bet with Satan comes rather close). Of course I am not saying that the Bible presents God as being as imperfect and immature as the Norse sagas, merely that making God in Man’s image seems to be common to most myths. Of course deities such as Zeus are rather too human; he was good at throwing thunderbolts and raping virgins but not much else; the biblical view of God and creation is probably the least bizarre and the most morally upright of the lot.  

      To conclude that the difficulties must be insuperable and so there must be no God, or at least not an involved God, is certainly very tempting and avoids such issues, but admittedly throws up problems of its own.

      The second theme is the role of Augustinian and Calvinistic thinking in our view of God and how that might work. I was not suggesting that you have tried to “develop” any kind of theology of your own, merely that like many of us you have done a lot of thinking and research and tried to make sense of it all. I was also not suggesting that the House churches such as Pioneer or Ichthus are the same as the Plymouth Brethren: they are much closer to what I understand as your theology, Arminian rather than Calvinistic, accepting that we are in a spiritual battle in which God does not control everything. But even given the length of time that I sat under their teaching, I still find it wanting. Their explanation of suffering was usually along the lines of spiritual warfare; God will lose some battles. But in that case how can we be sure that God will win in the end, and if the answer is that he is so much more powerful than the enemy, why does he allow him to win occasionally now even when it results in massive human suffering? Attempted answers easily end up back in the “God has a Plan” theology.

      The Exclusive Brethren certainly attempted a systematic theology. I agree with your advice:  “Please don't imagine that the limited parts of the Christian tradition your teachers were comfortable with are the full extent of the Christian faith”. The trouble is of course that all sects and many denominations believe that they do have the full extent of the Christian faith! I am not certain how much the Brethren specifically followed Augustine, but they certainly believed in God’s Sovereignty. I certainly never read the Collected Works of J N Darby, which filled an entire bookcase of my father’s, to find out. They probably would have found fault with Augustine, as they did with anyone else not in the Brethren, and moreover in their particular branch of the Brethren. The approved history of the Exclusive Brethren, by A J Gardiner published in about 1953, was titled: “The Recovery and Maintenance of the Truth” (NB Truth not Love). In other words, everyone else had it wrong.

      Essentially however, I suspect that humans have a leaning towards a belief in a controlling God because that gives them certainty. The Moslems believe that everything that happens, good or bad, is the Will of Allah – which doesn’t prove anything, except that such a belief is very deep-seated. I am as intrigued by how ordinary people in the Christian tradition understood suffering, as much as how theologians explained it. I suspect a typical example was the elderly Brethren man who, when offered condolences after his wife died, simply replied “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (which I haven’t been able to find in on-line bible searches).

      Another moving example is the last letter written by Doctor Edward Wilson, the devout Christian gentleman who died alongside Captain Scott as they tried to return from the South Pole, in March 1912. As the blizzard raged outside the tent, he wrote to his wife:

      “God will bring us together again …..Don’t be unhappy darling – all is for the best.  We are playing a good part in a great scheme arranged by God himself and all is well.  I find absolutely no terror in the thought that this is my last day of life.  Yet it almost certainly is….all these things are easily seen later when we are with Christ which is far better – We will all meet after death and death has no terrors.  God keep you in this disappointment.  We have done what we thought was best ….”

      I am still able to be moved by the courage and dignity expressed in this level of faith. Wilson was a Cambridge graduate but not a theologian, and an Anglican not a non-conformist, and this is how he made sense of it all. But where it falls down, is that it is no doubt a source of comfort and even rationality to explain your own suffering in this way, but could you say to parents who had just lost a child: “We are all a part of God’s great scheme and all is well?”

      A couple of years later the world was plunged into the Great War, and ordinary people as well as theologians had to try to either make sense of it, or fit the whole thing into their worldview. As WW1 is a speciality of mine, I have read many autobiographical accounts by those involved, and I find that actually very few make any mention of religion at all, and if they do it is as likely to be some kind of spiritualism or pantheism as Christianity (e.g. Rupert Brooke’s line “one with the Eternal Mind”): which perhaps gives the lie to Christians who think that there was a Golden Age when Britain was a Christian nation. I have heard of some who found faith in the trenches – including some whom I knew as a boy in the Brethren. But many others lost faith in organized religion, such as Harry Patch the last survivor of the Western Front who died aged 111. And some kept their faith by re-thinking it completely, often away from the Augustinian/Calvinistic extreme. Two Army Chaplains were examples of this: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy MC, who came to the conclusion that “God is not Almighty” – which sounds more like the Jewish rather than Greek interpretation of God – while remaining a committed Anglican priest, and Leslie Weatherhead, who was later President of the Methodist Conference and wrote the book, very controversial at the time: “A Plain Man Looks at the Cross”. I read this book precisely because some Christians viewed it as heresy; essentially as it argues against the Propitiatory Substitutionary Atonement theology of the Cross in favour of God showing humanity his Love – or something like that. It was a precursor of the debates initiated by Clark Pinnock and Steve Chalke that were hot potatoes around 2003. At that time, I asked Roger Forster (for whom I have a lot of respect) where he stood on the Propitiatory Substitutionary Atonement  vs Open Theology debate, and he replied that we do not know exactly how the Cross works. Maybe because Greek thinking is too deeply ingrained in me, I found that answer a little disappointing.

      To try to conclude: I suppose what I have done is to set up the Calvinist “God is in control” theology as a straw man. It is widely and instinctively accepted by ordinary Christians even though a smaller proportion of theologians and philosophers accept this view: but it throws up huge problems in trying to reconcile God being both all-powerful and all-loving, and you have acknowledged this yourself. In looking for an alternative, I am prepared to accept the possibility that atheism is not the answer; being a neat way of cutting through the Gordian knot of theology while having it’s own challenges of belief (such as the Complexity of Life – but atheism is not to be dismissed just because some people find it too bleak). Whether I will ever be able to find an alternative systematic theology is doubtful; there may be such a thing as Absolute Truth outside of observable science, and that may be described as God, or even Jesus, but I am very wary of substituting one dogma for another. Accepting an Absolute by faith alone feels like taking a helicopter to the summit rather than finishing the climb, not just a Leap in the Dark. In the meantime I am prepared to consider a mystical approach to Truth and some kind of Unitarian or Pandeistic position.

    • 'Atheism is too bleak' - I have heard this rebuttal many times when people object to my rejection of religion. Truth doesn't care about our feelings, and perhaps this response comes from a heartfelt need for more certainty. However it is not an argument serious thinkers should entertain.

    • Mark: your comment probably needs a page to itself.  I have three very quick comments,, but I suspect this should spark another article - apart from anything else, it is rather buried on this page.

      • "Truth doesn't care about our feelings" - the truth is the truth, whatever we may feel about it.  I fully agree - but getting people to agree on what is the truth is rather difficult.  And surely you are not claiming that atheism is a truth?  Surely it is a belief system.
      • I don't think it is unreasonable to ask of a belief system: are we able to live consistently with this system?  How people arrive at their belief system is a complicated matter, but we choose our beliefs (out of the possibilities we are aware of, of course), and to choose a set of beliefs you cannot live by seems terribly perverse.
      • "Atheism is too bleak" - the people who have said this to me have generally not been followers of any organized religion.  It seems to me that they were not responding to a need for more certainty, and they certainly did not appear to have found it.  I think they were responding to a need for more hope.  And people do need hope.

       

    • Is atheism a belief system?  Well it depends. If you assert 'There is no God' then that is a belief.  If you say 'I see no evidence for your description of God', then that, I would say, wouldn't be asserting belief, it's rejecting the belief of others.  All of this gets very difficult,especially in the era of fake news and pseudo science (just as it always has in the religious realm). Unless we are prepared to spend all our time researching the source evidence for everything we have to take things on trust. And therefore who we trust becomes a serious consideration. For example, I trust those that tell us (and show us pictures) about the nature of the universe, the stars, planets, nebulae, black holes etc if they are scientists and specialists who have given their time and intellect to seeking the 'truth' as far as we can identifiy it, especially as they would accept that the 'truth' evolves with our ability to observe and measure more accurately.  I wouldn't say my my trust in those people is in anway comparable with those who trust their belief, for example, in the Hindu Gods or even the Abrahamic God.  Yes there are 'experts' in those belief systems, but they are not experts in the same way. They are not able to produce reproduceable, coherent, evidence based narratives concerning why we should accept the beliefs they do. They also present different explations that contradict one another, thereby undermining their claim for revealed truth.

      I accept your comment about hope. But for me anyway, hope has to be realistic and based on pragmatic action. I can hope for a better world if humanity decides to embrace action that will make it better. I have little hope for the future of humanity based on our current inactivity regarding global climate change, the destruction of the natural world, despeciation, environmental pollution. That human beings then sometimes (often?) resort to fundamental religious belief (to gain hope?) when faced with practical challenges that require action and behavioural change is deeply depressing. And counterproductive. Trusting that things will be better in an afterlife, on a new heaven and a new earth, or in heaven, weakens the drive for action here and now.

    • Mark, I think this is another topic which needs its own page... I can't quite believe we have not covered it already.

      But, quickly: as I understand it, the usual meaning of the terms are that theists believe that one or more gods exist, atheists believe that no gods exist, and agnostics believe that the question is still open.  With this understanding, both theism and atheism are reasonably described as belief systems.  Agnosticism can, in theory, be just a withholding of judgement, "I don't see enough evidence either way", but in practice every agnostic I have ever talked with has described in a fair amount of detail what they believe, why they believe it, and what the implications are for them and others - they clearly described agnosticism as a belief system, for them, at least.

      When I say that people need hope, I am not talking about needing to believe that things will be better in some promised afterlife.  I'm talking about the psychological reality: people need love, and they need hope.  Many people in Pakistan right now need practical help, but they also need hope that they have not been forgotten or abandoned.  I think we have a moral obligation to help people find the hope they need, and to ensure that this hope is not disappointed.

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