Friday, August 15, 2014

The sovereign God, His decrees and secondary causes

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. [WCF 3.1. OPC edition. Taken from The Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Texts (Wilow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005, 2008), 12]

A friend of mine asked me to write on what I am for, if I am against Vincent Cheung's promotion of God as the Author of sin. That is rather simple. It is based upon the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which I subscribe wholeheartedly. God is the cause of all things, but God is not the author of sin. What that means I will explicate further.

Before I begin, I would like to direct attention to this post I had written 7 years ago, and to which I have not changed my position. It also has a nice chart to which I still think is excellent, and which I will reproduce as follows:

ActiveGod personally does this action by a positive extension of His willGod does this action through intermediaries by a positive extension of His will
PassiveGod personally does this action by not doing something in order to accomplish His willGod does this action through intermediaries by not doing something in order to accomplish His will

Back to the topic. We believe in the sovereignty of God over all things. Furthermore, God has total exhaustive control over everything both good and evil. Nothing happens without God approving of it, either actively or passively. God's sovereignty is worked out in His decrees, the proclamation of His plans to the cosmos of what is to happen and what is to come. God decreed it from eternity, and this decree once proclaimed will work itself out when the time comes. God's decrees are not God's work. The former is the plan, the latter its execution. Just as a carpenter draws up the plans for his work e.g. a table, and then he executes the plan to create that table, so likewise God "draws up" His plans, and when the time comes, the plans are executed.

The Reformed tradition and in fact almost all of Christian theology until recent times have always believed that God ordained whatsoever comes to pass. The difference between competing traditions (Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism) is what functions as the basis of God's ordination. The Reformed claims, as Ephesians 1:11 states, that the basis for God's choices, God's ordination, is God's free will. God decides freely, which is to say He does not decides based upon anything external to Himself. God decides unchangeably, which is to say God decides, and there is no change at all in any of His decisions. God after all does not change (Num. 23:19 Mal. 3:6) as He is perfect. Any change at all would have meant He was imperfect before the change. God's decides based upon His free will, and the counsel of His will is most holy and wise, as God is full perfection.

God decrees everything. Yet while we fully affirm God's decree of all things, yet we state unequivocally and clearly that God is not the Author of sin, which is to say that although God decrees everything, yet this decree does not imply that God personally creates or does sin (which is what "primary cause" means in Aristotelianism). Sin is done by the creature. God is fully passive in their sinning, by not intervening to stop them from sinning. Now, many people have the idea that mere allowance implies God is uninvolved, but that is false. Since God controls everything, even God's allowance is allowance of God as to where the person and how the person can sin. As an analogy, imagine 5 marbles. If I were to ask the person to choose a marble but take away four of them, the person can only choose one marble even though there was no external coercion upon him to choose it. Or to give a better, and more biblical analogy, the heart of Man is like a river. It flows. God directs the river's path, as He does the hearts of kings (Prov. 21:1). In this analogy, the river flows and God direct them, but God does not make the river flow. Likewise, God changes circumstances and uses all manner of intermediaries so that the person will do what God intends, but the motivation (like the kinetic flow of water in the river) derives solely from the hearts of men.

Sin therefore is under God passively and secondarily. God's causing sin is "through intermediaries by not doing something in order to accomplish His will." God is not the author or the primary cause of sin. Rather, sin is sovereignly controlled by God through the use of intermediaries, or second causes. These second causes are actual and are real. They actually make real choices, not robots dictated by God that they can only make one choice. Just like the hearts of kings, the control is through direction, not choice. They freely choose, but their choices will always be what God intended them to choose.

As I have mentioned in that old 7-year old post, which God is more sovereign: the God who sovereignly controls all things such that everyone can make free choices yet their choices are always what God intended them to make, or a god who has his decrees and the free choice of anyone could potentially jeopardize his plans? Surely it is the former! This is why the Confession says that the "liberty or contingency of second causes [are not] taken away, but rather established," because God's full sovereignty means that Man's free actions are truly free; God does not have to impose restrictions on Man's freedom for His will to be done and for men to do what He has always planned for them to do. God is just THAT sovereign! That is why Calvinism is not fatalism in any sense, because in fatalism one always lives in fear that one's actions might be contrary to one's fate or destiny.

God is sovereign, and Man is free. That has been the truth trumpeted since the Reformation, and even before that in some form. Cheung's teaching on the other hand is novel, and shows the sovereignty of a god who will lose control if anything is not under his direct control. That is not the God of Scripture, and not the Lord I worship.


Michael said...

Hello again Daniel. I am enjoying this discussion and your posts they are very good and I am glad you are explaining how God is not the cause of evil. I happen to think Gordon Clark solved the problem quite well. But I wonder if you could hear what I think he said and what you say in this post.

I don't like the word passive when it comes to God. I don't think God ever "lets" or "allows" anything to happen. Clark's argument is that God, literally controls men's wills so they can only choose what he wants. If I choose to murder my wife it is because God changed my mind so that I wanted to and it could never have happened any other way.

Now let me state this clearly. I act according to my will, I make decisions based on my beliefs and desires. In my example I desire to kill my wife and I then commit heinous murder. I am the sinner and I am responsible to God for violating his commands. However, it was God who changed the very desires of my mind, he didn't violate my will, he actually controlled my will so that I did what he wanted.

This, is Clark's argument. And he remains in compliance with the confession by arguing that God works through the will and does not make me do something I didn't want to do. I don't have a desire to not kill my wife and God then forces my hand, which would violate my will.

God is not responsible for sin, because God, by definition can't sin. If God = Good, then what God does is good. God can do ANYTHING (except violate his own character and attributes). If I kill my wife its a sin, if God, by his power, strikes down my wife, its good. What is good apart from God? What is good except the things God does? This is a hypothetical illustration so please understand what I am driving at over all. This, I believe is Clark's stance, does that make sense to you? Did I missphrase anything or say something you disagree with?

PuritanReformed said...


I think GH Clark gave a good attempt on the problem and his solution has some merit. However, I do not think his solution is sufficient in and of itself.

When I use the word "passive," I made it clear that "passive" does not mean God is not involved. It just means God is not involved in the sense of positively working action X. God is involved by the process of elimination or direction, in other words making it come to pass by for example negating the opposite option.

God controls sinners, but His control does not mean that He made them sin. It means that God made them able to sin in this way and not in other ways in other times. God did not "change the very desires of my mind." The desires are there because of sin, and God merely decides when they will be expressed, and when not.

As an analogy, God is like the tap on a hose. Sin is like the force of the water hitting an object, and God decides when and how it would be expressed, in the same way as the tap controls the volume and pressure of the water and whether that water hits its targets.

Clark's solution is to shift the perspective to that of God, who is good. Since God is good and His motives are perfect and pure, everything He does is good, even in bringing about sin. That is what I took away from Clark's book, which as I have said is a good solution, but I think more has to be said than that

Anonymous said...

"God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass"
[Westminster Confession]

This is a doctrine of human philosophy, which we are warned against relying upon, instead being encouraged to draw our wisdom from God's word. I (and possibly others) refer to this philosophical position as "determinism".

I mocked determinism one day, when the manager of the Income Unit at Tear Fund asked my advice on how to reply to a letter from a disgruntled supporter who had decided to stop supporting Tear Fund because of what she called "the increasingly Arminian tone" of our publication Tear Times. I suggested that he thanked the supporter for her past support, and told the supporter that he was sorry to learn of her decision, but to then add, "Still, never mind. It was bound to happen." For that is how she probably approached life.

In contrast to the Westminster Confession's doctrinal statement, the Baptist Confession of 1689 says:
"God has decreed in Himself from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things which shall ever come to pass."

That is also a philosophical position, rather than an exposition of any passage of scripture, but at least it does not imply determinism of any kind. The Baptist variation of the Presbyterian confession at this point, is something I am able to say that I believe myself.

The difference in wording is so subtle, that a determinist is likely not to notice it, and to think that the two confessions are saying the same thing, both endorsing his determinism. But they're not, to anybody who considers every single word of the two similar statements.

Roger Mann said...

He turned their heart to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants.” (Psalm 105:25)

“And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie…” (2 Thessalonians 2:11)

“For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” (Revelation 17:17)

If these verses don’t teach that God “directly” and “actively” causes men to commit specific sins by turning their hearts to fulfill His will, then language has lost all meaning. God is not “passive” in any sense here. He doesn’t merely “change circumstances and use all manner of intermediaries so that the person will do what God intends,” as you contend. If you don’t like the biblical doctrine, then perhaps you should hear what Calvin Himself has to say:

“If the delicate ears of some are offended at such doctrine, let it be observed, that the Holy Spirit unequivocally affirms in other places as well as here, that the minds of men are driven hither and thither by a secret impulse, (Proverbs 21:1) so that they can neither will nor do anything except as God pleases. What madness is it to embrace nothing but what commends itself to human reason? What authority will God’s word have, if it is not admitted any farther than we are inclined to receive it? Those then who reject this doctrine, because it is not very grateful to the human understanding, are inflated with a perverse arrogance.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 105:25)

Roger Mann said...

“Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his Judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.1)

“God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets (2 Kings 22:20). If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a Judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.1)

“Absalom incestuously defiling his father’s bed, perpetrates a detestable crime. God, however, declares that it was his work; for the words are, “Thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” The cruelties of the Chaldeans in Judea are declared by Jeremiah to be the work of God. For which reason, Nebuchadnezzar is called the servant of God. God frequently exclaims, that by his hiss, by the clang of his trumpet, by his authority and command, the wicked are excited to war. He calls the Assyrian the rod of his anger, and the axe which he wields in his hand. The overthrow of the city and downfall of the temple, he calls his own work. David, not murmuring against God, but acknowledging him to be a just judge, confesses that the curses of Shimei are uttered by his orders. “The Lord,” says he, “has bidden him curse.” Often in sacred history whatever happens is said to proceed from the Lord, as the revolt of the ten tribes, the death of Eli’s sons, and very many others of a similar description. Those who have a tolerable acquaintance with the Scriptures see that, with a view to brevity, I am only producing a few out of many passages, from which it is perfectly clear that it is the merest trifling to substitute a bare permission for the providence of God, as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his Judgments meanwhile depending on the will of man.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.1

Roger Mann said...

“With regard to secret movements, what Solomon says of the heart of a king, that it is turned hither and thither, as God sees meet, certainly applies to the whole human race, and has the same force as if he had said, that whatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.2)

“But nothing can be clearer than the many passages which declare, that he blinds the minds of men, and smites them with giddiness, intoxicates them with a spirit of stupor, renders them infatuated, and hardens their hearts. Even these expressions many would confine to permissions as if, by deserting the reprobate, he allowed them to be blinded by Satan. But since the Holy Spirit distinctly says, that the blindness and infatuation are inflicted by the just Judgment of God, the solution is altogether inadmissible. He is said to have hardened the heart of Pharaoh, to have hardened it yet more, and confirmed it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.2)

“In like manner, in Isaiah, he says of the Assyrian, “I will send him against a hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge to take the spoil, and to take the prey,” (Isaiah 10:6); not that he intends to teach wicked and obstinate man to obey spontaneously, but because he bends them to execute his Judgments, just as if they carried their orders engraven on their minds. And hence it appears that they are impelled by the sure appointment of God. I admit, indeed, that God often acts in the reprobate by interposing the agency of Satan; but in such a manner, that Satan himself performs his part, just as he is impelled, and succeeds only in so far as he is permitted.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.2)

“The sum of the whole is this,— since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.18.2)

I rest my case…

PuritanReformed said...


Are you honestly trying to tell me that any sentence that is philosophical is NECESSARILY not biblical?

And are you trying to say that there are things in this world that God has a "oops" moment when he sees it?

PuritanReformed said...


>If these verses don’t teach that God “directly” and “actively” causes men to commit specific sins by turning their hearts to fulfill His will, then language has lost all meaning.

You are the one who is reading your philosophy into the texts. The texts say that God is the ultimate cause who did all these things. Where in the texts did it speak of the MANNER in which God caused these things?

Your philosophy cannot comprehend how God can do something through secondary causes, yet do so personally. Your philosophy also cannot comprehend how God can be said to decree a thing, yet He Himself does not work it out positively. You are eisegeting your philosophy into the texts.

>If you don’t like the biblical doctrine ...

Your eisegesis is not the biblical teaching. Don't you dare try to confuse God's truth with your Cheungian nonsense.

PuritanReformed said...

And all your citation of Calvin only proves that God is the ultimate cause behind evil, and that it is not mere permission. All of which missed my entire point, since I am not arguing for mere permission but a negation manner of operation

Your case fails, because you are refuting a strawman of my position

Michael said...

I would have to think over your response more Daniel. It may work out logically. But I don't know that scripture supports it wholly.

Does harden Pharaoh's heart mean take away every choice until he makes the one God wants him to? I am no exegete but if Heart = Mind and the mind = volition, then it would seem this isn't just limiting choices but changing how those choices are made. Not by limiting the number of them but by altering their preferences, or priorities.

Gordon Clark, in his work on the holy spirit, argued that the spirit gives you new ideas, new thoughts, new priorities. And these priorities alter how you make decisions. It would seem logical that it could work both ways, especially for vessels of wrath.

Although....thinking this out as I type, stream of consciousness like.....why would God need to harden Pharaoh's heart at all if he can only think evil thoughts? What does harden the heart mean?

PuritanReformed said...


I think removing alternatives involve removing the possibility of alternative states of mind from a person, such that a person can only choose to will in certain ways.

God would harden Pharaoh's heart because it is natural for a person under duress to give in if only to have relief from the ordeal. In other words, Pharaoh might give in to Moses not because of genuine repentance, but worldly regret.

Daryl said...

I was looking for this post. U did not tagged it under Vincent Cheung? i can't find it under Vincent Cheung