Friday, May 9, 2014

The God of binding dilemmas (Ezekiel 14:1-11)

Commenting on Ezekiel 14:1-11, Robert Jenson says:
We encounter again the mysteriously simple relation between the Lord's will and our wills. The antimony appears everywhere in scripture. Jesus tells his hearers that no one can come to him except those whom the Father gives him, and he does this in a speech aimed at bringing his hearers to him (John 6:65). In the case always adduced when theology takes up this matter, the Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart against letting Israel go and then destroys him for not letting Israel go (Exod. 7:3-5; 12:1-16). 
We should ask ourselves: if we find predestination offensive, what would we rather have the Lord do? Let us go the ways of our rebellion, to the destruction that terminates those ways? Or turn history over to our wise rule? Or, as Ezekiel here portrays God's rule, be himself in some mysterious way responsible also in our iniquities? One may of course say that God is surely not bound by such dilemmas. But that would be true only if he withdrew from his history with us; if he soldiers on with creatures who are both finite and fallen, he too faces alternatives. One may say that God should not in the first place create a history that poses such choices. But what other sort of history would we, in our great wisdom, institute?1

Most noteworthy, I think, is Jenson's commitment to God not withdrawing from history with us. That is to say, God is intimately involved in all of history. Then we should ask, what does he reveal about his involvement in history and with us? Is he so transcendent that he is entirely distant, decreeing all things which come to pass a long, long time ago, far, far away (while remaining there), and only "coming down" to visit his people here and there, from time to time, for the purpose of letting us know how distant and transcendent he always has been? 

Or is it because he is transcendent that he is also imminent, decreeing all things that come to pass, including his own personal involvement and interaction with men? If the former, then God is fully responsible in and for all our iniquities. If the latter, then God is only responsible for his choices--both his eternal decree and his personal involvement, moment by moment, with men who make choices freely (that is, by their own volition). When men make sinful choices, God not only responds accordingly, moment by moment, but he also works things out according to his eternally good purpose and pleasure.

Perhaps one way to apply this is to use Jenson's example of Pharaoh. God hardens Pharaoh's heart and God destroys him for not letting Israel go (whom he would eventually command to let go). But the human author of Scripture does not inform us about what volitional decisions of Pharaoh brought about or provoked God's decision to harden Pharaoh's heart, as revealed to Moses in time and space. Instead, the human author of Scripture informs us about one limited aspect of God's eternal decree, one limited aspect of God's over-arching plan for saving his people and glorifying his name in the Earth. 

But if God is intimately involved and deeply committed to his image-bearers, then why not assume that Pharaoh's own sins had provoked or moved the Lord to harden his heart? Yes, I realize that the Lord tells Moses that he would harden Pharaoh's heart before the narrative shows his heart being hardened. But does that really change the historical possibility that Pharaoh had already provoked the Lord to the point of planning a hardening of his heart? Only God knows anyway. It seems that it's entirely likely that Pharaoh was always confronted with alternatives--alternatives which could have kept him from the Lord's hardening. But if that's the case, then the Lord faces alternatives as well, alternatives in time and space among his image-bearers. If that's the case, then the Lord binds himself by such dilemmas and such dilemmas fully comport with the eternal decree of the Father, the provision of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit, all of which we only know about in an extremely limited manner anyway, as it has been revealed in Scripture.

1.  Robert W. Jenson, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Ezekiel [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009], p. 119 

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