The recent document, “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (hereafter “TS” for “Traditional Statement”) provides us with a good opportunity to examine hidden presuppositions that affect our way of doing theology, particularly with regard to the God-world relationship.
Take a look at articles 7 and 8 of TS:
Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God
We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.
We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.
Article Eight: The Free Will of Man
We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.
We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.
The framers of this statement clearly seek to affirm human freedom as the ability of the will to determine itself. In other words, what the framers mean by “actual free will” is libertarian freedom, or the ability of a person to choose A or non-A under the exact same set of circumstances, thereby making the will of man supreme in all of its decisions. Another way of saying this is that the framers of TS affirm that man has the ability to make decisions that have not been preordained by God (foreknown, yes; permitted, yes; but not preordained by a sovereign act of God’s will). Any decision that has been preordained by God has not been made with the ability of “actual freedom,” and any decision made with “actual freedom” is a decision that God could not have preordained. Hence, their conclusion that God does not call his elect effectually to salvation, for to do so would violate the “actual freedom” that he has given them. If we are looking for a final explanation as to why person A responds to the gospel and person B does not, that reason must be found, not in the will of God, but in the will of person A and the will of person B.
Now, here is the hidden presupposition that informs the reasoning of TS: divine and human action take place on the same plane, such that one always limits the other. If God preordains it, it is not free, and if it is free, then God did not preordain it. It’s that simple. Of the many different causal features of this world, God’s own intervention happens to be one of them, but that is all: it is one causative feature among others. If God puts too much pressure on us, he, like any other created personal being, lapses into coercion, which is something he won’t do. God has voluntarily limited the accomplishment of his will by putting his will on equal footing with ours, even giving us the ability to thwart his will if we so choose. For where our free will begins, God’s causative agency must end. This is what I mean when I say that divine and human action exist on the same plane and mutually limit one another.
But a more biblical (and historically Protestant) theological method recognizes that the Creator-creature distinction requires us to think of God’s actions on a higher plane than ours. His acts do not cancel out our freedom, nor does our freedom limit the accomplishment of his will. He can decree all things in advance and exercise meticulous sovereignty over absolutely everything that occurs in creation (Eph. 1:11), and he can do so without coercing us, precisely because he relates to us, not as a fellow creature who exists and acts on our plane of existence and action, but as sovereign Creator who transcends his creation.
Consider an analogy: William Shakespeare, as the author of Macbeth, has causative influence over every detail of the story, and yet his characters act freely in accord with who they are. Macbeth, spurred on by his wife, murders King Duncan out of a desire to take the throne for himself. Shakespeare ordained it to happen that way. Does that make Shakespeare a murderer? Of course not! But is Macbeth a murderer? Yes, absolutely! Shakespeare did not coerce Macbeth into doing something Macbeth didn’t want to do, and yet Shakespeare is the one ultimately responsible for every detail of the story. If the actions of the characters are rightly recognized as taking place on a plane that is distinct from the actions of the author, we see how the author’s will is compatible with the will of his characters.
The objection will come: “But we are not fictional characters! We are real people!” Two words in response: (1) My analogy is only that: an analogy. By definition, it is not the same thing as what it pictures. (2) It is certainly true that our actual existence distinguishes us from fictional characters like Macbeth. But if Shakespeare is free to write the story that he wants for his own purpose, is not God all the more free to do so with us? Do we have any claim upon God that would require him to limit himself in order to allow us the kind of “actual freedom” that TS demands? Is God obligated to subordinate his will to ours by lowering himself to our plane of action rather than acting as the sovereign God who transcends his creation? Wouldn’t such an act on God’s part obliterate one major aspect of the Creator-creature distinction?
Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are great mysteries of our faith. Statements like TS try to make sense of the mystery by conceptualizing all divine acts as though they proceed from one more character in the story (and thus limit and are limited by the actions of other characters), but not from the Author himself. It is far better to submit to the teaching of Scripture and protect the mystery of divine omnicausality, fully integrated with the integrity of human freedom and secondary causes. We must let God be God.
Or, as Geoffrey Bromiley said it a decade ago: Only God is free.