Predestination and God's Power Over Evil with Elmer Colyer
Dr. Colyer discusses predestination and Trinitarian theology. Some people assume that God is the best of our own ideals, others accept him the way he has revealed himself in Christ.
JMF: We’d like to talk about predestination. What’s it all about?
EC: This is a debate that has raged through the history of the church, that’s divided theologians and churches into different camps. I’m a United Methodist, so in my Wesleyan heritage, we’ve never been big on predestination, but I also stand with a foot in the Reformed tradition with my study of Bloesch and Torrance. The problem with predestination is that it’s mentioned in the Bible, so you have to deal with it.
Part of the problem in the conversation of “double predestination” is that it has often rested in an abstract doctrine of God: a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely in control of everything. If you have that kind of God, and that kind of God knows the end from the beginning, you’re almost driven to a concept of providence where everything happens under the purview of God, and double predestination is only a step away from that.
Torrance’s theology is especially helpful here, because he challenges that doctrine of God at the core – asking, How do we know anything about God, about God’s power, about God’s election or predestination, apart from what God has revealed in Jesus Christ? And there, we find something that creates problems for double predestination.
At this point, Wesley had enough sense that when he was arguing against predestination, he said, “Whatever predestination means, it cannot mean that God, from all eternity, wills the damnation of some, because it’s contrary to the character of God as depicted by the whole scope and tenor of Scripture and preeminently in Jesus Christ.”
What Wesley was saying, in Torrance’s words, is there can be no dark, inscrutable deity, some sinister God behind the back of Jesus Christ who secretly wills the damnation of some and not the salvation of all, which is what we see revealed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. So that kind of theological approach to thinking about double predestination, thinking about providence, is more helpful than the other way of approaching it.
JMF: Arminians, those who follow the teachings of Jacob Arminius (as opposed to Calvinists, who follow the teachings of Calvin) had somewhat of a solution to Calvin’s perspective on predestination. What was that?
EC: A solution not quite as bad, but almost as bad. In the Arminian perspective (although what Arminius said is a little more complicated, but we’ll talk about Arminianism as it developed). As you find it in my Wesleyan heritage, and sometimes in Wesley, grace restores an element of human freedom so people can choose for or against the gospel. But the problem with this view is one we talked about in a previous session, that part of the chain of our salvation then rests on our human faith, our human response. We’re thrown back against ourselves, and that undermines the integrity of grace.
The double predestinarians say, “This is the problem: If you don’t affirm double predestination, you’re thrown in one way or another into some kind of explanation of why some people are saved and some people are not, based on human experience – human response – and therefore you have an element of human self-determination in it.” That becomes the weak link and creates the problem.
But this is the problem of false alternatives: either double pre-destination or an element of human freedom – freedom that is either innate or restored by grace that allows us the ability to say yes or no. Neither one of those are the option that Torrance presents; he presents a different option – I think a better one.
JMF: There’s two sides of that, on the hyper-Calvinist side there’s a sense that God is the Creator and author of all things; he is therefore utterly sovereign over all things; therefore nothing can happen that he did not determine ahead of time – or pre-determinism. On the Arminian side, they try to deal with that with this idea of foreknowledge. It’s not that he didn’t predestine everyone to be either saved or lost, but since he knows everything, the only things that can happen are the things that he foreknows, which really winds up not helping at all, not solving the problem, because you’re still dealing with predeterminism in either case.
EC: That’s correct, and that’s why, even though Wesley is often lifted up by the Arminians as the great champion of this more open doctrine of God, Wesley’s doctrine of providence was actually as rigid as Calvin’s. Everything that happens is predetermined, except that small little sphere where human beings are granted an element of freedom to either say “yes” or to say “no,” but beyond that everything else is predetermined.
Here’s where Torrance pushes back against this position. How do these theologians, how do any of us know what God knows, what God chooses, what God’s character is, how do we come to that kind of idea? How do we know what God’s sovereignty is, what God’s power is? Do we start with some kind of conception of power and then multiply it to the nth degree so that God is omni-powerful, God is all powerful?
JMF: Isn’t that what hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism does?
EC: Yes. Torrance argues against them at this point. You see it in the history of theology at various places… Take for example Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia – if you read Thomas’ Summa, in questions 1 through 27 Thomas first provides proofs for the existence of God and then he develops God’s basic attributes, and only after that does he get around to talking about the doctrine of the Trinity – and what he says about the doctrine of the Trinity bears no relation to what he said about the One God.
The doctrine of the One God is built via what we call via negativa, the way of negation, negating those characteristics in our human conceptions that we can attribute to God, and then affirming the via positiva – the attributes of God like God’s goodness. We know something about goodness, so God is all good. We know something about power, so God is all-powerful. But this is an abstract movement of thought. It’s something we think up based on human experience, and try to project across the gap onto God (this is where Torrance’s scientific theology is so important). It bears no relation to what God has actually revealed about who God is, about God’s goodness and God’s power in Jesus Christ and the gospel.
JMF: So Thomas’s doctrine is totally made up. In other words [EC: Yes, it’s mythology], we sit down and say, “What must God be like? He must be all powerful, because otherwise, what would be the point? He must know everything…” We take whatever human attribute seems good and we say, “he must be the absolute, ultimate, in that particular thing.” We add it up on a page and draw a line under it and say, that equals God. Now let’s take this idea of God, and we’ll use that. But Torrance is going a totally different direction.
EC: Yes. Often, when we have our basic categories, and our basic ideas that are often drawn from the culture, from philosophy or whatever source, after we have those in place, then we go back and read the Bible. Then we use the concordance method of reading the Bible, and you can find individual texts that can reinforce some of that kind of interpretation of God.
The problem is, and this is where Torrance challenges it, “How can you have a doctrine of the one God over here that operates by this set of principles, this set of attributes, and then have the Triune God over here revealed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that operates by a different set of principles?
In Wesley’s theology, when he talks about providence, he only talks about it in relation to the one God, but when he talks about salvation and the church, he talks about it in relation to the Triune God. But there is no Triune God and One God that are separate – the Three Persons, the communion between the three Persons, is the One being of God, and the differentiation in the communion within the one being of God is the relations between the Persons.
The One God, and the Three Persons that are averse of one another, you can’t have this kind of split in the doctrine of God. You cannot have the one doctrine of God – the One God doing one thing, and Trinitarian Persons doing another. This is scientifically untenable. Therefore Torrance says, we have to think out all these questions absolutely, rigorously, scientifically, in terms of what God has actually revealed about who God is, in Jesus Christ.
Then we end up with a very different understanding of what God’s power is, a very different understanding of what God’s goodness is. God’s power becomes a kind of a power that we never would have thought up on our own. It becomes the power of suffering love on the cross, the power to enter into the midst of evil and overcome it from the inside, rather than a show of brute force.
That other way of thinking of God ends up being an abstract movement of thought that’s done behind the back of Jesus Christ, and it bears little relation to what God has actually done.
JMF: Take for example a medieval concept of God. They know the Trinity on the one hand as a doctrine. But they operate out of this idea of a single God in heaven. (Much like the movies we see, Oh, God! or something, where there’s one God and he’s totally in charge, however he brings that about.)
If we’re going to imitate and be like God, then [in that view] the king has all power to do whatever he wants, to execute his enemies, to flaunt his authority, to take advantage of everybody, all in the name of God. He’s operating as God’s man on earth, and that’s how God would do it. Whatever he does, he has God’s blessing. That kind of behavior is so completely out of kilter with the Triune God who is revealed to us in Scripture in Jesus Christ. Whatever our view of God is affects how we deal, not only in our own lives with ourselves, but especially with other people.
EC: Yes. Even in a more benign level: the idea of God as self-sufficient, as solitary, as in control, of who God is and everything else, we tend to fasten on that doctrine of God in our culture, and it reinforces our individualism. That’s why the doctrine of the Trinity has not had a significant impact on Christianity in this country until relatively recently. We tended to focus far more on the doctrine of the One God, and in my own Wesleyan heritage, if you look throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, virtually all of the theologians who are doing theology are focusing on the doctrine of the One God. At most you’ll have a little section in their dogmatic theology on the doctrine of the Trinity that bears little relation to other aspects of the Trinity.
JMF: It’s lip service: We know it’s true, but the implications of it are never explored.
EC: Right. It leads to this dreadful notion of God that began to undermine people’s faith. Let me give you a concrete example of this. I found out a couple of years ago that I have lymphoma, and for about six months it looked like it was transforming, and I thought I was going to die and probably have 14 months to live. I discovered some things about myself. As a pastor, you hold the hand of people when they’re dying and when they have cancer, but you never know how you’ll respond to those things until you face them yourself. Never for a moment did it run through my mind that God is out to get me, that cancer has come to me directly from the hand of God.
Yet I know another pastor, another theologian, who found out he had prostate cancer at the same time. He was a consistent Calvinist – he said, “Unless you believe that your cancer comes to you directly from the hand of God, you’ll not receive the blessing that God intends for you to receive through that cancer.” If I believed my lymphoma came directly from the hand of God, I would be worried. If that’s the way God is, if God plays dice with our lives like that, we all ought to be worried. We won’t even talk about it in some things as common as cancer!
Let’s talk about it in more extreme things – child pornography, the kind of dastardly evil things, can we say, do we really want to say that everything that happens in our world happens because it’s ultimately the will of God? This is where this doctrine of God leads. Ultimately, we all ought to be scared if that’s the way God operates, we all ought to be worried.
JMF: You have diseases, epidemics that people die from daily by the tens of thousand – malaria… Would God have invented malaria specifically to send it to people who have never heard of him? What is the point?
EC: Very good, Mike. Fundamentally in that question, the age-old theodicy question: “If God is all powerful and God is all good, how can there be evil?” Whenever I get that question pastorally or when I’m working with seminary students, if you allow the question to be stated that way, you can never answer it, because the question already has certain presuppositions. We think we know something about what goodness is and about what God’s goodness is, we think we know something about God’s power and how it operates, and we think we know what evil is.
But the irony is that when we look at what God has revealed about God’s power, God’s goodness and about evil and Jesus Christ, we find that we don’t know anything about any of those three. God’s goodness turns out to be far better than we ever would have dreamed, because God, rather than simply overcoming it by a show of brute force, enters into the middle of it. God takes our diseased and alienated sinful humanity upon himself, suffers and finally dies the death that all of us will someday experience in order to set us free for fullness of life.
This is not a God who sits aloof from us, outside the universe, playing with our lives like a puppet on a string. This is a God who loves us to the uttermost, comes into the midst of our brokenness in order to redeem us. A God who even cries on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When everything is darkness and we feel forsaken, our brother Jesus, our blessed high priest, has said that [why have you forsaken me?] on our behalf on the cross.
We also learn something different about the power of God. The way God overcomes evil isn’t by a show of brute force, is it? It’s by suffering love. It’s by entering into the midst of it. It’s by using evil as the unintended way in which God finally overcomes sin and evil in our lives. The cross is the most dastardly evil event that ever took place. Yet that’s the very event that God uses to redeem us, therefore canceling human evil at its most frontal, powerful, potent, negative and evil expression, there on the cross.
Furthermore, the cross shows us that we are in a whole lot more trouble than we oftentimes want to admit – particularly in our optimistic North American culture. If nothing short of the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, if nothing short of the passion of God, if nothing short of the Father giving up the Son unto death, the Son offering himself as a sacrifice for sin through the power of the Holy Spirit, if only that can dislodge evil from our lives and set us free, it says that evil is a lot worse than what we thought, and our life is a lot more perilous than we often think.
Sometimes the reason why we want that other kind of God is that we don’t want to admit just how finely perilous our condition is apart from the gospel. But thanks be to God, there is no dark and inscrutable God behind the back of Jesus Christ, and therefore when I found out about my lymphoma, it never once crossed my mind that God might be out to get me. Rather, I found Christ near at my side carrying me through it day by day by day by day.
JMF: In Ray Anderson’s book On Death and Dying, he’s talking about suffering and pain and the evil that takes place and especially the passages in Scripture that (even in the New Testament) bring down all kinds of hell and fiery torment on the evil doer. He’s explaining that, Yes, the New Testament says those things, and they’re true and have to be taken seriously, but they are not said in isolation. They’re said in the context of the gospel. This is how it would be and what is real if there were no Jesus Christ who has taken this very thing on himself and therefore, we’re delivered from it. Torment doesn’t have the final word. We take it seriously, and it’s true and Scripture talks about it, and yet this is precisely what Jesus has done to deliver us from it.
EC: That’s a crucial insight, because other than in consistent Calvinism, where Christ only dies for the elect, the problem with a lot of thinking about hell is it’s double jeopardy. The church on the one hand wants to say that Christ has borne that evil, the wickedness and God’s wrath against sin, but on the other hand, it wants to say, that those who turn away are still going to get it, only more.
If Christ already ontologically bore our sin and guilt, the wrath and judgment of God against the sin of the entire world, then hell cannot be thought as a place where that’s going to occur again. We need to re-think the doctrine of hell and relate it to the love of God and not simply to the wrath of God. This is part of the problem of double predestination, that separates the love and wrath of God. In that view, the wrath of God is against the reprobate, and the love of God is for the elect.
If you think about hell and begin to relate it to the love of God, I think it could become a preachable doctrine again. If Christ is the reprobate, the one who has taken our sin, our guilt, our alienation, our death, and suffered in our place, then hell (whatever it is) can never be more than a testimony to what Christ has done. It cannot be a repetition or prolongation of what he accomplished on the cross. It can only point – kind of like John the Baptist’s finger on the famous painting [pointing toward the Lamb of God] – it only points to the crucified. What if hell is not simply a product of God’s wrath, what if it’s a product of God’s love?
What do we do with the sin-sick bewildered person who finally comes face-to-face with the living, loving God and Jesus Christ, and turns the other way? That’s the unthinkable. This is what Torrance calls the mystery of iniquity. Not simply that God predetermines from all eternity who are going to go to hell, but why would anyone coming to know the love of God and Christ ever turn away? You can’t give a reason for it. The more you try to give a reason for evil, the more you end up explaining it away as something other than the utterly evil that it is.
What if hell is a place of refuge for the sin-sick sinner who turns the other way? Listen to this quotation from an infidel on his deathbed: “My principles have poisoned my friends. My extravagance has beggared my son. My unkindness has murdered my wife. And is there a hell, oh most gracious and Holy God? Hell is a refuge, if it hide me from your frown.” What if hell is a product of God’s love for those who reject Christ, where they’re shielded from the unmediated presence of God in heaven, as a place of refuge for them, so that God even has a place for those who finally reject him?
I’m not giving this to you as a dogma, all I’m saying in this (and I have not a lot of energy about this interpretation, similar to C.S. Lewis’s in some respect) is that hell cannot be the same punishment that Christ endures. I agree with Ray Anderson on this point. Hell cannot be left unrelated to the love of God in Christ. If there are people in hell, it isn’t simply because God damns them there. It’s because God loves them even while God has a place for them other than heaven. This is a different way to begin to think about hell.
JMF: Robert Capon describes hell as a place where God invites everyone to the wedding banquet. He wants everyone in the party, but some in coming in mess it up for everybody else. They can’t be allowed to stay there and mess it up for everybody else, so they are thrown out. It’s protection for everyone. I love C.S. Lewis’ depictions of that in the Great Divorce, where you have the option of taking the bus to heaven anytime you want. Some decide to stay, even though they’re wispy ghosts and everything is very hard in heaven, and it takes some getting used to. Some do stay, but most prefer to go on the bus ride back to hell.
Especially his depiction in the Last Battle (of the Narnia Chronicles) of those dwarfs who come through the stable door, like all the rest of creation, into Aslan’s country (a metaphor for heaven), but they don’t see it as heaven. They don’t see it as Aslan’s country – they still think they’re inside that dirty stable. They’re still fighting over scraps of food and poking each other, sitting in a circle blind, as it were, in the dark, even though there’s a banquet in front of them, and a beautiful country around them. Their own state of mind refuses to let them see the reality of what they’re actually in. They can’t experience it because of their black hearts.
EC: That’s very helpful, Mike. Torrance has been accused of being a universalist because of his emphasis that Christ’s death is for all, and that it’s objective and real, and that Christ has conquered evil and that we will never suffer the same judgment that Christ has suffered. Some jump to a conclusion – they say, therefore all must be saved, or we fall back into the problem again of human beings contributing to it.
That’s really not Torrance’s position. Torrance says that Scripture seems to bear witness to the fact that some will not ultimately be saved. This is what he calls the mystery of iniquity, and he will not allow a logical explanation, because a logical explanation would undo the absolutely irrational, heinously evil character of evil. He will not allow that to be put in a logical form in a way that would undermine the radically tragic character of evil. So he is not a universalist, although he is a universalist of hope – that we would wish that all people would in the end become persons of faith. But why some don’t, is the mystery of iniquity. You can’t say more than that. He says every good theologian has to know when to stutter, and that’s when the theologian has to stutter, at the mystery of iniquity.
JMF: Torrance talks about Christ healing not only our past and our sins and so on, but our minds, which are the source of our sins. Our minds have to be healed as well, and that’s exactly what he does.
EC: It took me a long time to realize that Torrance means that in absolutely literal concrete terms. He thinks the one true theology is in fact the human mind of Christ, the man Jesus. What we see taking place in the early narratives in Luke, where Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem (his parents come there for the Passover and they leave and he stays afterwards and he’s asking questions of the Jewish leaders and baffling them with his answers and his questions), this is part of the man (in this case the boy) Jesus, our Lord and Savior assuming our minds and realizing real knowledge of the Triune God in our human minds.
Torrance thinks the human mind of Christ is something to be taken literally. Not only throughout Christ’s earthly life, death and resurrection, but also ascended… the man Jesus with his human mind and his perfect theology is still in union and communion with the Triune God, and from that flows all good and true theology. It gets embodied in the apostolic mind through the nucleus of relations that Jesus establishes with the apostolic community, particularly the 12 apostles – mediated to us through the New Testament. So we have access to the mind of Christ only through the biblical document.
About Elmer Colyer
Elmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.
In this interview, Dr. Colyer talks about the weaknesses of the concordance method of theology, that the Bible is not an end in itself, and Trinitarian theology.