How Far Is God Authoritatively Responsible Regarding Sin?

Bill's topic from a few days ago is something that Christians (and other theists of all stripes) have been chewing over for thousands of years. It might seem like the answer is a simple yes or no; but there are concepts which supernaturalistic theists are (in principle) committed to, which introduce difficulties.

I spent several hundred pages in Sword to the Heart (which can be found for free in some different formats, including first here on the Cadre Journal ) slowly and carefully working up those concepts, but I'll summarize them below in a progressing topical order relevant to the question of God's responsibility. (Click here on the jump to proceed.)

First, we're talking about the one and only ground of all existence (including itself, self-existently). I call it the Independent Fact in SttH (where I spend quite a bit of time working out whether we ought to regard any IF to exist, or more than one); and there are disputes among humanity about what other characteristics it has. But since we're talking about the ground of all existence, that's going to make a difference when talking about responsibilities later.

Second, Christians for various reasons (along with some other religious groups) believe this Independent Fact is rationally active, not a statically existent inactive reality, nor a merely automatic non-rational non-intentional reactive behavior (even if self-reactive and counterreactive). The latter two notions would be some kind of atheism; the first kind of notion is some kind of theism.

This makes an important difference because if the IF is completely inactive then it cannot be even causally responsible for anything; whereas if the IF only has non-rational behaviors then while it would have causal 'responsibility' for effects, it could not have intentional responsibility for events the way we human persons recognize ourselves and each other as having intentional responsibility. And ethical responsibility isn't only about causal responsibility, but about personal responsibility. (Although not only personal responsibility, but we'll get to that later.)

Third, putting those two concepts together, and distinguishing (for various reasons) the evident field of Nature from the ground of all existence, Christians (and some other theists like typical Jews and Muslims) believe the rationally active ground of all reality acted (from our temporal perspective) to bring Nature into existence. That means God is actively and intentionally and directly, not only causally, responsible for (at least) most of the characteristics of natural reality in which we derivative persons exist.

That also includes being actively and intentionally and directly responsible for (at least) most of the characteristics of us derivative persons, too.

Now, among different sub-groups of supernaturalistic theists (Christians and otherwise), there is some dispute about whether this means God directly manipulates all energy and matter and any other natural material at all points of space/time, which would include the natural material that we persons are made of. We all (in principle) agree God could do that; we disagree about whether God does do that.

Those of us who disagree God does do that, myself included, argue that there would be no practical reason to distinguish this concept from naturalistic theism (also known as pantheism); but we also argue that this would completely reduce to nonsense any notion of humans having responsibility for our behaviors: puppets don't have real responsibility; the fictional characters in my novels aren't real persons, and don't have actual responsibility for their behaviors -- not even causal responsibility, much less moral responsibility.

This would mean God is directly and totally responsible for all of what we call 'evil', which a few such theists are willing to go the distance on, but usually those who hold this position come to regard good and evil as illusions or something like that, similar to how on an atheistic worldview the reactions and counterreactions of natural material are completely amoral.

This is not a position those of us who hold Judeo-Christian (or even Muslim) scriptural testimony being accurately relevant can accept (since those scriptures have a lot to say about personal responsibility for good or for evil, as in fact much world religious teaching does); and it is not a position that those of us who recognize the active contributions of derivative persons can accept. That means it isn't a position that I can accept (for various reasons), nor Bill and most (or all) of the Cadrists here on the Journal. But the people who go for full and total divine responsibility for all behaviors, do have some important points on their side, and they aren't only pulling that idea out of nowhere.

After all, even if we reject the notion that God directly manipulates all natural (and even spiritual?) material everywhere all the time, there is still a fourth factor related to the first three which has to be kept in our account:

Fourth, it is impossible for that which is substantially different from God (as any supernaturalistic theist regards Nature) to exist independently from God. That means God cannot actually create Nature and then leave it alone to exist independently forever after, as some deists have proposed. The natural system requires God to act to keep it in existence with its properties at all points of its reality; and that includes us derivative rational creatures who exist or at least operate in this natural system. Even if there are derivative creatures who affect this natural system but aren't native to it (for example the traditional notions of angels and devils), they still have to be rooted in some other natural system different from ours, and the same principle (of God's eternally active upkeep of that which is not-God) must still apply to them as well as to us.

This is a point that all kinds of supernaturalistic theists have a habit of forgetting, but we aren't even talking about supernaturalistic theism (in any coherent way) unless we keep this point in account -- we're only talking about something like Mormonism where a derivatively existent entity maybe creates this Nature but depends for his own existence on a reality which is substantially different from and superior to himself. We'd only be talking about a god, even if the most powerful god in reality, not about God the eternally self-existent ground of all existence. We would in fact be talking about some kind of ultimate atheism, or at best about some kind of practical atheism (since the real God behind such a god is being disregarded completely by us so far).

And this would seem to be another point in favor of the theistic determinists: God must actively keep us and the natural system we exist in (and any natural system we might ever exist in) and our characteristics and properties in existence if we're going to exist at all. He might choose to withdraw that action, and so annihilate a portion of spatio-temporal existence (in relation to any other portion of any spatio-temporal existence), burning a thread out of the pattern so to speak, but that would still be by God's choice.

Moreover, such theistic determinists can point to scriptural testimony (whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim) which looks like it is affirming such determinism very strongly. The Judeo-Christian canon, the "Bible" that anyone can get hold of nowadays in different translations and languages, features a lot of testimony about human personal responsibility, but also quite a bit of testimony about God's ultimate authoritative responsibility, even active responsibility, not only over natural processes, but over human behavior. So whichever way we go, either the scriptures are just contradicting themselves blatantly on this topic (sometimes in the same specific text); or we're going to have to read one kind of text in light of the other, according to some supervening principle. And the theistic determinists, or those theists who come close to them (which includes many Muslims and also many Calvinistic or Augustinian Christians), have a supervening principle which any supernaturalistic theist is obligated to agree is important on pain of incoherency: if we're going to believe supernaturalistic theism (of any kind) to be true, we can't turn around and deny or accidentally (or conveniently) ignore distinctive precepts of supernaturalistic theism! Otherwise we shouldn't be supernaturalistic theists at all; and we might even be cheating to make it seem to work.

Those are issues which a theist like myself, who recognizes the reality and importance of human free will, has to keep in mind: whatever I do I mustn't sacrifice the principles of supernaturalistic theism per se (compared to some naturalistic theism or to some kind of atheism or to cosmological dualism etc.), or I might as well decide supernaturalistic theism is false and believe something else. I might even have a moral responsibility to believe something else and not propagate a falsehood!

But then, human free will (not only my own but others) is a key reason why I am not only a theist but a supernaturalistic theist, and why I believe I have a responsibility to promote supernaturalistic theism as true. Even more importantly, denying human free would leave me no formal way to reason about anything to any conclusion (or even to rationally assess likelihoods inductively); nor would that problem be eliminated by affirming only a compatiblistic notion of free will, where we're only talking about a capability but not the properties of the capability. I myself must have a property of being able to intentionally, actively introduce effects into reality which aren't only a reactive summary of prior causes pinging around (or being driven totally and determinately by some other rational act-er), otherwise no argument at all of mine could be 'my' 'argument': I could be a puppet for some other person or I could be memetically regurgitating various non-rational (and non-moral) bits of material, but nothing more. Certainly I could have no real moral obligations in either of those cases.

And so we're back to the question: because anyone who recognizes moral obligations recognizes at least the possibility of behaving immorally (not only amorally) -- and as a matter of experience, all of us who recognize moral obligations (whether theist, atheist or agnostic, in any variations) observe that people do behave immorally. Sinners exist, whether we count ourselves among the sinners or not. But I make a habit of considering the problems of evil from the perspective of someone who is myself a sinner on occasion.

Thus the question (if at least supernaturalistic theism is true, and if I behave immorally): how far is God authoritatively responsible regarding my sin?

I exist in a neutrally operative field of reality created by God. This field of Nature is continually upkept by God and it has properties upkept by God. (The properties may change on occasion, but God either institutes the changes or authoritatively allows Nature to develop new properties.) As a natural entity with natural behaviors I am kept in existence by God with properties conferred upon me either by God's design within Nature or at least by God's active upkeep of those properties. Relevantly I'm thinking of instinctive psycho-physical behaviors which I cannot always control.

In this same reality are other entities, and the reality is set up such that we can affect each other.

Beyond even this, I am given properties which non-rational non-moral merely reactive and counter-reactive Nature cannot of its own behaviors develop: I am a spirit, breathed into existence by the Father of spirits, able to introduce effects into Nature in my own active responsibility. But I don't exist independently as a spirit; my existence is continually dependent on the active upkeep of God. Except insofar as natural reactions interfere with my existence, which is personally inconvenient to me at the very least, where not also consciously horrifying and painful! God has authoritative responsibility in regard to this, too.

To this we may appeal to rebellious corruption of nature, either of the properties of Nature or or my own human nature.

But that corruption was effected by rational entities using their (and my!) God-given abilities to abuse other persons (and perhaps even to abuse themselves). And God did not stop them. Or even if God stops us on occasion (including myself among those who abuse other persons to some degree on occasion), it is blatantly obvious that God does not always stop us.

We may answer that God wants children not puppets. I appreciate this, but God made the ultimate authoritative choice to set up a nursery for children and to have children in that nursery (so to speak) rather than to have puppets on a stage. And the children often grow into monsters. That wouldn't happen unless God allows it, just like it wouldn't happen unless God set up the characteristics of reality and actively chooses to keep those characteristics in place.

That's a ton of active responsibility.

So, what are the mitigations? Is God a sinner for allowing sin?--and not only for allowing sin but for loving sinners enough to allow them to be sinners rather than only puppets?--even when innocent (or relatively innocent) persons suffer for it?--even when persons suffer not only unjustly but nightmarishly?

Is God a sinner for loving me enough to allow me to be a sinner? Because I don't even pop out of existence after sinning, I still keep existing, despite having acted against the ground of my existence. But neither does God rewrite me like a faulty computer program.

We may observe that the conditions which allow me to be a sinner also allow me to love other persons in some true fashion; which has been one defense among theists for centuries. And I think it's one good defense. But was that God's intention? Various scriptural testimony seems to indicate so, but they're only of use as evidence if we have reason to expect such testimony to be relevantly accurate, which is hardly helpful for a sceptic.

What does sin even mean? If sin merely means acting against the intentions of God, that gets confusing because on any version of supernaturalistic theism God intended this natural reality into existence and set us in a situation where we're not only allowed to beat each other with hammers but where we're saddled with impulses to do things like that which we may not be able to sufficiently control.

Moreover, if God is only at bottom the power to cause effects, how could we even act or behave against such supremely superior power?--a power so supreme that all not-God realities are actively kept in existence by God (for so long as they exist anyway).

This (as I noted in SttH) is why it's important to figure out not only whether we ought to believe theism to be true (compared to some kind of atheism) but also whether only mere monotheism is true (with or without modes of God's existence in relation to not-God creation) -- or whether (as I decided) God is an actively coherent mutually supportive interpersonal unity.

If trinitarian theism is true (as I eventually argued), then what we call rational love (not merely emotional feelings) or ethics or moral behavior, is itself the ground of all reality: God not only loves (or perhaps doesn't love), God is essentially love. God Self-begetting could act against the person of God Self-begotten, or vice versa, but not and continue to be the ground of all existence including God's own eternally active self-existence.

Consequently, if I am allowed the freedom to act, and so the risk that I may act immorally, I am not doing what God technically cannot do, but I am doing what God does not do: I can act against the source of my own existence. But I cannot do so and still continue to exist without the active continuing support of my ground of existence. Putting it another way, God can save me from (at least some of) the results of my sin, although there would be no one higher or other who could save God (and all not-God reality) if God ever sinned.

If, in a word, fair-togetherness between persons is the one and only Independent Fact, the ground of all reality, then the goal of this reality must be fair-togetherness fulfilled between persons. That's what God's own self-existence is (as "being itself" or "I AM THAT I AM"), and that must be the purpose God intends for me as a derivative person. Because if God didn't have that goal, and yet created derivative persons, God would be acting toward fulfilling non-fair-togetherness between persons. When I do that, I'm sinning against God Who is essentially fair-togetherness between persons. If God allows me to do that, it can only be because He has a goal He foresees accomplishing of leading me (as a child, not dangling me as a puppet although there may be some temporary bits of that, too) to repent of my sin and become righteous, eventually never to sin again but to ever after act toward fulfilling fair-togetherness between persons, too.

So God condescends for not-God Nature to exist for the sake of growing children; and I argued for technical reasons this would involve the on-going self-sacrifice of the 2nd Person of God. And God allows temporary injustice to occur looking toward the completion of justice in all persons, not toward a final injustice for even some persons.

Yet that means bad things, horrible things can happen. Does God act authoritatively in responsibility? Even if the horrible things are only temporary (like birthing pains, as the scriptures sometimes put it), how just, how fair-together is it, for God to inflict the situation on us from on high? How is God thus acting to fulfill the golden rule, as we might say, doing as He would be done by? Because if trinitarian theism is true, the golden rule isn't just something God decrees upon creatures as a law, but is an expression of what God essentially is as the foundation of all reality.

God's omniscience is part of the answer to that: God must experientially share the suffering of all creatures, even creatures who are not conscious of their own suffering. And God isn't in a position to ever put that suffering behind Him: to God all points of space-time in all created natures (and even all possible theoretical natures!) are eternally real.

God doesn't inflict the situation on high, but shares the situation immanently with us, and always will. Nor does anyone or anything inflict this on God: He voluntarily acts and accepts the consequences to Himself.

But that's still God Most High supremely powerful suffering. What we need to see is that He really does share that suffering with us in our weakness and fear and pain.

Yet I'm not only a trinitarian theist. I'm a Christian trinitarian theist: we think God (technically the 2nd Person of God, God self-begotten, the visible action of God) has done exactly that on the cross. We have different theories about it, and about what it means, but sharing the curse of humanity with us is one thing we generally agree the Son Incarnate does in voluntarily suffering injustice at the hands of traitors.

And the hands of traitors are important, not so we can find someone-over-there to blame (those pagans, those Jews), but because we ourselves are the traitors every time we sin, no matter how small the effects of the sin may be in other ways. The Son bears the sin of all creation on the cross, but He's doing small and up close in a somewhat limited fashion what the Son (and through the Son God in all three Persons) is doing eternally in relation to every created Nature.

So God acts responsibly. He pays for our sins, precisely because God is not a sinner Himself, trying to dodge or deny responsibility for our sins. Nor should we try to dodge or deny our share of responsibility for our sins: we're children, not puppets. There may be some excuses for our behaviors sometimes, and (as my teacher Lewis used to say) we can trust God to know the real excuses and be fair about that. But once all the excuses are made, and all the healing has been done, I still have the sin to repent of. I can cooperate with God on that, or not, and if I'm impenitent about what even I can see (by the light God shines) to be wrong, then I'm going to be punished, and I'm going to keep on being punished so long as I insist on being impenitent. Not because God hates me, but because God hates my sin.

But then, God doesn't only suffer with the innocent victims of sin (and the victims of the side effects of allowing Nature to go about its natural business and so be a neutral field where we can interact with one another): God also suffers with the sinners, too. One of the Jewish prophets puts it like this, that God having punished rebel Israel, goes into exile with her, bearing her shame and grief and pain with her. On the cross, Jesus hangs with two rebels, one of them eventually penitent, one who dies impenitent. God Himself is the suffering servant of God who is reckoned with transgressors, so that we the transgressors may learn to trust God despite the grief of the world in its labors to bring forth children, and despite the children growing into monsters who abuse each other in the cradle. God is not a tyrant, not even a benevolent tyrant: no tyrant would do that for his own worst enemies.

In the Jewish scriptures, God promises for many years that Abraham will finally have a son by Sarah, through whom Abraham's descendants will one day number as the stars in the sky or the sands of the sea. Decades pass, and a son is born to a handmaid instead, but God insists He will keep His promise. Finally (not long before Isaac is conceived), God appears visibly and sets up a sacrificial covenant with Abraham: this covenant is symbolized by both parties walking arms linked between a number of sacrificed animals who have been cut in half, from the largest to the smallest. The sacrifices represent the promise that if one of the two who make the covenant fail to keep it in any detail, large or small, he shall die.

But then God puts Abraham asleep, and in a dream he sees something like a torch passing between the two lines of sacrifice. God still treats this as being a covenant made with Abraham -- the prophets are inspired to be very emphatic about this later. And Abraham was promising on behalf of his descendants whom God was promising Abraham would have; and Abraham himself was not always a righteous man; and his descendants through Isaac were far from always righteous (although I don't recall anything iffy ever being said about Isaac himself), starting from Jacob (and Esau) onward.

Here's the thing, though: God takes Abraham's place in swearing that covenant. One or two New Testament authors pick up on this idea and note that this means the Father was making a covenant with the Son, born as the descendant of Abraham; but all created spirits are in effect the sons of God even as rebels, so the covenant with Abraham, through his descendant Jesus Christ (the Son incarnate), applies to all rational creatures that have ever existed or ever will exist -- we are all sons of Abraham in that covenant.

And by taking Abraham's place in the covenant, that means Abraham or his heirs (which are all rational creatures) cannot break the covenant by sinning. We can sin, but we cannot break the Abrahamic covenant. But that means God pledges Himself responsible for our sins, pledges to die for our sins. And so God, not being a sinner, voluntarily keeps that pledge for the sake of all the rebel children of Abraham, and for the sake of keeping His own side of the promise with Abraham.

But that's also a pledge of responsibility between God self-begetting (the Father) and God self-begotten (the Son). It's also the sacrifice the Son willingly makes (and which the Father willingly makes in giving the Son) to bring reality into existence at all.

St. Paul, in commenting on this passage from Genesis 18 (in Galatians 3) says that breaking the Mosaic law cannot nullify that promise nor invalidate the covenant, for God grants it to Abraham (and thus to Christ) by means of a promise. Consequently, the failure of both Jews and Gentiles to always be moral, to keep the law (whichever law they happen to have, the Torah or some other expression if only in their hearts as conscience), does not supersede the promise made to the Son by the Father to bless all nations: a blessing that Paul explicitly identifies as salvation from sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit through faith. The promise is given to the Son by the Father, and fulfilled by the Son for the Father (and by the Father for the Son): the Father would be shamed by promising less and delivering less than what was achieved through sin, the corruption of all humanity! The Son dies to keep the responsibility of God between the Persons of God, and to keep the side of the covenant broken by rebel creatures.

(True, Paul also insists that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham, but by acting in authoritative responsibility for sin God brings people to faith and so to be sons of Abraham, whether the stars of the sky -- which represent angels in Jewish typography -- or the stones/sand of the sea -- which represents the nations! And God promises to justify the nations by faith through His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 18.)

So God takes our sin very seriously, but also loves us seriously; but as the ground of all reality God is self-sacrificially responsible for the reality which causes us so much trouble. Non-rational Nature doesn't have such responsibility, but God does, and we do as rational creatures whom God develops and gives spirits and keeps in existence in this reality. As sons of God we have responsibility, including when we sin. God, including God the Son, has authoritative responsibility for us even when we sin; and not being a sinner God voluntarily pays for what happens to us, and goes the distance to accomplish the goal for why He allows such situations to happen to us: that we may become mature children of God and repent of our sins (if we sin) and fulfill love to one another with justice for one another.

This is, understandably, not very obvious now. But if the Judeo-Christian revelation is true (and I would be expecting this anyway by the logic of metaphysics anyway), it will be sufficiently obvious someday.

(Apparently the delay is so that circumstances will be set up and fulfilled to teach other rebel sons of God their lesson to learn, too: that no matter what they do they cannot win, so they might as well give up and come home. But until then, we suffer because God loves them, too, and refuses to poof them out of existence or only treat them as puppets. And God takes responsibility for that as well.)

In short then: I am a sinner, and I am responsible for my sin, insofar as it 'my sin', and I shouldn't daff that away or be irresponsible about it. I should repent and cooperate with Justice Himself, the ground of my existence, Who is essentially love.

God (Who is intrinsically and essentially what we call love and positive justice) is not a sinner, but God is highly responsible for me as His creature who sins; and not being a sinner, God voluntarily insists on taking responsibility for me and for my sin, because that's the right and good and fair thing to do. That doesn't let me off taking my responsibility for my sin; after all, I'm the sinner. But I couldn't abuse you (for example) unless God loved me in such a way as to allow me the leeway to abuse you; and God pays for that, too. But His goal is to bring me to maturity and righteousness instead, and because He is fair-togetherness between persons as the ground of reality, He does in fact owe you for my sin against you.

Among other things He owes you a righteous me instead of a sinner against you. The Father and the Son promised each other (in and as the self-existent unity of the one and only substantial ground of all reality) to give you a righteous me eventually.

That's His goal, and He acts to get it done, and He voluntarily suffers along with you (and along with me, insofar as I insist on holding to my sins and so require chastisement) until He gets it done. And also after He gets it done, since He is too real (being Being Itself) to put 'the past' 'behind Him'. You and I can put my sin behind us, and God can put my sin behind us, and He won't bring it up against me, but I've added to His voluntary suffering that He shares along with you (the victim of my sin).

And to help us trust Him, He shows us up close and in history what is always happening at His eternal transcendent level of reality above and beyond our natural history (but in relation to our natural history which I contribute so poorly to sometimes). The blood on the cross is His pledge that He is not a tyrant inflicting woe and punishment from on high; and it is His pledge that He will reconcile all sinners to Himself and fulfill the purpose of fair-togetherness between persons. Even if that takes ages of ages before all sin is done and all tears are wiped away.

For if by the blood of His Son He has reconciled us to Himself, how much more shall He save us into His life.



Jason Pratt said…
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