What was the starting point for writing “God’s Strategy in Human History”?
Christians disagree about many different kinds of things:
1. Things concerning church life: eg should women be pastors/bishops
2. Issues about family life: eg should divorcees ever remarry
3. The purely symbolic: eg should we baptise babies
4. Issues about eschatology: eg will there be a millenium
We have views on all of these, though symbolism must always be less important than the reality it symbolises, and what exactly will happen in the future may not much affect how we actually live today. But there is an even more basic question, and this concerns the character of God himself. What is God like? What are God’s plans for humanity?
In writing “God’s Strategy in Human History” there was a negative and a positive aspect. The negative arises because historically some theologies have developed which misrepresent what God is like. The positive is that when we do understand what he is really like it is awe inspiring and inspirational.
Can you explain more about the negative aspect?
Recently I was moved and shocked to read of an incident with a jihadist in Iraq. A devout muslim, he prayed and read his Qur’an immediately before and after raping a tied up twelve year-old Yazidi girl. She remonstrated that what he was doing was wrong, but he told her she was a sinner and it was the will of Allah. If we could question him he might say “Who are you to question the will of Allah the all merciful the most merciful, who in his holy Qur’an (surah 33:50) says this girl is a slave given into my hand? To be a “muslim” means submission to the will of Allah.”
My heart was heavy for the girl, but I rejoiced that the Christian God is not like this. God loves this little girl, and never sanctions rape. God longs for her to repent and accept the Jesus who died for the sins of the world and so enter eternal life.
But then the thought came to me. Recently I read a book Christian Beliefs by the renowned theologian Wayne Grudem. Now had he lived 400 years ago with his views, he might, like many with ‘Reformed’ views, have sanctioned torture to make me a good Calvinist/Lutheran, but as it is I have no reason to suppose that he is other than a good, peaceable, and loving Christian man. But what is his picture of God?
On p.90ff Grudem raises the obvious question: If (as the Bible says) God loves everyone and is “willing that none should perish but all come to repentance”, then why does not everyone believe and be saved? He rightly says that Christians have given two basic alternative answers:
1. One is that God does not want to alter their freewill because this would dehumanise them not save them, and so it is in the end their own choice to remain unrepentant.
2. The other is that it is ‘for his own glory’ that he wants to torture some of them in hell forever for unbelief, so he chooses to leave them unrepentant.
To Grudem, the ‘doctrine of election’ implies the second is the truth. Basically, whether or not a person believes is purely down to a ‘sovereign’ decision of God, who has chosen and predestinated some to become believers and decided to leave others in unbelief. Left alone, all of them would go to hell. In his mercy God has decided to irresistibly change the minds of a minority, and leave the others to suffer eternal torture. All this is purely for his own glory.
But how is this ‘God’ morally superior to the Islamic jihadist ‘Allah’ who sanctions the slaughter of their peaceable families and rape of twelve year old ‘sinners’ for his glory? According to Wayne Grudem, God could easily make this same Yazidi girl believe and have eternal life, but he would rather let her die in unbelief and suffer what Grudem calls ‘eternal conscious punishment’ because this brings him ‘glory’. Jonathan Edwards, whose books, alas, are also on the shelves of our local Christian bookshop, would add that unless I enjoy this thought of her suffering forever for God’s glory I may not be one of the elect.
Note that Grudem’s first alternative which is what I believe) says that it is precisely because God loves them that he does not change unbelievers into dehumanised robots; in the end God lets them choose the absolute destruction that comes when they are finally exposed in their rebellion to the fire of the absolute Love of God. But Grudem’s second alternative is that it is for God’s own ego that he wants to keep some people to torture forever, presumably he enjoys it. These two alternatives are certainly not morally equivalent. Grudem’s second alternative God seems little better than the jihadist ‘all merciful’ Allah, who is equally self-absorbed. It reminds us of when Jesus said that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them – but then showed that he, like his Father, put love and service at the centre of authority.
Now those of Grudem’s persuasion, like the jihadist, may say “Who are you to answer back to God?” (p.89) But we have never questioned God in either case, just their wrong perception of God. And when this question was asked by Paul in Romans it was about using Israel to make two ‘lumps’ out of Israel to demonstrate the contrast of unbelief and faith – not about who was supposedly selected to become believers.
Grudem presents (p.90) the contrast as being ‘those who support the doctrine of election’ and those who do not. But this is very misleading. We fully accept the doctrine of election that we are chosen in Christ: it is a wonderful doctrine concerning what are our present role and benefits and our future destiny as part of Christ’s body. But it does not concern some kind of arbitrary (or ‘sovereign’) decision of God as to who should believe and who not. This controversy is about what Scripture means, not about whether it is authoritative and inspired; we have never doubted the latter. We fully accept the New Testament doctrines of election and predestination (which to Grudem p. 83 means the same as election) but believe that Grudem and those like him misunderstand both of them.
So this, in a nutshell, is why Roger Forster and I wrote “God’s Strategy in Human History”.
Aren’t these just secondary issues?
These are not secondary issues, but concern the very nature of who God is. There is a huge difference between the Biblical God of Jesus and the Allah of the Qur’an. Sadly, the ‘God’ first developed in the theology of Augustine (and adopted with minor variations by most Reformers) is in some respects more like Allah than the God of Jesus. Historically it was also associated with actions of torture on ‘unbelievers’ (such as the Anabaptists our spiritual ancestors) more vile than that of modern jihadists, and this is explored in our book.
We do not judge those modern Christians who are sucked into this kind of ‘Reformed’ theology. John Wesley reacted in as much horror as we do to the unbiblical Reformed doctrine of ‘unconditional election’, yet could still write in his journal of Whitfield who accepted it: “I spent an agreeable hour with Mr. Wh ………………. I believe he is sincere in all he says concerning his earnest desire of joining hand in hand with all that love the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today we are in no danger of arrest and torture, and can have fellowship with Christians like Wayne Grudem who take a ‘Reformed’ viewpoint. But of course we, like the great John Wesley, would seek to advance the New Testament truth of what the God of Jesus is really like. This is why we wrote our book.
So what about the postitive aspects of the book?
The book, however, is not merely negative. It is a positive affirmation that God really is LOVE, and really does want everyone to repent though does not want to destroy their humanity image of God by making them into robots. It is an affirmation that from the first fall into sin God had a plan to send Jesus the Messiah to die for the sins of the world. It is an affirmation of all the wonderful things that we have presently in Christ (including ‘election’), and what is our future ‘predestiny’, the role to be given to us at the second coming of Christ. We find this both exciting and inspiring, and want to share it with you.
God’s Strategy in Human History is published by Push Publishing and available in two volumes.