Thursday, May 12, 2011

God is Sovereign?

(Image from Wikipedia)

In the discussion of Hebrews last Sunday, our group got off on a tangent about sacrifice, and someone asked if the Bible offered a reason for God's acceptance of Abel's animal sacrifice and rejection of Cain's fruits-of-the-field offering, a story presented early in Genesis.

We speculated, some suggesting that blood sacrifice was the paradigmatic one and that the text presupposes that the reader would know this, others proposing that the motives of the two brothers were opposite one another, Abel offering his sacrifice with a proper heart and Cain presenting his offering with an impure heart.

We seemed to have reached an agreement that the text offers too little information to strongly claim one or the other reading as correct, except that one young man offered a third suggestion at that point (and I hope that I've got this right):
"In the final analysis, God is sovereign and can do as He pleases."
That sort of statement is usually a conversation-stopper, so I leaned forward and objected:
"But there is a strong Christian tradition that God is rational and would not decide arbitrarily."
The young man hesitated, then said:
"But God is far beyond our rational abilities."
I agreed, conditionally:
"Certainly, but He would not contradict himself."
We got no further on that issue, but I have given some thought to how one ought to respond. The Christian tradition generally insists that God is rational, that He is good, and that He is not arbitrarily willful (unlike some Islamic conceptions of Allah). If one agrees to this, the issue becomes one of whether or not we could judge some actions to be impossible for God because contrary to His good, rational nature. He could not declare evil to be good -- for instance, declare that rape or murder is good. More generally, He could not arbitrarily declare one individual's action better than another individual's action.

The appeal to God's sovereignty, however, seems to imply that he could do precisely this, namely, that God can arbitrarily choose, for instance, to accept one sacrifice and reject another for no good reason!

But perhaps I've not understood the appeal to God's sovereignty . . .

UPDATE: Blogger did some maintenance all day Friday the 13th (2011) and 'trashed' the fine comments that had been posted here. Apologies . . .

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At 6:29 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Happened to attend Theology classes on this subject, several years ago at the Jesuit University in Rome, and besides met another Bible scholar who was studying this very issue. Well, basically, this kind of events would be a matter of God's "election", which can look like sort of an arbitrary will, but not in the sense that God would contradict himself. God simply "chooses" a man, a woman, a people, giving him/her/them a mission to accomplish. If somebody else (see Cain) doesn't accept this "divine method" aiming anyway at the common salvation, he falls into sin. Cain, on the other hand, was supposed to be a sinner only after refusing God's words, not while he was offering his fruits.

In fact - I add - doesn't the parable of the workers in the vineyard convey an idea like that, too?

Imho, that's a maze into which any concept of "God as a person" inevitably leads. It probably would be worth quitting it (see Spinoza).

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

For some issues, God might have the choice of doing either of two actions, neither being better nor worse than the other, whether because neutral acts or whatever.

Or, I suppose that God might choose one act over another by virtue of understanding consequences better than we do.

But the appeal to God's 'sovereignty' seems to me a form of fideism -- or even worse, that "might makes right."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I wonder if Remi Brague would have something to say about this in his book "The Law of God"?

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Accepting this does tend toward fideism: You can read the Bible and analyze it and search for its meanings, but ultimately, if you are orthodox, you take it on faith that it all makes sense to God. You trust in God's judgement and actions on faith at some point.

Or, if non-orthodox, you pick the parts that make enough sense to you and reject or hold off on items that don't.

One of my American co-workers in the teaching job in Korea I left in Feb. renounced his faith. When he was struggling with it, he said that if he couldn't find a rationale reason for morality (per the Christianity he'd grown up with), he could no longer call himself a Christian. After a few weeks of trying to make it all work for him logically, he gave up.

Faith and rationalism are not mutually exclusive, but at some point in religion, you must exercise faith. (And this is in one way the spiritual comes in.)

(I believe, too, that if you dig deep enough in any of the branches of science, you see where they take "leaps of faith" as well in order to move on with their exploration of the universe. I mean with the hard sciences too.)

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good question, Sperwer. My hunch is that Brague is a rationalist, like Pope Benedict.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott (and I just realized that "Scott" and "Scott A" are the same person), I would suspect that even a fideist would have experiential reasons for believing, absent which, trust would be groundless.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Yeah. I remembered having seen another Scott around here in the past and started putting the A. For some reason, my Wordpress long in ID isn't working on the computer at this school, so I am using the other option...

At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

"trust would be groundless"

I pretty much agree with much of what has been said, but I'd like to highlight the spiritual aspect of "knowing" which is outside of rational understanding.

And the spiritual understanding is a key part of all religions, I'd have to think.

Of course, believers in one religion discount the spiritual understanding of believers in others - which calls into question the nature of spiritual understanding itself...

But, a believer would say that spiritual understanding is a type of experiential knowledge which maintains faith.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that experiential knowledge and rationality have to work together.

I've long liked one thing about the ontological argument -- i.e., the thing about God being the most perfect Being, for one can argue that a god of pure will is a lesser god than a God of rationality and goodness. To argue that God is unlimited by reason is to argue for a lesser god, as much so as to argue that God could declare evil to be good.

I've probably not expressed this well.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:32 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

I'd think with a key point being - the logic and reason that limits God is only truly understandable in full by him.

This discussion has me thinking of a couple of items the online preacher I listen to has said:

In looking at Leviticus, he talked about the laws of purification and permitted foods. He noted that back then, they didn't know about baterria and diseases carried in different organisims, but apparently God did.

He claimed that in the Middle Ages, members of the Jewish community in Western Europe were often hardly touched by the various plagues - so much so they were demonized as having caused them.

Today, we know about transmitting bad things through foods not properly prepared, but when reading Leviticus in the past, it never really occured to me that was one of the points. So, even with my knowledge, I missed much of the point...

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That is one theory about kashrut, and some of it may work, but it doesn't all seem to fit. If sanitation were the aim, why would these laws have been cancelled with the new covenant? The aim was sanctification, not sanitation, I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Tom Ball said...

I wish I had gotten to read the other comments, but I have a couple of observations. Of course God had some infinitely good and wise motive for his differential treatment of the offerings of Cain and Abel. Perhaps it was (is) part of an overarching plan to confuse and perplex

At 12:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Undoubtedly, that was some part of it, but why would he have such an overriding interest in me . . . also a confusing and perplexing issue.

Blogger's recent 'maintenance' was also doubtless in the divine Works Progress Administration's aim of reviving the economy of salvation.

Jeffery Hodges

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