We often hear people speak of “unintended consequences”. It certainly comes up a lot in talks of politics & economics. But, the other day — OK, it was a few months ago — I heard the term used regarding quite a different topic. I was browsing a Facebook thread, in which a bunch of people I didn’t know were talking about theological issues. (Well, I suppose I knew at least one of them, in order for me to even see the thread, but I don’t remember who it was.) One guy, whom I will call “Darryl”, made the following statement:
“…either way we slice it, sin is ultimately a consequence of Creation…albeit, an unintended consequence.”
I certainly understand and agree with the idea of sin resulting in unintended consequences. But, sin as unintended consequence? I thought this was a thought-provoking idea but one that didn’t quite sound right to me. I think I had recently been reading something about God’s plans and purposes. Anyway, from what I could tell, “Darryl” seemed like a cool guy and pretty smart. And his FB profile indicated that he held a leadership position in some ministry, so he might have some theological training and know a thing or two. But, I decided to pipe up and (respectfully) challenge him on this idea of sin as “unintended consequence”.
Our exchange follows. I hope you find it… intriguing.
Me: I disagree Darryl. I think sin was intended, in that it was all part of God’s sovereign, eternal plan to bring Him glory. Nothing catches God by surprise! (Though, an “open theist” might disagree.)
Darryl: Chris, I agree that “nothing catches God by surprise.” However, God’s omniscience doesn’t mean that He created, caused, or intended sin–as you suggest. That would violate His holiness. Do you agree?
Me: Created? No, since “sin” refers to an act/attitude of rebellion against Him by His moral/spiritual creatures. He can’t actually create such a thing. Caused? Indirectly, yes, since He chose to create those creatures with free wills, which inherently meant they could disobey Him. Intended? Yes, as I have said, it was part of His plan from eternity past.
To quote Dr. Mark S. Whorton: “God’s plans are not merely wishful thinking, but rather the embodiment of His manifold wisdom, empowered by His sovereignty, purposed to bring Him glory and pleasure. To argue that the Creator’s plan was thwarted and altered by the sin of man [or angel] is essentially to deny the sovereignty of God. According to [Charles] Hodge, ‘it would reduce God to the level of His creatures, to assume that what He decrees, should fail to come to pass.’ Moreover, if God’s plan was thwarted at the fall of man, how could there be any assurance that His new plan would not also fail?… The faithfulness of God would be nullified, and His uniqueness as demonstrated by prophecy would be invalidated if the end of His eternal, unchanging plan were not certain. Indeed, God makes it clear that His plan and His work were finished before He began.”
Darryl: Chris, what is the difference between saying “God created sin” and your saying that “God caused sin?” In terms of God’s character, that’s a bit of a slippery slope. Unless you’re saying that God sovereignly created a “Law of Unintended Consequences,” of which sin is one of those “unintended consequences,” you’d be saying that sin was birthed in the mind of God…along with the rest of His Creation
Me: Darryl, I think I already stated that sin (at least, my understanding of it) is not something that can be created. But, the potential for it is automatically present in free-will, moral/spiritual creatures — thus, indirect causation. (If God had not made such beings, the potential (inevitability?) for sin would not have existed.) I’m not entirely sure what you mean by sin being “birthed in the mind of God.” Surely, the concept of sin was in God’s mind before Creation, let alone before the Fall of Lucifer or of Adam. But, Lucifer and Adam were still free-will creatures who committed acts of rebellion against God of their own volition. God is not at fault. None of this is a slight on God’s character.
God’s plan *from eternity* was to bring glory to Himself, which He decided to do by conquering evil — which did not yet exist — via a plan of Redemption. A prerequisite for redemption is rebellion (aka “sin”). This means both Falls were not just anticipated but pre-ordained.
Darryl: Can God “sovereignly” create a program in which events, choices, etc. happen that He did not deliberately plan/cause? I’m not talking about “contingency” planning in response to foreknowledge of events, choices, etc. that He did not deliberately plan/cause. Or, is His sovereignty limited in that way?
Me: Hmmmm, no and yes. Here’s what I mean…
Since the notion of sovereignty entails ultimate control, I would say that nothing happens that God is not aware of and tacitly approves of. (The fact that a thing occurs shows that it is within His sovereign will for it to do so, whether or not it is His moral will or preference.) He allows things to happen, both according to natural law (which He instituted) and to the will of moral free agents. So, everything is in accordance with God’s overall, sovereign plan. Thus, by His very nature as Creator and Sovereign Lord of all, it is probably impossible for Him to create “a program in which events, choices, etc. happen that He did not deliberately plan.”
As for whether God *causes* anything and everything to happen, it depends on what you mean by “cause”. As the sovereign Creator accomplishing His eternal plan, He is the *ultimate* cause of everything. Of course, I also believe that He has and does occasionally intervene in the natural course of events in (pre-human and human) history. In such cases, He might also be a mediate and/or the proximate (i.e., immediate or direct) cause. So, is it possible for God to create “a program in which events, choices, etc. happen that He did not deliberately…cause?” Ultimate-wise, no, that would be a contradiction in terms. Proximate-wise, yes, if He took a totally hands-off approach following creation, as in the deist perspective. (I think that is logically possible but may not be true to His character as a communal/relational entity.)
Me: Incidentally, I found this helpful:
In discussing the nature of predestination and free will within the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, John Macleod (1941) explained it this way: “Stress is laid in historical and dogmatic discussions on the disposal of all things according to the purpose of God as that is wrought out in the field of universal providence…. In the wider sense of predestination it covers all events so that God is seen to have preordained whatsoever comes to pass and the regularity of natural law is due to His appointment as to the necessary action of second causes according to the nature that He has bestowed upon them and their consequent appropriate working. In the course of His government in providence He works out what He has decreed so that these second or subordinate cases have their field of a proper operation and activity according to the nature of each of them. Thus events that are contingent fall out contingently and what is necessary has its own necessity…. When a free agent in the exercise of his personal natural spontaneity takes a course of action it was certain beforehand that he would take such a course and should be naturally free in doing so. For God Who appointed before that such a course should be taken, in doing so appointed that it should be taken by a free agent in the natural exercise of his proper freedom. Such an appointment does not mar the freedom of the agent or his responsibility for his act…. In the sovereignty that belongs to Him, [God] so controls the thoughts and desires and volitions of His creatures as to carry out through their free and responsible activity what He has Himself designed. His supremacy sets bounds to the activity of His creatures so that at the very time and in the very thing in which they please themselves they are giving effect to His transcendent design. And this is so even should it be the thought of their heart that they are bent on frustrating His counsel by doing their own will and pleasure. When their self-will reaches its highest His controlling hand is above it.”
OK, this is a good point at which to pause the conversation. Whaddayathink, so far? Are we talking past one another? Are we picking at nits? I realize we didn’t delve into the finer points of, say, hamartiology (i.e., study of the doctrine of sin) or theology proper. But, it’s pretty good for Facebook.
Part 2 will be posted in a couple days….