“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.
- A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
- A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
- A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
- An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
- A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
- A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
- A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
- An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”
What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”
The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”
Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”
The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.
Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?
- Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
- Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
- Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
- Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
- Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?
None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.
On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?
On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.