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It appeared on a good many social media posts I spied. It was front and center in a worship service at a church I attended. In the days following this month’s midterm elections in the U.S. a good many Christians posted or gave voice to a kind of plaintive hope: “But God is still in charge!” Of course on the face of it that is a statement with which every Christian agrees. In the Reformed tradition, the sovereignty of God is very near the top of the key doctrines that define the faith, and nowhere more so than in Reformed circles descended from John Calvin.
In his commentaries and Institutes, Calvin emphasized repeatedly his view that nothing happens that does not somehow pass through the will of Almighty God. That does not mean that God actively wills each thing to happen—Calvin was clear that God can never be deemed the author of evil. Then again, when people suggested we can get God off that particular hook by saying God permits bad things to happen, Calvin was dismissive. “Away with that vain figment of a permissive will in God!” Calvin retorted with his usual subtle reserve.
Calvin may never have quite figured out how his rejection of God’s permission for bad things can square with his other very clear teaching that God never authors sin. In fact, if you want to see Calvin’s somewhat tortured efforts to navigate these theological shoals, check out his commentary on 2 Samuel 16 and the incident where the passing figure of Shimei curses God’s anointed one, David. God could not possibly have actively willed it to let someone do the heinous deed of cursing God’s anointed. But God did not merely permit the cursing either. So God must have willed it at some level but . . . It’s not fully clear whether Calvin solved his own theological riddle in this and similar scenarios.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that in my theological and biblical neck of the woods, the idea that God is in charge as the sovereign One of the cosmos is locked in. So those after the midterms who virtually posted and verbally spoke things like “But we have to try to remember that God is still in charge!” were speaking truth.
However, the context of these assertions was huge disappointment in the results of the midterm elections. Candidates and ballot measures that many evangelicals advocated went down. And so when I read and heard comments and prayers that talked about how God is still in charge, the context conveyed also a clear subtext. “God is still in charge, just don’t ask me how. God is still in control but evil won out this time and who knows why or how.”
The implication is not difficult to suss out: evangelical Christians know that their candidates and their ballot choices (and probably their chosen party affiliation) are all also God’s candidates and choices and affiliation. Had the midterms turned out differently, there would be only one reason: God is in charge and his will was enforced at every level and so PTL! Since that did not happen, not only did we lose but so did God. And thus the “But God . . .” statements were said amid sighs, laments, and dark intimations that the control of God had been singularly thwarted.
Now let’s be clear: if in this blog I were to say I know these sisters and brothers are wrong, I would be guilty of the same assumption in reverse: I know the will of God and so can assess in any situation whether our sovereign God won out or lost out. But I would never claim to know that, and most of the people I know would be highly cautious about such a stance, too. Like very single person in a democracy, we have all routinely experienced being on the losing side of an election. No one in a democracy has ever seen every candidate they voted for win or every ballot proposal they supported pass.
But when that happens, we ought not say with iron clad certainty that God could have had nothing to do with these outcomes. And not because unlike Calvin we would probably hold out for some kind of a permissive will in God. In theological philosophy we talk about strong actualization and weak actualization. If God strongly actualizes something, it is because something happened that stemmed from a direct decree or command of God. But if God weakly actualizes something, then the cause of something can be traced back to God only in the sense that God created a world where many different outcomes were possible, whether all good, all bad, or very often something in between.
This goes back to the beginning. It goes without saying God did not actively will or command the disobedience of Adam and Eve. But God did set up a world where the possibility of such disobedience existed. God could have created pre-programmed and pre-scripted beings who would have no choice but to obey.
But as Alvin Plantinga famously mused in God, Freedom, and Evil, while such pre-programmed automatons might never disobey, they could also never freely choose love. So maybe God valued the prospect of genuine love so much that he actualized a world where love’s opposite could also be chosen in which case bad choices can get traced back to God not in a strong sense but only in a weak sense. As a defense of both God’s sovereignty and God’s not being the author of evil, this is highly plausible. (And note: as in all Reformed apologetics, this is a defense of the faith, not a proof.)
However, before this blog gets overly long, we Christians also need the humility to admit that we don’t have God cased strongly, weakly, or anywhere in between. At any given moment millions of cosmic strings may be running through God’s sovereign hands and who among us could have a clue which string God may be tugging on at any given moment to generate outcomes we cannot imagine. It reminds me of a lot people’s favorite scene in The Lord of the Rings after Frodo laments to Gandalf that Bilbo had let the creature Gollum live. Gandalf told Frodo not to be too hasty in deciding what the outcome of Bilbo’s choice might be. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” True enough.
Short of truly evil, unassailably craven events, we ought to be very cautious in asserting that our disappointment means God had nothing to do with something such that all we can do is desperately assert God’s sovereignty as a covert way to signal our belief that my choices and ideas always mirror God’s choices and ideas.
Historically there is a word for thinking that way on all matters: idolatry.