On plagues, judgement, and the Book of Revelation

Is God using the Covid-19 virus and the ensuing crisis to punish people and bring them to repentance? Two voices I have read recently are quite clear that the answer is ‘Yes’.

The first comes from Adam Young, writing on the Church Society blog. He begins with an event cited to prove that God does not exercise meticulous control over disastrous events:

Earlier this year the house of American politician Tony Perkins was destroyed in a flood. This would be hardly worthy of hitting the news, were it not for the fact that he had previously said that natural disasters were God’s judgement on America for supporting same sex marriage. Newspapers love a good bit of irony. It does rather beg the question though—was he right? As Anglicans how should we view the sovereignty of God in relation to weather, famine, disease, or plagues?

Young then reviews some of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, petitioning God in time of disaster, and notes the way that these prayers, reflecting on biblical episodes, link the disasters with sin, judgment and punishment.

Nearly every one of these ten prayers links the natural disaster in view to sin and rightly-deserved judgement. These natural disasters are something that “we for our iniquities have worthily deserved” and that “we do most justly suffer for our iniquity.” They are instruments of a God of “wrath” through which we are “for our sins punished” and “justly humbled.”

Young moves quite quickly on to summarise a position known as ‘meticulous providence’ in which the world is understood to be under the complete control and sovereignty of God.

The God portrayed in the Bible and shown in the doctrine contained in these prayers is a God who is absolutely and totally sovereign over everything. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and His say-so. Weather is completely under His control, as is disease and sickness. If we are to ever give thanks that someone survived safely during an earthquake or hurricane, or a flood missed our church, we must accept God was in control of every aspect of the earthquake, hurricane, or flood.

The first problem with this article is that Young does not answer the question that he sets up. If God is in ‘absolute and sovereign control’ of disasters, then God must indeed have wanted to flood the house of Tony Perkins, presumably because Perkins was sinning and in error—in his view that God used natural disasters to punish sinners! Unsurprisingly, this is nothing new as a challenge to Christian thinking in this area. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 took place on All Saints’ Day, which meant that many people were gathered in churches, and many more died as a result of church buildings collapsing on them. Was this God’s will? In the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19, the Bishop of Zamora in Spain called people to defy health warnings, and pray and attend mass for nine days ‘to placate God’s legitimate anger’. This included kissing a relic of Saint Rocco (the saint of plague and pestilence) leading to massive cross-infection, and it resulted in the highest mortality rate in Spain (12.1% compared with 3.8%). Was this God’s will?

This questions are raised for us acutely at a personal level too. A friend online commented to me:

I’ve looked at this subject a lot – I was born as the result of rape…was that God? Was it in ‘his plan’? I believe He redeemed it. I had a childhood from hell – was that ordained by God? I was a neonatal nurse – I worked with many babies who died….some ‘allowed’ to die: God’s plan or man’s design? I work with kids asking if God caused their disability – if he did, they don’t want to know him. Now, I have bright autistic children (who don’t read) asking why God ‘allowed’ the virus – not good for their mental health.

These are age-old questions, and they defy a simplistic answer.

A second example of this position is articulated by Peter Saunders in a CMF blog post.

We know that God is utterly sovereign over everything that happens in the universe. As the book of Daniel reminds us, kings cannot rule, lions cannot bite and fire cannot burn without his permission. God is sovereign over all things human, biological and physical and especially the rise and fall of nations (Daniel 2:21, 4:25, 5:21). God was the author of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-12 and is equally the author of the plagues described in the book of Revelation.

Saunders looks at the plagues described in the Old Testament and notes that they are described as being caused by God:

He then extrapolates from that to infer that all disasters must therefore be directly inflicted by God, and for the purpose of punishment and calling to repentance. Saunders then relates that to who is being judged:

It is interesting that this epidemic seems to be hurting rich Western countries the most. That, in general terms the oldest and most wealthy of us on the planet are currently being hit the hardest.

In this I think he is completely mistaken: it is uniformly the poor who are always affected more by these disasters—even if the rich perceive themselves to be the most affected, simply because they focus on their own concerns. There is no doubt that those who rushed to the supermarkets and hoarded food will be the last to run out if there are food shortages. So is God encouraging this behaviour, and judging those who are slow to follow their example?

What I find strange in both these approaches is the lack of attention to what the rest of Scripture says about the relationship between events in the real world and the will of God—and for the biblical writers, as much as for us, this was a taxing subject with which they constantly wrestled. Even the conservative evangelical site The Gospel Coalition blog manages to point this out:

However, the Scriptures do not always connect sickness to specific personal or corporate transgressions. For example, the great prophet Elisha who raised the Shunammite’s son and healed Naaman of leprosy himself fell sick with a terminal illness (2 Kings 13:14). In the New Testament (NT), Jesus corrects his disciples’ neat-and-tidy cause-and-effect reasoning that ties physical sufferings to personal sins (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3).

But we can go further: there is a massive theme within the biblical text that wrestle with the question of why the world is not the way God intends it to be:

I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. (Ps 73.3–5)

If we reverse that psalm’s numerals and look at Psalm 37, we are offered an answer—but the answer is not that God exercises meticulous control over all events, it is that God exercises ultimate control. His intention will be exercised and fulfilled, at some pointing the future, and human mortality ultimately brings judgement to us all. Thus our response to this disparity is to wait in patience for God’s will to be revealed.

The ultimate example of this is the Book of Job, relating to us the theological and philosophical wrestlings of a man who was righteous and yet afflicted, apparently by God. It is Job’s comforters, who offered a direct connection between Job’s sin and his suffering, who are rebuked by God specifically because they had not spoken truly. Yet, frustratingly, the story of Job doesn’t offer a neat resolution, and we are left with a mystery. As another friend of mine reflected:

I think ultimately we can’t fully fathom the mystery, because we are “in time” and of limited and finite minds whereas God is outside time and of infinite mind… So I’m happy to come to a point where I say “This much I know…” and trust that is all I need to know for now, from God’s point of view – because he hasn’t told us everything…

Scripture does tell us some things quite clearly, but that doesn’t mean it offers us packaged answers to these difficult questions. I don’t think we need to conclude that Scripture is contradictory here either; there are different theological traditions within Scripture which sit together, and as we form our understanding of biblical theology, we need to take all these strands together (reading canonically, that is, with the whole of scripture in view). The paradoxes and tensions are rather neatly summed up in Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew. The Jesus who tells us that ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing it’ (Matt 10.29) is the same Jesus who reminds us that God ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust’. In other words, you cannot measure sin and righteousness by the events of life!

I commented last year on this very question when it came up in the lectionary reading of Luke 13. In reply to the assumption that the Galileans ‘deserved’ their fate at the hands of wicked Pilate, or that the Jerusalemites ‘deserved’ their deaths at the hands of whimsical fate, his answer is the same: an emphatic ‘No, I tell you!’ twice over. We see the same dynamic in the other episode mentioning Siloam, John 9, the episode of the man born blind:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  (John 9.1)

Jesus’ answer there is emphatic: ‘Neither!’ Joel Green puts it like this:

It is true that Deut 28–30 (to name only one example) insists that judgement will overtake those whose lives are characterised by disobedience, but this is not the same thing as arguing that disasters come only to those who are disobedient. In fact, Jesus’ reply does not deny sins its consequences, nor that sin leads to judgement; instead, he rejects the theory that those who encounter calamity have necessarily been marked out by God as more deserving of judgement that those who do not. (NICNT p 514)

In doing this, Jesus is both acknowledging the unpredictability of disaster—but at the same time refusing to let go of the notion that we are morally responsible agents.

Holding these two themes together raises some big theological issues. One is the question of the ‘openness’ of God to events in the world. Does God predetermine everything, and exercise meticulous control over everything that happens? Or is God relationally engaged in the world and human affairs, and working with us to determine its course? Roger Olson has commented that open theism triggered the “most significant controversy about the doctrine of God in evangelical thought” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries—and the Wikipedia article on this is surprisingly good. For a biblical defence of the ‘openness’ position, I attach here a chapter expounding it by Richard Rice—but might well return to this in a future post, as it is such a large and important subject.

Richard Rice Openness

But it also connects with our undertaking of eschatology and the kingdom of God. In his provocatively-titled article, ‘God is not in control’, Tim Gombis expounds the New Testament understanding well:

While God remains sovereign king, God’s sovereign kingship is not being manifested in the creation that is his temple, because his image-bearers are not manifesting it. As Paul says in Romans 8, creation has been subjected to futility in the hope that it will also be released from the slavery of corruption when God also transforms his people into complete image-bears that manifest his rule. Until then, creation groans and suffers pain (Rom 8:20-22). And we do, too.

God was not content with this situation so he came into his world, took Sin and Death into himself and broke their enslaving grip over his world. And God has promised that he is bringing about a future new creation that will be completely free of the devastation and chaos caused by Sin and Death. All those who call upon God in Christ will inhabit that future world and enjoy a reality characterized by shalom and blessing—the wonder of universal flourishing.

We do not have guarantees in this world, except that God will one day transform his creation. There are no guarantees that everything will work out as we want it to. We will experience suffering, pain and loss.

In Hebrews 2:5-9, the writer portrays this situation. Humanity was created with glory and honor—God’s image—and God subjected the creation to humanity. But we do not currently see everything subjected. This means that creation is in a condition that is out of control. Humanity is not fulfilling its charge to subdue creation and to bring about its flourishing.

“Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (i.e., Jesus, the true human)” (Heb 2:8)

But in Christ, God has provided a future hope. The future world is one that is purified of Sin and Death because Christ is already ruling over it. That future world is the new creation that this world will one day become. By faith, Christians are to see this reality and hope in it.

I think this is exactly what we find in the Book of Revelation. The visions John has are not of some series of future judgements that God will, in the ‘end times’, ruthlessly inflict on the world, but a vision of the future in the light of present reality. John is already, in Jesus, experiencing both ‘kingdom’ but also ‘tribulation’, and that demands that he lives with ‘patient endurance’, something he encourages in his readers (Rev 1.9). If you think the four horsemen of Rev 6 are only going to gallop out in the ‘end times’ at the climax of history, then you cannot be reading the newspapers or known anything about history! The figures of conquest, warfare, disease, famine and death are ones that John’s readers would have known well, living in a world where life was brutish and short, and in a part of the world where earthquakes were common and plagues frequent.

John is very careful about the way he describes these disasters. God is indeed the de jure sovereign of the world. And so the four horsemen ride, ultimately, at his command. But John is reluctant to describe these as meticulously commanded or controlled by God. The are released when the lamb on the throne breaks a seal on the scroll, and one of the living creatures around the throne calls out ‘Come!’ to summon them. The moment when God does exercise meticulous control is at the time of the coming of the New Jerusalem, in chapter 21, when, without any intermediaries, God ‘wipes every tear’ from our eyes (Rev 21.4).

And this tension, between ultimate control and penultimate suffering, is seen throughout the book, and most sharply in the central chapters of Rev 12 and 13. In chapter 12, Jesus wins the decisive victory over Satan, expelling him from heaven and freeing his followers from any accusation or ultimate suffering. And yet in chapter 13, immediately following, Satan stands on the earth, exercising his ‘short time’ of power, and making the beasts who serve him trample the saints, something that, once again, calls for ‘endurance’.

God is sovereign de jure, but he is not yet sovereign de facto, in that much of the world does not recognise or submit to his demanding yet gracious rule. That is why Jesus describes Satan as the ‘ruler of this world’ who is ‘cast out’ by Jesus’ death on the cross (John 12.31, using language very similar to Rev 12), and Paul calls him the ‘prince of power of the air’ in Eph 2.2. That is why it is our daily prayer that ‘You name be honoured, your kingdom come, your will be done’. This future orientation to the reign of God, present in our lives, but not yet manifest in the world, is central to Christian discipleship.

So is there any sense in which God is bringing judgement to us, to the world, in the spread of this pandemic? Yes indeed—as Paul depicts in Romans 1.18, God’s wrath is being revealed in our reaping the consequences of our decisions. The coronavirus raises the question of our own fragility and mortality so that we might consider what is truly important. When life does return to ‘normal’, we will do well to have evaluated which parts of ‘normal’ are worth retaining.

Proximity to death always has this judging, sifting and evaluating effect on us. (The NT Greek word for ‘judgement’ is krisis, from which we get our work ‘crisis’. The proximity of death, and the realisation of our mortality, does indeed provoke in us an existential crisis.) The ‘Last Word’ column in Friday’s The Week tells the story of Claire Nelson, a travel writer who fell and was stranded in the Joshua Tree desert in California, and was rescued at the point of death after four days.

‘I was writing travel articles and living in London, which had always been the dream,’ she says. She had spent years striving for this, but it didn’t make her happy. She felt lonely, and under constant pressure to show everyone—friends, family, colleagues—she was living her very best life. ‘I ended up in an awful cycle where I became depressed,’ she says. Thanks to social media Nelson was able to keep her depression hidden. She could ‘put on a mask’ and present an image of her life as perfect. ‘I was very lonely and suffering, and those weren’t things I was admitting to anybody. So my Instagram was a way of hiding that. You can put out the best version of you, even if it is not the full version.’

After her close brush with death…

…her Instagram is now more open and honest, and she finds she has more perspective on life. ‘I’ve got this second chance at life. So, how much of it do I want to give over to worrying about things that don’t matter?’

More than 520,000 people die each year in the UK, which is nearly 1,500 a day—and yet we mostly ignore this reality. With the reporting of Coronavirus deaths (which are very small by comparison), we are being made more aware of our mortality. Would that this will make us think about ‘the things that do matter’—and even come to trust in the one who has triumphed over death by his resurrection?

Individually, it brings judgement to our own personal responses: will we respond with love for neighbour, even if that involves self sacrifice, as the saints before us have done; or at the other extreme will we abandon others to a lonely death, as has happened already at least once.

In the UK, the virus is forcing us to confront the reality of how much we have valued our health service—and how much we have valued those who provide our essential services of basic medical provision and food supply.

In the West more widely, the pandemic is bringing judgement on our self-centred culture, where our decisions are based on what we want, rather than on social solidarity.

Globally, the virus is bringing judgement on our assumptions of interconnection and the right to travel, despite the cost to the environment. Ironically, it will force us to adopt the measure that climate campaigners have been urging on us which we have listened to with reluctance.

C S Lewis commented on the importance of pain, without attributing to God the cause of our pain:

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

We would do well to listen.

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114 thoughts on “On plagues, judgement, and the Book of Revelation”

  1. Thanks Ian. This is an excellent article and deserves to be widely read. Is there a Grove Booklet that expounds on this a bit more?

    • I think that we might have one coming up on Providence in the new Doctrine series, about to be launched. As it is a question of biblical theology, rather than exposition of Scripture as such, it has not come up in the Biblical series.

      • Yes, I’m responsible for the providence booklet, which I presume will be out soon (I checked the proofs last week). I explore a few of these sorts of questions, though, I hasten to add, without COVID-19 as a case study!

  2. Thanks, too, Ian. Very clear! I am reminded of Katrina, and the ‘judgement’ on sinful New Orleans. If I recall correctly, the dodgy French Quarter was more or less untouched, being on the highest ground, and it was the poorest (and African-American) areas where most people died. (I also hesitate to mention that the Southern Baptist’s seminary was flooded….)

  3. If God allows creation to evolve, which S/he must do, then there is always the chance that evolution will throw up things that are “bad” for creation as well as that which is “good”. For example, the finches in the Galapagos Islands – they evolve to be better able to live on specific islands as each island differs slightly in temperature, humidity etc.
    Also, we wouldn’t have an atmosphere without a magnetic field around the earth which is there because the core is molten(well semi-molten iron). As a consequence of this molten core, and other bits, we have earthquakes and tsunamis!!
    As Mel Smith and Griff Rees-Jones used to say “Make you think, doesn’t it!”

    • Neither the existence nor the persistence of Earth’s atmosphere have to do with the Earth’s magnetic field. Venus has an atmosphere but no magnetic field.

      Earthquakes have nothing to do with the (outer but not inner) core being molten. They are caused primarily by the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. For that reason most of them are ‘shallow’ (epicentre < 70 km from surface) and none originate from deeper than the top of the lower mantle (700 km).

      • The significance of the earth’s magnetic field is that it protects the atmosphere from the effects of radiation.
        There is some evidence that Venus is losing its atmosphere because it has no magnetic field. Mars, also without a magnetic field, has already lost most of its atmosphere.

    • Not sure if good and bad are appropriate words to use re evolution. It is about survival. Re the finches they have also interbred, reinforcing certain characteristics.

      • Ian,

        While I disagree with open theism, I would be interested in Adam Charles Young’s view of Charles Spurgeon’s “Accidents, not punishments”.


        In this famous sermon. Spurgeon, who was a Calvinist, wrote: “Do not think, then, that this is an age in which God is dealing more hardly with us than of old. Do not think that God’s providence has become more lax than it was, there always were sudden deaths, and there always will be. There always were seasons when death’s wolves hunted in hungry packs, and, probably, until the end of this dispensation, the last enemy will hold his periodic festivals, and glut the worms with the flesh of men. Be not, therefore, cast down with any sudden fear, neither be ye troubled by these calamities. Go about your business, and if your avocations should call you to cross the field of death itself, do it, and do it bravely.”

        Rather than seeing every sudden death-dealing calamity as an extraordinary punitive intervention, Spurgeon explains it as part of the warp and weft of our fragile temporal lives.

        He goes on: “I. First, then, let us take heed that we do not draw the rash and hasty conclusion from terrible accidents, that those who suffer by them suffer on account of their sins.”

        I think that this position is borne out by Christ’s response in Luke 13:1-5

        So, I’d challenge the lack of any qualification in Young’s statement: “The BCP could not be clearer that God uses nature to punish and bring His people to humble repentance.”

        While God can and does use nature to punish his people, he also uses nature to lead them to a greater reliance on His supernatural and eternal provision (Deut. 8:3). That doesn’t mean that all sudden calamities of nature are retributive.

        Even, if we, as sinners saved by grace, deserve punishment (as Young’s quoted prayer from BCP acknowledges) , we also know that He is more inclined to deal with us according to His mercy than in accordance with our manifold sins.

  4. I personally don’t believe that god is responsible for any of conquest, warfare, disease, famine. I can’t see that they were sent but allowed. We take the consequences of our own behaviour.

    The evidence of life and statistics is that God has provided an adequate enoughness of food on the planet. We’re the ones who do or do not distribute it appropriately.

    Although there can be completely unpredictable disasters, in the vast majority of geographic locations that are at major risk there is usually at least a deep oral folk history of such events and often physical markers that should not be ignored – for example in Japan in the areas worst affected by the tsunami there were old shrines placed at the height of the previous devastating tsunami and no one should have built beyond them; ditto in France 50 people drowned in their own homes where they had been built in a known flood-able zone just in from the sea wall, the local mayor had sanctioned the building permits with his fingers crossed that the perfect storm combination (rare but not impossible) of gale force onshore winds with spring tides wouldn’t happen. Even most people who live on a volcano know it. It’s greed and thoughtlessness that leaves the poor to live in the most risky spots with no exit strategy in place, or complacency perhaps in the case of places like Pompeii.

    I was sat with an architect in front of TV footage of the devastation caused by an earthquake in Nepal. He had his head in his hands groaning. Even from this distance I know that Nepal has earthquakes, yet the schools had been built to cheap non earthquake proof designs and the govt there can’t say it’s not possible as only a couple of years later in Japan when all those people were killed by the tsunami, mainly in places where common sense and science says it was risky to build, but despite the massive earthquake that went with it I’m more or less certain that hardly anybody died because of that because the buildings are largely earthquake proof and the population are trained from infancy what to do.

    Katrina – who exactly was responsible for destroying the protecting swamp and not improving the flood management schemes despite all the scientific evidence ? Just where did God get any actual say in how the city and it’s businesses were run?

    The cross infection to humans of the COVID came from a type of wet market already known to put people at risk, once banned but relicensed! (In the absence of good refrigeration I’m not actually against all wet markets as such just badly regulated ones). Then authorities were not particularly honest about what was going on, and not just the Chinese, we can’t throw any stones there. Let alone the fact we have known for millennia that respiratory illnesses are infectious yet we let so many vulnerable people die every year of flu complications because we won’t make the simple gestures required to prevent transmission – I was in the UK during the SARS outbreak and couldn’t believe all the people openly coughing on the train! Why, in our damp climate that is rich because it can grow grass feeders and other crops easily and trade them because of our sea motorways when land travel used to be so difficult yet we are so stupid we don’t teach respiratory disease prevention from infancy? When I was a child it was written on all school toilet paper “Now wash your hands please.” and we did kerb drill both of which contributed to major improvements in hygiene and reducing road deaths – along with seat belts of course.

    Of course there would still be things we can’t do anything about or illnesses we have no cure for but that is no excuse. We have something in the poorly diagnosed group of illnesses that includes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalitis/ Fibromyalgia/and probably various co-infections. We’ve been prayed for and not healed although God has answered prayer for us on an almost daily basis in other ways. We’ve been ill 25 years and housebound 15. It was not nothing to discover that all along there had been good diagnostic guidelines and sound if counter intuitive medical advice about extreme rest and symptom treatment that can bring full healing if applied in the early years of the illness yet for political reasons and to further a few career that advice has been suppressed in the Anglophone West. I’m not bitter but for us to pray the big picture prayer for healing for others who catch our illness, possibly Lyme related (also suppressed information) we have to know that we’re not dealing with a situation we can blame God for but that we as humans need to take responsibility for our own actions along with the good we have left undone.

    Don’t get me on wars and greed aggravated famines, Dust Bowl, Somalia …

    And we have the cheek to blame God. What a total cop out!!!

    Preaching to the converted I know but there is so much scientific and social scientific data out there that it is blind ignorant hardened heart sin to be indulging in Gothic theology in these areas.

    • Like you can’t triangulate trig points with out adequate clear points to make the angles, so theologising from one biased bible perspective, without either a fuller view of scripture as baseline to make sure the initial point is even correct; or a clear reading of the world event in question that one is interpreting : zero credibility can be given to the purported prophet’s reading of the circumstances.

  5. Thanks Ian. Interesting post. But unfortunately, you have managed to misrepresent my argument twice in as many paragraphs by cherry-picking two quotes out of context.

    And then, rather ironically you have accused me of ‘lack of attention to what the rest of Scripture says about the relationship between events in the real world and the will of God.’

    If you are going to disagree with me publicly (which is of course fine) then please pay me the respect of not oversimplifying and misrepresenting my arguments.

    I would refer your readers to my original piece – see https://tinyurl.com/ss8x6cc – and encourage them to judge it on its own merits rather than relying on your cursory dismissal here.

    But in answer to what you have said above:

    First, my blog was not discussing the link between individual sin and suffering which I agree is a very complex area (as the well-known and often cited examples of Job and the man born blind in John 9 and many other scriptures bear out) but to the link between corporate sin and the rise and fall of nations.

    I do not argue from the particular case to the general conclusion from the list of plagues cited as being caused by God but from a host of other scriptures which support this conclusion (eg. Ezekiel 14:13, 21; Amos 3:6; 2 Chronicles 7:13; Isaiah 45:6,7 and passages too many to count in the Prophetic literature). I note that you have not cited a single scripture to support your implicit point that national disasters often just happen. Again, I refer readers to my blog to make their own evaluation.

    Second, I made the observation that this pandemic ‘seems to be hurting rich Western countries the most’. You say that I am ‘completely mistaken’ but it is absolutely true if you look at the statistics. Over 80% of the deaths thus far are in rich Western countries like Italy, Spain, UK and US.

    As I argue in my post from yesterday, the Developing World and not the West will eventually bear the major brunt of coronavirus – see https://tinyurl.com/u4radvb – so this is an event which is shaking the whole world and like the other sorts of events alluded to in the Olivet discourse (Luke 21, Matthew 24, Mark 13) are both signs of the coming final judgement and calls to repentance.

    I don’t subscribe to openness of God theology and don’t find your quoted defence of it here convincing – but in your determination to avoid what you have called ‘meticulous providence’ be careful not to fall off the other side of the horse into an agnosticism about the spiritual significance of world events that is closer to deism than biblical theism in its reticence to link national sin with God’s judgement in the course of history.

  6. If God is in ‘absolute and sovereign control’ of disasters, then God must indeed have wanted to flood the house of Tony Perkins, presumably because Perkins was sinning and in error.
    This is precisely the problem posed and addressed by the book of Job: the book affirming that God is in total control (as, by the time we get to the NT, we ought to know anyway) but that the ‘presumably’ should not be presumed. He is in ultimate control from the start, and ultimately exemplifies his ultimate justice.

    While we should not ‘defy health warnings’, in the present case it seems to me the health measures put in place before the Imperial team had a change of mind – 2-metre distancing and hand disinfection – should have been enough to enable church worship to continue. Not totally without risk, but with the importance of worship outweighing the risk remaining. There’s no value in simplistically caricaturing the choices by invoking the bishop of Zamora.

    If we truly believe in creation, i.e. creation ex nihilo, time included, then God is necessarily in control. Sin, death, suffering are explicitly in his control (Gen 2-3), and denying this only cuts the Gordion knot in the opposite way to how Job’s comforters cut it, by failing to recognise not the experienced reality but the biblical reality. Creation is out of man’s control, yes, but not God’s.

    In Jesus’s comment on the tower of Siloam disaster, we tend to focus on the disconnect between the disaster and the moral state of the victims. Perhaps we should focus more on how the comment ends: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus did not nullify the moral dimension.

    Similarly, regarding the blind man who washed himself in the pool of Siloam, the question was whether Jesus was a sinner. The incident climaxes with these words: “For judgement I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Jesus did not nullify the question of judgement.

    It would be good if church leaders at this time had the courage to speak these truths at the heart of the gospel (Acts 10:42, 17:31). ‘Ultimately’ Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead.

    If you think the four horsemen of Rev 6 are only going to gallop out in the ‘end times’ at the climax of history, then you cannot be reading the newspapers or known anything about history!
    How odd (for I have in fact read the newspapers). The horsemen sequence closely follows the sequence Jesus gives in e.g. Matt 24 in response to his disciples asking when he will come back and what will be the sign of the consummation of the age. It seems obvious that Rev 6 does refer to the end. The whole book after Rev 3 is a prophecy (Rev 1:3, 19). That wars and plagues have repeatedly happened through history is not an argument that the scale of the disasters enumerated in Rev 6, and the particular order in which they are enumerated, might not be distinctive of a particular time in history.

    Evidently God is more than de jure sovereign if the horsemen ride out at his command. Far from being reluctant to describe them as commanded or controlled by God, John is explicit. It is the Lamb who opens the seals, the cherubim round the throne issue the orders, and the sixth seal explicitly brings down the wrath of the Lamb. God is king in heaven but not on earth.

    Anyone thinks that Revelation is describing ‘business as normal’ has not read Revelation. The destruction of a third of the earth’s vegetation, asteroids crashing into the ocean and killing a third of marine life, the enshrouding of the whole earth in cloud, 200,000,000 demons killing a third of mankind – and all evidently before the wrath of the Lamb – is not normal.

    Romans 1:18 is mistranslated. Paul is saying that wrath from heaven is revealed (namely by the prophets) against all unrighteousness, not wrath is revealed from heaven. It is that wrath which Revelation reveals (Rev 15:5-16:21), and therefore Rom 1:18 is not a propos in relation to the current crisis.

  7. Ian,

    I understand the points that you’ve raised.

    However, I do think that they (unintentionally) caricature the position of those opposed to Open Theism.

    You wrote: “If we reverse that psalm’s numerals and look at Psalm 37, we are offered an answer—but the answer is not that God exercises meticulous control over all events, it is that God exercises ultimate control. His intention will be exercised and fulfilled, at some pointing the future, and human mortality ultimately brings judgement to us all. Thus our response to this disparity is to wait in patience for God’s will to be revealed.”

    1. On both sides, there’s agreement that God exercises ultimate control.
    2. In contrast with the belief that God’s intention *will* be exercised and fulfilled, those who oppose Open Theism believe that it *is being* exercised and fulfilled.
    3. God’s means of exercising sovereignty is by setting boundaries on the scope of human endeavour and behaviour.

    So, in Acts 2:23, although Peter declares the agency (hands) of the lawless in surrendering Christ (to the Romans), he indicates that the determinate (from horizo, to designate limits, boundaries) plan and foreknowledge of God.

    In Acts 17, Paul similarly describes God’s control of mankind’s migration: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out (horisas) their appointed times in history and the boundaries (horothesia) of their lands.” (Acts 17:26)

    And in the case of Job, we see the same principle by which Satan describes God’s providence towards Job as a hedge, but God establishes set boundaries to the range of calamities which Satan can bring upon him (Job 1:12; Job 2:6)

    The control that God exercises is that, whether through good or evil agents, He is actively in control of the boundaries of their effect on the universe.

    In fact, it is in the setting of boundaries, that God’s sovereignty is most expressly revealed. As He says to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? In what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—While the morning stars sang together and all the angels a shouted for joy? “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,
    when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”

    These scriptures, which convey the constraints through which God exercises sovereign control over the outcome of human affairs, cannot be summarily dismissed by the kind of arguments which Paul described and rejected in Rom. 9:19 – 24.

  8. Ian
    Peter Saunders has replied for himself. A couple of points on what you wrote about Adam Young’s article:
    You wrote, “The first problem with this article is that Young does not answer the question that he sets up. If God is in ‘absolute and sovereign control’ of disasters, then God must indeed have wanted to flood the house of Tony Perkins, presumably because Perkins was sinning and in error—in his view that God used natural disasters to punish sinners!”

    But Young does write, “It is important to note that whilst one of these prayers was first written with a specific event in mind (namely the ‘sweating sickness’ of 1551 being behind the original prayer against plague and sickness) they are all pretty general. These prayers are just as applicable in 2016 as they were in 1662. Despite their focus on human sin being a cause of disaster these prayers never, ever, specify a single sin as connected to a specific disaster. This is crucially important. The truth is that Tony Perkins was both wrong and foolish for pointing to one particular sin and then pointing to a particular natural disaster. He was not wrong though on the basic principle behind his mistaken and unfortunate pronouncements.”

    Secondly, reading these prayers again reminds me of the ‘chastened piety’ which characterises the whole of the Book of Common prayer, the Articles and the Homilies: the seriousness of the Fall and sin; the dreadful judgment which hangs over us all by nature; the wonderful gospel; our absolute dependence in life and death on the mercy of God and his sovereign breath from heaven. I fear that the trajectory of conviction among many Anglican evangelicals is away from and not returning to that piety.

    Phil Almond

  9. Good one, Ian. Glad to see you address this subject. As for myself, I’d lean close to Richard Rice and as far away from John Piper as I can get, but I have not worked it all out. This helps. Thanks.

  10. The problem is Ian that the four horsemen were seemingly instigated by God, in fact Jesus himself, and appear to receive their power and remit from him. Which goes back to the original question.

  11. Interestingly CS Lewis wrote those words before he met his future wife. I don’t think he would have written the same after she died. He said himself all he experienced then was silence.

  12. A characteristically ungenerous comment from you, Ian: “Even the conservative evangelical site The Gospel Coalition blog manages to point this out …”
    ‘Even’? ‘manages’? Because, as we all know, conservative evangelicals are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals from the Ozarks.
    Would you have written after the Manchester bombing: ‘Even conservative mosques managed to condemn this outrage’?
    I know it is customary in post-Christian (and even anti-Christian) Britain to treat evangelicals as the whipping boys of contempt (look how Franklin Graham has been condemned), but please credit your opponents with a little more sophistication.
    This is really the old question of theodicy and the nature of God’s omnipotence, and it takes us not just into biblical exegesis (which must always be the boundaries of our thinking) but into philosophical theology as well: the characteristics of God as the maximal being, the ethics of divine justice, and the metaphysics of events. Since the Bible isn’t a philosophical discourse (in the manner of Plato or Aristotle), it doesn’t address these questions as directly or as fully as we might like, and there are many gaps we must fill as best we can.
    Thus it was not news to any of the Old Testament prophets that the righteous suffered alongside the unrighteous in any event that was perceived to be divine chastisement. The prophets themselves suffered for delivering an unpopular message, as well as suffering at the hands of the Babylonian invaders. How does the modern Christian answer the age-old question of how an omnipotent and benevolent God can allow evil? Briefly, by telling his or her interlocutor (one whose philosophical knowledge rarely extends beyond GCSE RE): “You are asserting in effect that ‘It is impossible for a morally perfect omnipotent God to have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. But if you think about it, you know that is impossible to prove because you’re making an implicit claim to omniscience yourself about every possible factor relating to an event of suffering. And you don’t have that knowledge.”
    As for the meaning of ‘maximal being’, there are versions of theology today – some tied to ideas of evolutionism – that see ‘God’ as the greatest being but not yet as great as he/she/it will become or evolve to be; a kind of immanentist, panentheistic process theology, in other words, that can embrace feminism and ecological concerns. I don’t know enough about ‘Open Theism’ – one in which God doesn’t know the future – to see if that is somewhere in that stream as well. Needless to say (or at least, it should be), this isn’t classical theology of the Great Tradition which embraces Aquinas as much as the Reformers, but owes more to Hegel. (As Moltmann seems to, I think.)
    Lastly, as for metaphysics and the divine superintendence of them, what is an ‘event’? Materially speaking, you could define the most fundamental event of all as the smallest possible sub-atomic particle moving the smallest possible distance in space. (You could also define an event as a purely non-material action, such as the thought of a spirit-being, but these aren’t open to our investigation). Thus, even the smallest thing we do (moving an eyelid, say) is really the summation of quintillions of quintillions (etc) of fundamental events. Do any of these fundamental events happen ‘outside of God’ – that is, outside his permission or his will? I think the answer must be no. On that the Muslim scholar, the Catholic mystic and the Reformed theologian would be agreed.

    • Hi Brian,
      Yes. I agree – I think. But one problem with the Reformed tradition is that in its dogmatism it seems at times to go beyond Scripture. And while I do not subscribe to Open Theism, I suggest theologians can learn from quantum mechanics, of which apparently Richard Feynman said ‘if you think you understand, then you don’t.’ Apparently, the way atoms behave defies logic but physicists today have to embrace the seemingly contradictory concepts embedded in the theory because they are repeatedly evidenced in scientific experiments.

      • I think what Feynman meant by that remark is that there are different ways of understanding quantum mechanics which conflict with each other (e.g. the Copenhagen School or the many-worlds theory). The ‘Open Theism’ article that Ian links to is full of holes and close to a parody – but then the temptation to caricature our opponents is a strong one that many of us fall into, in order to make our point. We should all seek to ‘steel-man’ views we disagree with, not ‘straw-man’ them. Whether the Reformed tradition is “sometimes dogmatic”, I cannot say; nor do I know whether “dogmatic” is necessarily bad. (Is ‘Church Dogmatics’ bad? Do Protestants ‘do’ dogmatics, in any case? I always thought that was a Catholic-magisterial word.) What I can say from the article is that Open Theism does seem to hold: that God doesn’t know the future (presumably because he is enclosed within linear time); that God is changeable in his nature and in his counsels; and that God isn’t in control of all events.
        In other words, the God of Open Theism is indeed the Supreme Being but he isn’t ‘the Creator of all things, visible and invisible’. This seems similar to the classical Greek understanding of Zeus, the most powerful of the gods but not omnipotent (and certainly not omniscient, which is really only a sub-set of being omnipotent). In classical Greek thought ‘fate’ (moira) was more fundamental than the gods, who were subject to ‘fate’: like Poseidon attacking Odysseus, they could resist and rebel against ‘fate’, but they knew they could not thwart it.
        Classical theism, Catholic as well Reformed, based on the Bible’s actual affirmations about the infinite-tripersonal Lord and conclusions of logic, rejects this view of reality, insisting that Yahweh is the fundamental, eternal reality, not deficient in any attribute. If the Reformed doctrine of God is ‘dogmatic’, so is Catholicism. There is really no difference between them. The Magisterial Reformers never disputed the Ecumenical Councils on the Trinity and Christology. (Of course, some Radical Anabaptists, Quakers and Socinians did, but that’s another matter.)

        • Yes. Again, I think I agree. My critique of Reformed ‘dogmatism’ (and as you point out Roman Catholicism is indeed also dogmatic) is really a critique of systematic theology in general. I suggest biblical theology is more relaxed about allowing the Scripture text to speak with its apparent contradictions.

    • Brian, thanks, but I think your paranoia is speaking here.

      I say ‘even’ because you would normally expect TGC to expound the kind of Calvinist ‘meticulous sovereignty’ position found in the other two.

      I was genuinely interested that it didn’t.

      • Hey, Ian – my paranoia is between me and my psychiatrist!
        I don’t often read the essays on ‘The Gospel Coalition, but having read over this one, I
        don’t think it can be faulted for not answering one question (the philosophical question of the extent of God’s power in relation to creation and creaturely agents) and focusing on another (giving a biblical-pastoral response to sickness and epidemics). I imagine (but cannot verify) that if you asked the author the philosophical-theological question, ‘Does God have control over *every event in creation (from the smallest movement of the smallest sub-atomic particle) such that it does not happen without His permissive will and is not used by Him toward His ultimate glory?’, he would probably answer ‘yes’. But his essay wasn’t think at that scholastic level – which is nonetheless the right question to ask in the right place: in a seminar comparing and contrasting what Calvin thought about the causal power of creatures vis-à-vis Aquinas and the scholastics on the one hand and (say) Nicolas Malebranche’s occasionalism and Descartes on the other.
        When you state:
        “If God is in ‘absolute and sovereign control’ of disasters, then God must indeed have wanted to flood the house of Tony Perkins, presumably because Perkins was sinning and in error—in his view that God used natural disasters to punish sinners!”
        you start with a correct apodosis in order to kick a straw man. “wanted” and “presumably” are your words. Did the faithful prophet Jeremiah not also suffer from the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem? Can God have more than one purpose in allowing – or even causing – unpleasant things to happen? The Christian answer always entails the Cross and always looks to the vindication of right. If the NT differs from the OT, it is principally in projecting punishments (and rewards!) into the afterlife.

  13. I am not so sure that these issues are to do with Open Theism, but more that God does not necessarily protect us from the consequences of our own actions (although sometimes he does),
    -both individually and corporately.

  14. Yes. This is a good post. I mentioned at the end of the recent Lazarus post the role of Satan and few picked up on it. His role in Eden was to destroy God’s creation and I suggested that in the West we tend to downplay the concept of a spiritual warfare being played out in the earthly timeline (and thus have ‘spiritualised’ passages such as Genesis 6: 1-4, adopting the Sethite exegesis advocated by Augustine).

    As Ian points out Satan is the ‘ruler of this world’ —and in conflict with God and his creation. Genesis 3:15 and the Cross it speaks of makes it clear that it was not an easy thing to defeat him. But we have made the cross all about the forgiveness of personal sins —not the climax of a cosmic battle.

    • I agree with you on the issue of the reduction of the cross to personal forgiveness. However, in terms of the ‘cosmic battle’, I think there is a danger in making Satan too powerful. If we equate ‘the adversary’ at the beginning of Job with the ‘prince of this world’, then he only operates with God’s permission. This is an uncomfortable idea, but seems more biblical than an out and out dualism.

        • Yes. God is all powerful. But Aslan still had to die on the stone table to defeat the deep magic. And note Lewis portrayed the death as a means to rescue Edmund (i.e. Adam) from the wicked witch – which I take to be Satan (and the various synonyms). Which is the reverse of Reformed theology that sees the Cross was to rescue us from Adam, or at least from our Adamic nature. I think Lewis’s theology was closer to the biblical text than our Reformed tradition.

          • The enemy is, as you say, extremely strong. As summed up in the maxim: God is always stronger than the enemy and the enemy is always stronger than us.

            Lewis was a Christus Victor adherent (i.e. the most convincingly ‘umbrella’ and ‘general’ atonement model, just as ‘battle’ is a more comprehensive and fuller and general and accurate model of life itself, of reality, than is law or finance). He was also (connectedly) a believer in the maxim that the big divide between professing Christians was between realists and nonrealists.

  15. Thanks for the post, Ian. However, I’m afraid that it rather seems to be opposing straw men: the position you quote from ‘even’ the Gospel Coalition is not a generally contested one – I don’t think Youngs or many others would argue that every earthly trouble is a direct response from God to a particular sin (though some surely will be, whether in judgement or discipline). We all accept the points from Job and John 9. As a result, I don’t feel you have actually addressed the real position of those who, like myself, believe the Bible does teach the meticulous providence of God, and I would be interested to see that.

    • I think I answer that in my exploration of other biblical passages. The case for quite the opposite view, Open Theism, is put by Richard Rice in the book chapter I have posted up.

  16. Open Theism seemed to have some prominence some 15 years or so ago, with Boyd and others,being quite prominent in favour, it drew me into buying “God’s Lesser Glory” and “God’s Greater Glory” both by Bruce Ware.
    I, too, thought there was a gratuitous rankled snipe at “conservatives” and the Gospel Coalition and exaggerated categorisation, perhaps may be hyper-calvinism.
    Open theism is a topic that merits, and has merited more than a blog article, and is a one on which many books have been written.
    As for eschatology, Dr Sam Storms, in “Kingdom Come” sets out a whole scripture approach to the present age, emphasising a parallelism to plagues and judgements, rather than a historical sequence alone, and continuing and culminating in the book of Revelation.
    There are bilical theological. longitudinal canon, patterns, of repetition, cycles, of covenants, breaches, idolatry and judgments, repenting, turning back to God, God relenting and on and on .
    If anyone is unsettled by the Sovereignty of God, they may be fizzing after reading AW Pinks, The Sovereignty of God, available free, here:
    Another book is, The Mystery of Providence , by John Flavel.
    Last, this was attached to a tweet I came across, posted by Alex Dowsett, cyclist.
    ” A view from an Indian Doctor:
    Social distancing is a privilege. It means that you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward the corona off are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor. All of us who are practising social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are. Many Indians wont be able to do any of this.”

    In the context of the attachment, how humbling, how privileged, how crucial is the word, of God, the cross, and the presence of God. Our personal, church and national idols are being exposed. And still there is no national turning to Christ.

  17. I have just prepared an on-line bible study on Joel. The plague of locusts (a once in a lifetime event to tell your grand children about (1:2,3) has an impact with interesting parallels today. But Joel does not say the event is a punishment for sin. The reference to ‘drunkards’ in 1:5 says that their pleasures have been taken away and that they need to wake from inattentiveness, not that the plague is directly punishment for drinking too much. But (as the C S Lewis quote says) it is a call from God to be awake to God’s judgement of us – a ‘day of the Lord’ (2:1 &11) – so the Lord is leading the army of locusts! It rightly awakens the fear of the Lord.

    So the proper response is repentance (1:13ff & 2:12ff) – but nowhere is it said the plague is caused by specific sins. Rather the prophet looks forward to the Lord restoring the land and – better still – pouring out his Spirit (2:18-32).

    So let coronavirus lead us to serious self-examination, as your article does, but not with a “I know why it happened” certainty that is the opposite of the sense of vulnerability, weakness and crying out to the Lord that it should evoke; and let it cause to look for the good gifts the Lord can give us after the virus.

    • There are two ways of reading Joel 1:13f. One is that the nation cannot make thank offerings for the harvest because the harvest has all been eaten up. The other is that the locusts have come upon the nation because it is guilty of not having made these offerings (in recognition that it is God who sends the sun and the rain and keeps locusts away) – the punishment then fitting the crime. If they are called to repent, to put on sackcloth and fast, there must be something to repent of, surely. How can one weep and mourn and rend one’s heart (Joel 2:12-15) if one doesn’t know what one has done wrong?

  18. In my small way, like many others, I have been thinking about this. Some of this springs from considering God’s response to Solomon’s prayer for the temple in 2 Chronicles 6:

    “13 ‘When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. ” (2 Chronicles 7:13-15)

    Solomon’s prayer (2 Chron 6:28) does not say explicitly that plague comes from God, but this response does. Using the STEP bible to do a word search it is evident that the word plague/pestilence is in almost every case described as the action of God. (Psalm 91:3 seems to be the main exception, where those under the shadow of His wing are protected.)

    Plague and famine are collective. They affect the whole community. This is distinct from individual hardship and suffering. It seems clear from the Hebrew Scriptures that the result of these should be a turning to God in humility and a turning away from the wicked ways, i.e. repentance. If God allows these things it is not so much a punishment but a means for bringing us back to Himself.

    The STEP bible helpfully gives related words. Thus, sharing the same word root, we have:

    – de.ver (plague/pestilence)
    – da.var (speak)
    – mid.bar (both ‘mouth’ and ‘wilderness’, I believe the ‘mi-‘ prefix is often the place where the associated action happens).

    I may be going to far, but these word associations do suggest that we should consider plague and our current wilderness experience as a time when God is speaking to us.

    I note that Luke 13, although Jesus put aside the idea that the individuals who suffered a tragic fate were more sinful than others, he did say: “but unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5b)

    So, we as individuals, as a Church, as a nation and humanity at large, of what do we need to repent?

  19. My diocese helpfully supplied us with a liturgical resource to consult and use during the current lock down. I noticed that the BCP’s prayer ‘in the time of any common plague or sickness’ (reproduced below) was overlooked for inclusion.

    I emailed the diocese to remind them that we had an eloquent prayer in our founding prayer book crafted just for such an occasion as the one we are now in, and there followed a gracious exchange about the appropriateness or otherwise of praying along these lines. A couple of weeks on, the prayer has still not been added to the resource.

    Cranmer, it seems, is just a bit too hard core for the C of E these days.

    O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  20. Thanks for a balanced and absorbing article on a very difficult topic.
    I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that God and the devil have been since the beginning – and still are – in constant battle with each other to dominate the world. This makes sense of Jesus being tempted in the desert by the devil. The point is that after apparently losing the battle by ending up on the cross, God raised him from the dead and thereby won the campaign.
    There are however many lesser battles and skirmishes before Jesus returns and takes full control.
    Otherwise, why do we keep praying “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven” ?

  21. From my facebook post:

    Thankfully, we have other historically orthodox, biblically and philosophically viable options beyond jumping from the one extreme of meticulous providence to the other of open theism.

    While I’m not as conversant in the wide ranging literature (and various permutations) in the Openness of God/Open Theism literature as I’d like, the things that turn me off of classical Augustinian-Calvinism on such matters include, for example, the incessantly selective cry of “anthropomorphism!” for reading certain texts that indicate divine change, repentance, emotion, movement, and other such biblical concepts that twinge the Augustinian-Calvinist’s Greek-seeped conscience, while happily playing along with texts that imply “God doesn’t change, doesn’t move, etc”. I do think that these fellows have left themselves wide open to attack, and Rice, Sanders, Pinnock, and others have little trouble pressing the biblical texts and logic fiercely on this front. I’ve been left underwhelmed by the modern Calvinist responses. (I have other problems with the Calvinist orthodoxy/hegemony, on historical and exegetical grounds, but here we’re addressing specifically with meticulous providence, which I find to be akin to reading every other page of Scripture).

    On the other side of things, when I read Pinnock, I track fairly well with his Biblical and logical concerns on Augustinian-Calvinism, for example in his essay on Augustine to Arminius, A Pilgrimage in Theology (http://evangelicalarminians.org/pinnock-clark-h-from…/), all the way up to the point where Pinnock’s conscience is tweaked irrevocably by the linking of foreknowledge and causation. While I personally see no problem dividing foreknowledge and causation, Pinnock couldn’t see past the issue, and so, in my opinion, takes an unnecessary turn into the “unknown”. My response to Rice here in this chapter you’ve linked, and elsewhere (e.g, “God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Will, 1985, pp, e,g., 50) is similar: I would affirm 90% of the chapter in “Biblical Support for a New Perspective”, up to the point where Rice’s logic takes him to the necessity of negating divine omniscience, where Rice can’t seem to divide foreknowledge from causation. Reading the chapter above, from a position outside of an Augustinian mould, I find most of it fairly obvious and attractive, for it was what most of the Church Fathers were saying up until about 400AD (and indeed, which most of the Jewish sources urged before and after), with respect to divine movement, emotion, character, election, etc. I just don’t see the necessity of abandoning the good ship Omniscience, when we could simply sail out of Augustinian waters. Of those playing within the Open Theism spectrum specifically on foreknowledge, I’ve been attracted to Dallas Willard’s perspective that, while the future is closed, God may voluntarily choose not to know truths about future contingents, but this has left a lingering sense that isn’t this just akin to God closing his eyes almost comically? So I’m not sure that solves the problem.

    My own personal take? I lean heavily into Ireneaus’ vision of Creation, the Fall (as opposed to Augustine’s), and the implications Ireneaus draws out for divine foreknowledge, causation, election, the will, etc. etc. Here, I prefer Ireneaus’ logic over Rice’s, and am quite comfortable to operate in that space. I think this framework also provides an excellent ship to sail in the debates on divine sovereignty, in these poignant modern times. (By the way, I think you’d like Gerald Hiestand’s work on the Irenean vision, for example, here: https://www.pastortheologians.com/articles/2019/6/13/st-irenaeus-the-beatific-vision-and-the-instrumentalization-of-creation?fbclid=IwAR2TgDDr-Uyb-h-697gXOi8CELV4_yoAiZhCne23Q8d96ndCuZiV6kzkJxY)

    • I dont understnad how God does not see or know the future, if He is not limited by time, yet I understand those who hold open theism believe that – pl correct me if im wrong.

      Time itself is intertwined inescapably with the physical universe, which only came into existence 13 billion years ago. Before then, time at least as we understand it, did not exist. By definition God is not limited by space (He existed whilst the universe did not) and therefore time, and therefore past, present and future are effectively one to Him. Of course He could purposefully prevent Himself from knowing the future, but that seems rather ludicrous to most. Was it to give Himself a surprise! Such a view would also seem to negate the prophetic elements of Old and New Testaments, some of those predictions being made centuries before they happened.

      No, it doesnt add up for me.


      • Thanks for the laugh Peter: “Was it to give himself a surprise?”
        A surprised God of Open Theism may sound something like this-
        “Ooh what a shock, O dear me how, fancy that. How could that have happened? Who’d have thought it? If only I’d spent more time thinking it through and all the connotations, and permutations for the whole world. It gives me a headache even mentioning it. I couldn’t possibly have foreseen it all. Wish I hadn’t done that. My mistake. Please forgive me. Even becoming incarnate ended badly!”

      • Since the subject is the book of Revelation, I suppose you are minded – with your belief in a Big Bang 13 billion years ago – to think that Jesus’s return will be billions of years in the future, and that when he institutes a new heaven and earth, that universe too will take billions of years to form?

        • Steven, neither I nor you have any idea when He will return. I suspect the first disciples would be quite surprised it still hasnt happened 2000 years later, but that’s up to Him.

          As for the future heaven and earth, I dont think He is creating a ‘new’ heaven and earth but rather a renewed heaven and earth, this universe and earth are not going to disappear. Your mindset typically views the creation negatively, when in truth it is beautiful, but anticipating a needed renewal. So no it won’t take billions of years as it has already formed. But God has His own timetable.

          You seem to have a very sceptical view of scientific findings. Why is that?


          • I dont think He is creating a ‘new’ heaven and earth but rather a renewed heaven and earth.
            That’s clearly not what the text says. The word is ‘new’, not ‘renewed’, and to make it quite clear, it continues, ‘for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.

            I am very sceptical of uncritical belief, including belief in ‘findings’ that are nothing of the sort (I speak as a scientist).

    • Hi Nicholas, I will read the material in the link you provide. In my mind Augustine has caused more confusion about key NT teachings than any other person in history – he was heavily influenced by neoplatonism and I think it is right for us to question some of these received doctrines – even though I belong to the Reformed tradition and am a Calvin ‘fan’ – I have visited his grave twice. Was not Jesus the supreme anthropomorphic expression of God? Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology says: “It is in vain for us to presume to understand the Almighty to perfection. We know that God is immutable in his being, his perfections, and his purposes; and we know that He is perpetually active. And, therefore, activity and immutability must be compatible; and no explanation of the latter inconsistent with the former ought to be admitted.”

    • Nicholas, read the link. Thanks.
      “The New Testament, far from being the culmination of a progressive spiritualization in the understanding of God, speaks of God unsurpassably enfleshed in the human. Apart from the Christ event, the New Testament continues to speak of God in terms of such metaphors. This continuity is consonant with developments within the Old Testament, where one is struck by the constant use of such language. There are no anti-anthropomorphic tendencies to be discerned; even in dreams or visions or glimpses into heaven God is spoken of in such ways.” Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering God: An Old Testament Perspective (OBT; Pa.: Fortress, 1984), 6-7.

  22. Yes. Or to put it another way, the C of E is increasingly unwilling to be confronted with the God of the Bible who is both terrible in his wrath and honesty and wonderful in his sovereign mercy, grace and forgiveness.

    Phil Almond

  23. While I don’t subscribed to Open Theism, neither do I embrace the impassibility of God. Scripture is replete with with God’s attributes which negates impassibility, jealous, apple of eye, singing over, and more.
    To me, from memory, Pinnock was addressed, convincingly to me, at some length by Bruce Ware in the two books I mentioned above, which I still have.
    To reduce Pinnock’s and Boyd’s
    Open Theism to cartoon sketches, the impression left is that God is neither omnipotent, nor omniscient, doesn’t really know what he is doing, can’t know the beginning from the end, nor all the contingencies: not God at all, doesn’t intervene in creation, the natural world and order in humanity.
    While I could take time to abstract some of the books, it is more than clear where Ian is planted, his likes, and what one sided views he supports, from the contributing comments he appreciates above, those who agree, who may or may not have wrestled with the topic and all it’s systematic and biblical theological roots and offshoots.
    It is his blog and it for others in the CoE whose voice carries any weight at all to take it up. It is beyond my lay pay-grade.

  24. Geoff
    I reflect on your ‘It is his blog and it for others in the CoE whose voice carries any weight at all to take it up. It is beyond my lay pay-grade’.

    I have committed myself to facing the strongest possible challenges to my convictions. I am wondering whether Nicholas Ellis’ stated view on ‘Augustinian-Calvinism’ in Nicholas Ellis March 31, 2020 at 4:26 pm on this thread is such a challenge to one of my convictions, or whether Nicholas and I (and, indeed, Ian and Ireneaus and I) are on common ground here however we may disagree elsewhere.

    The conviction I am referring to, stated several times on various threads, is that because of the Fall, because of Original Sin, we are all born with a nature inclined to evil and we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards.

    The reasons I am convinced that is true are, briefly:

    John 3:36
    Romans 8:1 (because those not in Christ Jesus must still be facing condemnation)
    Romans 5:16 and 5:18
    1 Corinthians 15:22
    Romans 8:7 and 8:8
    Matthew 7:11
    Ephesians 2:1-3

    I invite Nicholas and Ian to comment (are we on common ground here and if not why not) and I would like to know whether Ireneaus would have agreed with me and if not why not.


    Phil Almond

    • The concept of the “Fall” (not a word the biblical text uses uses) and “Original Sin” (transmitted how?) are more the product I suggest of Augustinian reception history then biblical theology.

      • Colin
        ‘Fall’ is a shorthand term for the event described in Genesis 3.
        ‘Original Sin’ is a shorthand term for the ‘one offence’ of Romans 5:18 which resulted in condemnation to all in the same verse.

        Phil Almond

        • Hi Phil, this is straying from the path of the Blog but that is perhaps part of the fascination of them?

          Metaphors are the most powerful of linguistic instruments by which God tells the Bible story. But the Bible does not used the metaphor of a “Fall” to describe the Edenic disaster—rather it is a literal exile—physical and spiritual. The Bible story follows that trajectory of repeated exodus/exile/new exodus—Adam/Israel (and eventually the elect) pushed away from a relational God and subsequently brought back into his presence.

          The Reformed teaching of original sin is that Adam passed a “sinful nature” to all humanity and that is why we all sin. There is no Bible verse that specifically teaches such (not even in Psalm 51 or Romans 5)—and indeed Adam sinned quite successfully without a sinful nature.

          But it is true that since Adam we are all inclined to sin and indeed all do so (Romans 5:12b). In other words, I (with many others) would argue that our humanity is not intrinsically sinful—but rather our inclination is to sin. Thus, Jesus was born just like you and me (no need to have the qualification that he had a different “nature”) —but he was different in that he was inclined to do his Father’s will.

          These may seem small points. But if you get on the train at platform 11 instead of platform 12—they both set off in the same direction, but one ends up in Glasgow, and the other in London.

          • ‘These may seem small points. But if you get on the train at platform 11 instead of platform 12—they both set off in the same direction, but one ends up in Glasgow, and the other in London.’

            Nice metaphor!

            And a great reminder of what biblical language actually says. Thanks.

          • Colin

            Yes. We are ‘straying from the path of this Blog’ and I wonder whether this is part of the reason why Ian and Nicholas have not (yet) responded to my challenge.

            My excuse for keep raising this issue is as follows:

            In my view the Christian message has two big and essential parts:
            1 The serious warning that we all face wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards, and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil.
            2 The wonderful good news of the invitation, exhortation and command to repent and submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, and be freely forgiven and have a new, eternal and living relationship with God

            I can’t prove it, and would be humbled and put in my place, but glad, to be proved wrong, but I surmise that this definition of the Christian message, the Christian gospel, especially the terrible diagnosis of the human condition, is believed and proclaimed by only a minority of Anglican ministers, including Archbishops and Bishops. I aim in what remains of my life (I am 74) to devote considerable time, by prayer and persuasion, to help to bring about a situation by the grace and mercy of God where that definition is believed and proclaimed by all Anglican ministers.
            Only thus can the Church as a whole say with Jesus Christ, ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’, and with Paul ‘Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God’, and with John the Baptist ‘O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ Only thus can the Church as a whole tremble before God’s solemn warning to Ezekiel: ‘But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’
            To (hopefully) clarify the discussion I reword (without changing my intended meaning) my assertion to avoid using the ‘Fall’ and ‘Original Sin’:

            “The teaching of the passages I mentioned in PHILIP ALMOND April 1, 2020 at 12:35 pm convinces me that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil and we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards”.
            I have not mentioned what happens to the unsaved on the Day of Judgment. This is a very serious topic and I have, and am prepared to defend, a definite view. But the first step is whether or not we all agree with and are committed to preach the four key points in the serious warning – ‘wrath’, ‘condemnation’, ‘from birth onwards’ and ‘nature inclined to evil’.
            I point out that in your post you say ‘our humanity is not intrinsically sinful—but rather our inclination is to sin’ but I assume you do not agree with my ‘nature inclined to evil’. I am surprised you are not persuaded by the passages I quoted. I could also have mentioned Genesis 6:5,6, Genesis 8:21, Romans 7:18, Romans 5:19, Jeremiah 17:9 (‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it’).
            You don’t comment on my case for ‘wrath’ (John 3:36 and Ephesians 2:1-3), ‘condemnation’ (Romans 8:1, Romans 5:16 and Romans 5:18), ‘from birth onwards’ (Ephesians 2:1-3 and the Romans 5 references)
            Phil Almond

  25. Thanks for more theological education (although I suppose I am paying for it in a way!)

    I was not familiar with Openness so reading the Rice link was instructive. I have a few problems with it: it does seem to embody the wider problem with theology, that is, when theology serves to provoke opinions rather than actions.

    For instance, the extrapolation of what God is like from John’s phrase: God is love. In context, he wrote it, not specifically as a theological revelation of God, but as a means of provoking the Christians to do what they should have been doing and were not – loving one another. So it’s conceivable that if they were living as they should he would never have needed to say it.

    Why do we have to argue about whether or not God changes His mind when the clear actions to such passages is that we should pray (not debate)? Why debate whether or not some divine actions are ‘transient’ (such as anger or corrective discipline) when what we need is a kick up the rear.

    I’m not sure his overall ‘big picture’ is not fudged by not distinguishing that the many references to love in the OT are addressed to a people as plural. Steadfast love (hesed, I believe) is very specifically covenant love: an eternal promise to those who will comprise the eternal people of God. This strikes me as very different from the manifestation of love to humanity in general such as Jesus expressed through the provision of rain or as Paul expressed through social Government. God loved the world so that there would be a special, redeemed people in the end.

    I do maintain that theology is one of my favourite subjects, but why we take much notice of academic complications of it, I’m not sure: “You have hidden the kingdom from the wise and revealed it to babes”!

  26. As you say, you have repeated these points many times. I recall engaging with you at some length at
    but to no effect. You seemed unable to understand that neither ‘wrath’ nor ‘condemnation’ necessarily mean eternal torment in hell – a matter firstly of understanding what individual words mean, secondly of understanding them in their immediate context, and thirdly of understanding them in the context of the NT as a whole. You repeatedly used the phrase ‘eternal retribution’ which you think is in the Bible but isn’t. You evaded the key question whether, in your theology, Adam and Eve went to hell. You ignored the point put to you that aionios does not always mean ‘eternal’. In short, I think you ought to think much more deeply about these questions before you challenge others to engage.

    • Steven
      Thanks for replying. But your reply challenges my understanding of what ‘wrath’ and ‘condemnation’ mean. A prior step is agreeing or disagreeing on whether, based on the passages I gave (and others), we do all face wrath and condemnation from birth onwards. Do we agree or do we disagree? If we agree, the next step is to consider what I understand wrath and condemnation to mean and what you understand the words to mean. I agree that I believe that wrath and condemnation results in eternal retribution inflicted by God on the unsaved on the Day of Judgment. You have probably told me but please just remind me what do you understand the words to mean and what do you believe happens to the unsaved on the Day of Judgment. I hope you see that I am trying to understand to where Ian, Nicholas and Iraneaus start to disagree with me. I already know that Ian inclines to an Annihilation view. I am trying to discover whether my disagreement with him starts ‘further back’ so to speak.

      Phil Almond

    • Steven,
      Adam and Eve:
      They had a garments of skin to clothe them made by God, a covering symbolic of a blood sacrifice substitute, Gen 3:21 – referred to as the proto-evangel by RVG Tasker.
      Their own attempt at covering was not sufficient for God.
      This came after the coinjoined curse and blessing and naming Adam’s wife, Eve, the “mother of all living” from whom the promised seed (Christ) would be traced -the Promised seed being a longitudinal bible theme.
      The conclusion would be they both were saved.

  27. Hi Ian,
    First, let me say that your commentary on the Book of Revelation is one of the best I have ever read-a real gem. Thanks so much.

    Second, primarily the nature of this subject places it in the category of systematic theology (not biblical theology as you suggest). As such the discussion tends to be more finely nuanced than it appears in this blog. To speak of God as ‘wanting’ to flood Tony Perkins’ house or the rape of child being ‘God’s plan’ is to use language in a loose but emotive way which doesn’t help us grasp the way these matters are to be approached which does full justice to God’s overall revelation in Scripture which primarily turns on the understanding of the character of God and his how he relates to his world. Theologians Like Kevin Vanhoozer for example, speak of God ‘supervening’ events in the world rather than ‘superintending’ which allows for a strong view of God’s sovereignty without collapsing into the caricature of God ‘the puppet master’. Of course it then has to be coordinated with a whole range of other related doctrines- the fall, the nature of sin, ‘free will’, God’s saving purposes, and eschatology as you say.

    Thirdly, I would suggest that one should give more consideration to a ‘meticulous view’ of Providence and God’s sovereignty. The Openness view, I believe results in a travesty of the revelation of God in Scripture and does not do sufficient justice to the biblical data or to the pain of living in this fallen world. It is more of an ineffective palliative than a genuine theological prescription.

    May I humbly commend my book ‘Intended for Good- The Providence of God’ (IVP) which brings together Biblical exegesis, Systematic Theology, Biblical theology and Pastoral Theology on the subject from a more Reformed position? Also on the matter of the importance of mystery in all of this my, ‘If God is so Good why are Things So Bad: the problem of Suffering from Job to Jesus’ (Evangelical Press). For a more detailed theological discussion, I refer to my article in Churchman: ‘Risky Business: A defence of the no-risk view of Providence.’

    Thanks again for this blog which is so valuable.

    • Dear Melvin

      Thanks for your comments, and for your kind commendation of my commentary. My conviction was to ruthlessly adhere to commenting on what the text said, and only then reflecting theologically. Revelation tests this approach to the limit, and many commentators and ordinary readers find that a hard discipline!

      I agree with your commendation of Vanhoozer. Roger Olson does something similar when saying that ‘God is in charge, even if not in [meticulous] control’. I find the expression ‘God is in control of every drop of rain…’ and so on does indeed lapse into the ‘puppet master’ picture.

      I appreciated Nick Ellis’s comments on the problems that some ‘open theists’ fall into, in failing to distinguish between foreknowledge and causation, though I think some ‘meticulous providence’ people do the same.

      Thanks for the mention of your book. Is the Churchman article available online?

      • Hi Melvin
        “First, let me say that your commentary on the Book of Revelation is one of the best I have ever read-a real gem. Thanks so much”.

        I have not read Ian’s commentary. But I am in a long-running disagreement with Ian about the atonement on some threads on this website.

        To take just one point: on May 13, 2016 at 8:22 am # in the thread “On the cross when Jesus died, was ‘the wrath of God satisfied’?”, Ian posted

        “Thanks David. ‘I believe that God is angry against sinners’. If that is the case, why does the NT never say so? It talks of the ‘wrath of God against sin and wickedness’ but never talks of God being angry with sinners. Why do you think that is, if it is so plain?”

        So I am interested to know how Ian handles those Revelation passages which do seem to say that God is angry with sinners, such as Rev 6:14-17; Rev 14:9-11; Rev 16:1-2; Rev 16:19-21; Rev 19:11-15.

        Phil Almond

          • Ian

            ‘If anyone worships the beast and the image of it, and receives a mark on the forehead of him or on the hand of him, even he shall drink of the wine of the anger of God having been mixed undiluted in the cup of the wrath of him, and will be tormented by fire and sulphur before holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of the torment of them unto ages of ages goes up, and they have not rest day and night the [ones] worshipping the beast and the image of it and if anyone receives the mark of the name of it. (Revelation 14:9-11)’ – Marshall literal translation, Nestle Text.

            Phil Almond

          • Ian

            If those who worship ‘the beast and the image of it, and receive a mark on the forehead of him or on the hand of him… shall drink of the wine of the anger of God’ how can God not be angry with such worshippers?

            Phil Almond

  28. Don’t find that an apt metaphor, Colin.
    They are different trains not “the” train. They are different trains going in different “opposite” directions and we are aware of the train we board.
    And if we, the church is on different trains going in different directions, who will end up where? We are not all on board.

    One metaphor I’ve heard, which is similar, in a charismatic setting: we are all on a bus bound for hell and need to get on the bus bound for heaven.

    Also, it is not a qualification to say that Jesus, The last Adam, born supernaturally, has an indivisible nature. It is essential. We are either “in Adam” or in the last Adam, Christ, a new humanity.
    However, back to scripture which addresses inherited or rather imputed sin, guilt of humanity Romans 5-21 ( in particular v 12, , 13-14, 18-19.
    From the time of Adam to Moses, though their sins did not count against them (they didn’t have God’s written law ) people died.
    All humanity is represented by Adam in time of testing in Eden.
    The guilt and tendency to sin is impute to all.
    If we object to this, do we similarly abhor being in Christ and having his sinless righteousness imputed, counted to us.
    Do we not treasure Christ all the more!

      • Phil, You say “We are either “in Adam” or in the last Adam, Christ, a new humanity.”

        But in repeating this understanding of reception history I believe you are presenting a false dichotomy, one that the Bible does not embrace. Here goes:

        Romans 5:14-16
        A: Adam took us to death
        B: Jesus takes us to life.
        C: Jesus delivers us from Adam

        1 Corinthians 15:22
        A: For as in Adam all die
        B: So in Christ all shall live
        C: Christ delivers us from Adam

        But in neither case can “C” be emphatically deduced from A + B. This is a linguistic ‘fact’ – not just a theological opinion.

        An analogy: A tour guide leads a group into the Twin Towers early on the morning of the 9/11 disaster. The planes strike. A fireman rushes in and rescues the group.

        A: The 9/11 tour guide took the group to death
        B: The fireman takes them to life
        C: The fireman delivers the group from their guide

        No. “C” cannot be emphatically deduced from A + B.

        And of course it is incorrect. The fireman delivers the group from the danger they are in. Christ came to deliver us from death, not from Adam. Adam caused the problem – we now need delivering from the problem. Come now let us reason together? If Christ on the cross delivers us from Adam, the cross is reversing the incarnation where he became the son of Adam?

        And … you cannot reverse a consanguineous relationship. Adam is our great .. great .. grandparent. Nothing can change that. But you can break a covenantal relationship. The covenantal relationship Adam took us into with Satan. That is why the Bible pursues the affinity marital relationship in its gospel story from Genesis to Revelation – not the consanguinity relationship. Romans 7:1-4 tells us that the elect are taken out of our affinity relationship with Satan to an affinity relationship with Christ – see Ephesians 5:31-32).

        I know this understanding does not belong to the Reformed tradition – the tradition I belong to – but that tradition I do not hold as infallible. And that tradition struggles with Romans 7 and Ephesians 5:31-32. Often an indicator that the model we are bringing to the exegesis is wrong? We honour the tradition of the Reformers if we challenge them, just as they challenged the received understanding of Scripture in their day.

        • I should have addressed my reply to Geoff and Phil – sorry. Geoff, you say we are aware of the train we board. But I suggest that misses our interaction here. I am claiming (in some of the matters under discussion here) some are on the reception history train, convinced they are on the biblical theology train 🙂

        • Hello Colin,
          Thanks for the considered response especially in view of my interlocutory comments.
          1 Where did you get the idea that Adam entered into a covenant with Satan?
          I’ve not come across it before, and I’d need to be greatly persuaded to a point of conviction. It doesn’t seem to fit with any biblical theology, though I stand to be corrected.
          2 While I understand from your comments from two or so years ago, your doctorate related to marriage, I think it is a step to far to read all of Romans 7 solely through that lens. The law is not satan, or remotely equivalent and v 1-4 does not, “tells us that the elect are taken out of our affinity relationship with Satan to an affinity relationship with Christ.” I can not see that your contention is supported by the context Ephesians 5:31,32
          3 Adam’s did not enter into a type of marriage “affinity” relationship with Satan. (Perhaps I’m reading too much into your comment). It is a mere assertion so far, that Adam took us into a “covenantal relationship with satan.” I cant trace that in the bible through Biblical theology, nor in a system. It was not a blood or family relationship, not a likeness, image, not Spirit breathed.
          (Please spend some time listening to Fred Sanders that I linked in one of the comments to Ian – it is fascinating too,coherent, cogent and to me compelling, but you’ll have to listen beyond his introductory shorthand supposition of the Fall) ).
          4. The covenant- likeness- relationship was with Adam and God.
          5. “If Christ on the cross is delivering us from Adam” Where in scripture is that stated expressly or by implication?
          6 You’ve already said that, “Christ came to deliver us from death, not from Adam. Adam caused the problem – we now need delivering from the problem” The problem is not Adam, he is the cause as you say. Christ as the incarnate last Adam in his indivisible nature (again please listen to Fred Sanders), on the cross doesn’t and can not reverse the fact of incarnation. On the cross Adam’s sin and ours became Christ’s, Christ’s sinless, perfect law obedience, righteousness becomes ours: a Divine exchange.
          In our union with Christ, we have died with him and raised to new, eternal life with him now.
          7 I agree that the reformed teaching is not infallible. I came to that table later in my Christian walk and know little of Calvin’s writings nor the WCF, but as I’ve continued in self directed informal study, I’ve come to be persuaded that it is coherent, cogent and compelling, not to be blown about by every wind change, and that from an experiential initiation, born from above, into the faith on an Alpha course and some training and study in Methodist lay Preaching. It was the study that pulled me out of the Methodist stream.
          8 Knowing and Enjoying God: Union with Christ,
          One of the much neglected key theme from the reformed tradition is Union in Christ. Sinclair Ferguson has/had some excellent online teaching/preaching that has enhanced my walk with God, and at the popular level books by Mike Reeves; “The Good God ” and “Christ Our Life” were of great influence.
          9 I’m not scholar and don’t aspire to be. I wasn’t a scholar as a solicitor, merely a practitioner, based on national standards knowledge of law and its intellectual challenges and it application. After two substantial medical interventions in my life, any ability I may have had has diminished, including concentration, thinking, marshalling thought and writing.
          Sadly, I see a lot of legal adversarial contention, assertion and opinion and hypotheses that can be proved wrong but not proved right in theology that passes off as discussion.
          What is a stake, is which God do we believe, trust, depend on in life and death: knowing and enjoying God.
          And we need to discern reliable human guides, past and present, alongside Holy Spirit.
          Stay safe in Christ,

    • Phil
      I am an evangelical who believes in the inspiration of Scripture and I agree with the general sweep of all your comments. In this blog I am making a rather more precise theological point (it is a theological blog ) —which nonetheless does have consequences.

      As I see it Romans 5:12 says that Adam introduced sin into the world (and I would argue that this means Satan). And that we die because we sin—not simply because we are related to Adam—but because Adam took us all into a relationship to Satan and we actually do sin. It seems Jesus is clear about this in John 8 where the reference is specifically to Satan. We do what he wants. Not what our heavenly father wants.

      This impacts an understanding of the fate of new-born (and unborn?) or unbaptised babies—the Bible does not I think say that they are sent straight to hell.

      This also impacts our understanding of the cross—I do not believe Jesus died to sever our relationship with Adam and free us from our sinful nature as it is traditionally presented in Reformed circles. He died for our actual sins—and, I suggest more fundamentally, he came to break the relationship with Satan, as is indicated in Genesis 3:15.

      In this matter—the transmission of a sinful nature and thus death by virtue of our birth rather than by the sins we commit—as I see it, is not taught in any of the verses you cite. Except perhaps Romans 7:18. But as you might know this is a contentious chapter, but there seems to be growing consensus in the academy that from Romans 7:7 Paul is speaking first as if were Adam, and then as if he were Israel.

      These theological niceties impact the ‘nuts and bolts’ understanding of the gospel (that is how it works, what happened on the cross)—but in some practical matters as well—such as what to tell parents of babies who die.

      • Colin
        I am finding it difficult to be sure I am following various discussions on this thread. So, correct me if I am wrong, but I am assuming that your April 3 post at 12.13 pm is in answer to my April 2 post at 2.31 pm.

        If that is so, I don’t see how your post comments on my case for ‘wrath’ (John 3:36 and Ephesians 2:1-3), ‘condemnation’ (Romans 8:1, Romans 5:16 and Romans 5:18), ‘from birth onwards’ (Ephesians 2:1-3 and the Romans 5 references), which are the key phrases in the assertion I made about the serious warning I believe we all should be preaching: ‘that we all face wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards, and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil’, which I understood you to be challenging (am I right that you are challenging it?).

        Perhaps stating the obvious, just to elaborate a bit, John 3:36 makes the case for ‘wrath’ (‘but the [one] disobeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him), and Romans 8:1 makes the case for ‘condemnation’ (if there is no condemnation to the [ones] in Christ Jesus, those not in Christ Jesus must still be facing condemnation, and Romans 5:16 and 5:18 support ‘from birth onwards’ because those verses teach that the sin of Adam resulted in condemnation for the whole human race quite apart from the personal sins we commit.

        (On the vital question of infant death before personal sins have been committed I believe: that they do die because of Adam’s sin (I think this is a justified extension of Romans 5:14 to beyond the Adam to Moses period) but God is able to apply the benefits of Christ’s atonement to them, as in the saying ‘he (the child) died for Adam’s sin, he lives for Jesus died’. The Bible is not explicit on whether God does this for some, none or all. I would have to think further but I suspect a strong case can be made from 1 Corinthians 7:14 ‘but now they are holy’ that infants with at least one Christian parent are saved.)

        Phil Almond

        • Phil,
          I am commenting very specifically about the doctrine of original sin as articulated by Augustine and enthusiastically embraced by the Roman Catholic Church—a doctrine that survived the Reformation (Article 9 of the 39 Articles of Faith). A teaching that perhaps I have wrongly presumed you have embraced.

          I am not denying God’s wrath—but I am saying that that wrath is against actual sins committed. Look carefully at Romans 5:12 – “because all sinned.” God’s wrath is not against our sinful nature (whatever that is)—and Jesus did not die to separate us from our Adamic sinful nature as the Reformers and many today believe.

          I think we should be suspicious of any post-apostolic teaching seemingly based on the New Testament that is not consonant with a Hebrew Bible mindset—especially when people cite a few scattered New Testament verses.

          Geza Vermes comments:
          “Paul believed that Adam’s transgression in a mysterious way affected the nature of the human race. The primeval sin, a Pauline creation with no biblical or post-biblical Jewish precedent, was irreparable by ordinary human effort.” [Vermes, Geza (2012). Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicea. Allen Lane, Penguin Books. p. 100.]

          Vermes is correct to point this out—except I do not believe Paul taught it. You will remember Paul declared himself to be a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Phil 3:5).

          Something causes all people to sin—but we cannot say that this is because of the acquisition of a sinful nature consequent on Adam’s sin because Adam sinned in his perfection without this supposed sinful nature. I am suggesting all people sin for the same reason Adam sinned—they are persuaded by Satan.

          The traditional view of 1 Cor 7:14 that you mention to my mind follows this same mistaken trajectory—reading a post-apostolic teaching back into an isolated verse of Scripture. Paul is saying that ‘mixed’ marriage children are ‘holy.’ This might have seemed a surprising position for Paul to take because ‘mixed’ marriages were forbidden in the Hebrew Bible—the teaching in Israel was that, ‘No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD.’ (Deuteronomy 23:2)

          In contrast, Paul appears to be saying that the children of ‘mixed’ marriages in the Christian faith community are ‘holy,’ that is, not ‘unclean’ —not that the children of these marriages are set apart for and belong to God. In other words, the Old Testament mixed marriage rules—based on blood—do not come forward to the Christian faith community. I think the Old Testament and the New Testament are clear—the consanguineous union forms no part of the new covenant.

          • Hi Colin
            I will try to clarify what we are discussing and where, I think, we agree and where we disagree.

            As I said I am trying by prayer and persuasion to help to bring about a situation where all Anglican Ministers and other Pastors believe and preach both parts of the Biblical message: the terrible warning and the wonderful promise of salvation to those who repent and submit to Jesus. My conviction is that both parts are essential for the gospel to be faithfully preached, and that the terrible warning is not preached as often as it should be.
            I am encouraged that on Book Reviews Section Ian Paul has interviewed Dr Andy Angel who ‘has just published an intriguing book “The Jesus You Really Didn’t Know”, exploring the importance of judgement and obedience in the teaching of Jesus in the gospels’. Andy says, ‘The first time it struck me was near the beginning of my ordained ministry. About fifty curates were asked during a training session how many had preached on judgment in the last three years, and only three of us put up our hands. From then on, I began to notice how readily people preach on the God’s love and how easily people gloss over his judgment—which is interesting as Jesus spoke often about the coming judgment. For example, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus talk of this judgment in 20 out of 28 chapters’.

            That is also my concern.

            As I see it, we are agreed that the terrible warning should include preaching that we all face God’s wrath and condemnation. Where we disagree is that I believe we face that wrath and condemnation from birth onwards because of Adam’s sin and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil because of Adam’s sin. So, yes, I do believe that Article 9 is essentially right although the wording of the Article needs changing in some respects to bring it in line with what the Bible says and means.
            I will try to briefly set out my view of Romans 5:12-21:

            Romans 5:12-21 is widely regarded as one of the most challenging passages in the Bible. But the key points about sin, condemnation and death are clear:
            Sin entered the world through Adam’s sin, and through sin death, and death passed upon all men because all sinned. You will be aware that the right understanding of ‘inasmuch as all sinned’ (5:12b) is a matter of great controversy. I will now try to explain why I think ‘all sinned’ does not refer to our personal sins but means that Adam’s sin is reckoned to all humanity (apart from Christ).

            I reason as follows. 5:13 (following Marshall’s literal translation): ‘For until law sin was in [the] world, but sin is not reckoned not being law.’ I ask the question ‘who is not reckoning sin before the law was given?’ Surely it must be God who chose not to reckon sin before the law was given.

            Now 5:14 continues: ‘but death reigned from Adam to Moses even over the [ones] not sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the [one] coming’. How should we understand ‘sinning on the likeness of the transgression of Adam’. There are two possibilities. Either it means those who, like Adam, disobeyed a direct command from God and/or their conscience or it means ate of the forbidden fruit like Adam did. In either case it is clear that there were some between Adam and Moses who did not sin on the likeness of the transgression of Adam. But they still died. Why? It could not be because of their personal sins because God chose not to reckon them before the law was given. They must have died because of Adam’s sin. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:22). So ‘all sinned’ means that Adam’s sin is reckoned to all humanity (apart from Christ).

            5:18a (So therefore as through one offence to all me to condemnation) makes it clear that Adam’s sin resulted in condemnation for all men. Because of this we all face that condemnation from birth onwards. That is the reason why infants die before they commit personal sin.

            Of course, when we commit personal sin that condemns us as well because since the law was given God does reckon our sin.

            From 5:12-21 the impact of Adam’s sin on the whole human race, bringing condemnation and death just cannot be avoided, mysterious as it is.

            I agree we are faced with the mystery of Adam’s sin because we are told that all that God made was very good. That is a mysterious fact we have to live with and accept. I also agree that it is a fact that Satan tempts us to sin. But neither of these facts contradicts the facts of the impact of Adam’s sin on all of us – condemnation, death, a corrupt nature, which the other verses I mentioned prove.

            Phil Almond

  29. Ian – thank you for a thoughtful post.

    I had the privilege of taking Simon Oliver’s MA module on the Doctrine of Creation last year, and there might be (very) faint echoes in the following…

    I think we need to affirm that everything in creation, in every detail and at every moment, is entirely dependent on God. The good things in creation are gifts of God, and the bad things in creation are permitted by God. It’s not that God is only interested in the big things, and exercises no control over the little things.

    At the same time, this doesn’t mean that everything that happens contributes directly to the purposes of God. Evil, as the absence of good, has no positive contribution to make. True, God can make use of evil to serve his purposes. But, even though everything happens under God’s sovereignty, this doesn’t mean that everything happens for a reason. If that were the case, then what we call “evil” would actually be good.

    So I think I want to say that “God exercises meticulous control over all events” (suitably nuanced), but I also want to resist searching for specific purposes in the details of these events, beyond serving as a general reminder of the broken relationship that exists between God and creation, and as God’s judgment in that sense.


    • Thanks, Anthony, I think that is helpful.

      But I want to push back on your conclusion. You say: ‘So I think I want to say that “God exercises meticulous control over all events” (suitably nuanced), but I also want to resist searching for specific purposes in the details of these events’

      How do those two statement reconcile? If God does control meticulously, in what sense is he ‘controlling’ evil things which do not contribute to the purposes of God? And why shouldn’t we search for specific purposes, if God is in specific control?

      • I think that part of the judgment of God is to ‘let go’ (in a controlled manner!) and allow things to degenerate into disorder, so that things are directionless, purposeless, and futile, both in terms of human sin, and in creation as a whole (Romans 1:18-31 and 8:20). It’s not that God has no idea what will happen when he leaves us to our own devices – quite the contrary – but this doesn’t mean that God ‘controls’ evil in the sense that he is directly responsible for bringing it about (primary and secondary causation and all that). God ‘controls’ evil in that he has it on a leash. He will use evil for his own purposes, but there will always be a hefty dose of futility in any evil thing that happens. God allows disorder to happen, and disorder cannot be fully explained in a teleological sense. If something can be fully explained in terms of its purpose or final cause, then it is ‘good’, not ‘evil’.

        • You mention creation, and indeed Genesis does give us something to think about.

          Gen 3:16 “I will increase your pain in childbirth. … Your marriage relationship will be vitiated.”
          Gen 3:17f “In pain you will eat from the ground. Working the ground will be more difficult.”
          Gen 3:19 “You will die.”

          Inasmuch as Rom 8:20 is a summary of Gen 3, God does not merely ‘let go’, he positively subjects the creation to futility. “If you treat my words as if they do not matter, these are the consequences.”

          Satan’s presence in the garden was surely not unknown to God, or his intervention unexpected. And Satan himself was a creature. So,

          Gen 3:15 “I know the end from the beginning. You will go on making trouble for humankind, but in the end the woman’s offspring will get the better of you.” Despite the sentence, there is hope for the couple who overhear these words.

          Ultimately “there will be no more curse”. The consequences will be undone and the pain taken away.

          In the meantime, we are given very little theodicy (Job 42:2f, Rom 9:20, 11:33, Rev 22:11). God remains hidden.

          • Steven – I didn’t say God “merely” lets go – there’s nothing “mere” about it!

            The thing to keep in mind is that God isn’t a mixture of good and evil. God is 100% good. Evil does not find its origins in God. Nor is there anything in creation that does not find its origins in God. God has no rivals. He is the only creator of all that exists, and nothing exists that has not been created by him. So if there is any evil in the world, it is because God has withdrawn something of his goodness. This is why I speak of God “letting go”. Evil is a consequence of God letting go. And sometimes God “lets go” in very specific ways with very specific consequences – as in Genesis 3. “Letting go” is how God positively subjects the creation to futility. Look again at Romans 1: God “gave them over” (24, 26, 28).

  30. Thanks Ian, a very helpful and thought-provoking article.
    I was thinking about Genesis 50 v 20, when Joseph reflects on how God used the evil his brothers did him to save many lives in the famine.
    “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
    Whilst one could argue that the brothers had free-will, the years of plenty followed by famine would seem to be something totally within God’s power. It’s also worth noting that probably, even with God’s intervention, a lot of people did die in this famine.
    To me this seems to suggest that since the fall, creation has been out of sync with God’s purpose, I also believe that Satan is real and throws his spanner into the works.
    So whilst I believe in God’s ultimate sovereignty and ability to intervene supernaturally, I believe he is also constrained by the laws of nature he put in place; the case of Joseph’s famine shows him working through this evil mess to achieve good.

    NB : With the case of Tony Perkins has anyone considered God may have a great sense of humour!

  31. True stories:
    A man from Rwanda, a devout believer, a widower, and a father of a young daughter who was the joy of his life prayed every day that He would protect his only child. One day, as he was working in the fields, he heard of killings in the village – part of the genocide in 1994. He rushed to her daughters’ school to find her daughter hacked to death. What sin did this man commit that God would not protect his only child? Was God testing him? Devastated and seemingly abandoned by God and in shock he sat on the side of the road terribly distressed and in a catatonic state – in an immobile and unresponsive stupor. He lay there in the gutter and died.

    A man, a nominal believer in God, one would call an adherent rather than devout and dedicated to God. He was driving along the road in Coromandel, NZ. He crashed his car on a corner, and the wooden plank from the crash barrier pealed off piercing his radiator then the firewall. As he was crashing he distinctly heard some one speak “Lay onto the passenger seat”. The authoritative nature of what was spoken stung him into obedience. As he did so, the plank missed him and pierced the drivers seat. He went on to become a dedicated servant of God as a dedicated minister of God. I have met this man, someone mightily used of God.

    A female student at a residential Bible College went to see the Principal at his home, which was on campus, about some study concerns. The Principal and his wife were not home and had taken in a man recently released from prison. He raped the student in the Principals house.

    A man, a New Zealander, whom I know very well, and a devout believer, was travelling through New Mexico in the USA. With no aircon he had wound down the window and had his left arm out hand vertically. An authoritative voice was heard, “(name), bring in your arm”. Startled and somewhat shocked he did, and his watch fell off into his lap. A strap pin was vibrating loose.

    How is it that God could speak to a man, to save his watch and yet did not or could not tell the female student not to go to the Principal’s home or alert the Rwandan man to go save his daughter?

    • Thanks for sharing these examples. I think you are highlighting the perennial problem with the notion of a God who does intervene in human life, but who does not do so on every occasion.

      If we want an intellectually rigorous answer to this, then we have either to believe that God does not exist, or believe as deists that God is remote from the world.

      Yet, that flies in the face of the idea that God made himself known in Jesus, and the actual evidence from experience of people who have known God act in their lives, as I have.

      How do you resolve this?

      • Someone once said it is because God is not only all powerful and all loving but is also self-limiting. Whilst it does help explain the all powerful-but-not-all-loving debates, it seems a tad feeble.
        We are created in His image. He is sovereign and we have our our own individual sovereignty. He doesn’t impose Himself upon a humans sovereignty without the right to do so. (Behold I stand at the door and knock… As many as received Him… talk about inviting, welcoming Him in to do works).

        Whilst we may say to God have absolute sway in our lives, there may be also be an inhibiting reason, that God could not act either by His Word or by His Spirit.

  32. Ian,
    I have spent some time studying Tom Oord’s work on this subject. In lectures, coursework and in reading his book God Can’t, I have reached a place of freedom in not having to explain evil to but to engage with God in eradicating evil in my midst. Coupling Oord with Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death brings me a unique sense of peace in the present day craziness. Have you read these books? If so, how do the authors align with your positions?

  33. Phil Almond,

    OK. You say that, “It could not be because of their personal sins because God chose not to reckon them before the law was given. They must have died because of Adam’s sin.” Which law are you thinking of? Is it the 10 Commandments? It certainly would be a strange situation where a black man sitting on the beach in Madagascar one minute was condemned to death because of Adam’s sin, and subsequently because of a law given thousands of miles away – of which he was not aware. He was thus condemned because he had transgressed this new law that he had never seen. Indeed many today many are unaware of that law given to an obscure tribal group in a faraway land. I am not convinced from what Scripture says elsewhere – for example Romans 1:18ff – that this how God works.

    Btw – are you notified when there is a post made on your thread? I used to be but no longer.


  34. Hi Colin

    The law I am referring to is the Law of Moses, as is clear from Romans 5:12-21. I wrote ‘Of course, when we commit personal sin that condemns us as well because since the law was given God does reckon our sin’. I think your comment about the ‘black man’ is about that sentence. I should have made it clear that I was not saying that those ignorant of the law of Moses (who are already condemned because of Adam’s sin) are additionally condemned when they commit personal sin because they have not kept the Law of Moses. They are additionally condemned because they have not kept the work of the law written in their hearts – see Romans 2:11-16. The ‘black man’ comes into that category. Sorry not to make that clear.

    I think my view of Romans 5:12-21 is quite in harmony with the rest of Romans. I have done a spreadsheet of my view about it fits together that I can send you if you care to give me your email address. I don’t know how to post a spreadsheet on Ian’s website.

    You have not commented on my line of thought on 5:12-21 which I think proves conclusively that Adam’s sin does result in the condemnation of all people (5:18).

    Btw – same here – I am no longer notified

    Phil Almond

  35. FAO Steven Robinson:

    Ian has put a limit to the number of replies, no doubt rightly, so I couldnt respond directly, but:

    Dont you find it interesting that Paul uses very similar language, indeed the same Greek, when he says ‘Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’?

    But I assume you didnt dissolve into nothingness when you became a Christian and a completely new person took your place?

    It seems to me Jesus’ resurrection is the blue print for the ‘new’ creation. He didnt get a new body, but His dead one was raised, and transformed.

    As for ‘findings’, you’ll find there is very strong evidence for the Big Bang and the universe being around 13 billion years old. You may be a ‘scientist’ but I would doubt a physicist, nor a biologist (as you also dont accept evolution as fact).

    This is what happens when you understand so much in the Bible literalistically, you pit it against reality and end up believing the new Jerusalem will be a huge cube, like something from the Borg!


  36. We are like visitors to a hotel who arrive too late for it to open to us. It is fully booked. We are without reservations to the restaurant. We want things on the menu that are not there. But God is the owner he has the key to let us in and find a room for us. He orders the restaurant to open and sends out for the food we would prefer. Like the owner of the hotel God may not need to know everything in advance. He has the power to make things happen and he can and does. God is not bound by the rules or the menu of his own seven star establishment. That’s where I’m going! Calvinists can go to Pizza hut.

  37. WoW I’m not sure if the author of this article has ever read the Bible because he seems unsure of what causes pandemics etc and the Bible clearly tells us, from beginning to end, that we reap what we sow.

    It tells us clearly, in several different ways, just in case you don’t understand it when expressed in one way or another, that when we sin, i.e. when we miss the mark and think our carnal mind/flesh body attachment/is who we actually are.

    And it also tells us clearly how to avoid the symptoms of sin, such as disease, poverty, suffering etc. It tells us to seek the Kingdom of God above all other things and to love the Lord with ALL our mind, heart and soul and when we do that and we are born again in spirit, into the Kingdom, we will never again be affected by anything of this world, including sickness and poverty etc etc.

    So if you read the Bible and follow the way set out by Jesus none of the things of this world will come nigh unto you but for others, the law of cause and effect cannot be avoided so if they sin, they will be at the mercy of how that sin will manifest and when there is mass disobedience, a pandemic is often the effect. But there’s nothing we can do about that but to continue to enjoy living in the Kingdom and when people turn to you, as they will, for how to live in the Kingdom, you can point them in the right direction.

    • ‘I’m not sure if the author of this article has ever read the Bible’. Have you read any of the other articles I have written here…?!

      You might like to open you own Bible, and look at who will suffer ‘tribulation’ in this age—anyone who follows Jesus. Perhaps I am not the only one who needs to read a little more carefully…?!


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