Claudio Arrau playing Chopin’s Nocturnes; Free Will and God’s Sovereignty; Meals of Leftovers

Claudio Arrau rubato-ing Chopin’s Nocturnes seemed just the right music for the job. That confident hint of…uncertainty, the slight hesitation adding to the drama, perfect for re-reading Scott Christensen’s What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

Most objections to what God’s complete sovereignty entails are based on  presuppositions that Christensen tucks under the banner of libertarianism:

free will is incompatible with God’s meticulously determining all things, because this undermines human freedom and responsibility…

first…only if we are free to accept or reject God can we have a meaningful relationship with him…

second..only if one could have acted otherwise in a given situation is he morally responsible for his action…

third…self-determined choices rescue God from being culpable for evil…

leftovers for lunch - pan-fried duck liver, lentils, fried egg
Pathetic as my lunch of leftovers, outraged libertarianism seems a mishmash of human chest-puffery without any effort to engage what is plainly written about the absolute and complete sovereignty of God in the Bible.

 More biblical, says Christensen, is compatibilism, which reflects that:

  1. “God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility [and freedom] is curtailed, minimised, or maligned.
  2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures – they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for their actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.”

Scripture clearly shows:

  • “a dual explanation for human acts of choosing. God determines the choices of every person, yet every person freely makes his or her own choices.”
  • sometimes “God’s sovereign decretive will matches his preceptive will (the moral instructions that are binding on his creatures). God does not determine the ends without also establishing the means. This avoids fatalism…”
    • so God elects sinners to salvation, but they must repent and believe to be saved (John 6:37, John 6:44, John 3:16, etc)
    • God determines every word of Scripture, yet men freely wrote the same words in accordance with their own intentions (2 Timothy 3:16, Galatians 1:11-12, etc)
  • sometimes “Scripture highlights disharmony between God’s decretive and preceptive wills...God providentially superintends that which he does not command…God ordains the actions of evildoers and then holds them responsible for their sin (see Egyptian Pharaoh in Exodus and the hardening of his arteries heart, etc)…All the instigators bear responsibility for their diabolical decisions. Nonetheless, they have fulfilled the prophetic role that God has assigned them.”

leftovers for dinner - baby romaine, Japanese beef, roast parsnips

Further, this freedom of which libertarians speak is a fiction. The act of choosing, conceived of as a series of concentric layers, like those of an onion, is comprised of:

  • “the outside layer [which] represents the bare act of choosing in which people always choose what they want to choose. Furthermore, our choices always correspond to what we perceive to be in our best interest…” (Therefore, there isn’t such a thing as “free will”. Perhaps a better concept would be “free agent”.)
  • “the second layer down…[is] our internal dispositions. What people want to choose arises from specific desires, motives, inclinations, passions, preferences and so on…People often have conflicting desires or, conversely, competing desires, but in the end the most persuasive or prevailing desire inevitably determines the choices that one makes…” (Therefore, if “whatever reasons (causes) stand behind each choice that one makes, those reasons always lead necessarily to that specific choice”, then it is difficult to see how “free” each agent can be. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that big data helped the Trump-ian victory.)
  • “the core of human choosing corresponds to one’s very nature. The Bible teaches that a person’s nature either is dead and corrupted due to sin or has been made alive and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, moral and spiritual desires, and thus one’s choices, are dictated by one’s nature.” (Therefore, no unregenerated human can do any good thing (ie. anything that pleases God).)

Finally, the libertarian position presumes to define, in a very man-centred, man-glorifying way, what gives God glory. “The glory of salvation does not lie in man’s freedom to choose but in God’s freedom to bestow such a prized gift on so few ill-deserving objects of his redemptive affection.”

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The Tangled Web of the History of Daesh, and the Sovereignty of God

3 days after the Friday the 13th Paris Attacks and the commentaries keep rolling in.

If nothing else, they confirm Leo Tolstoy’s dismissal of the arrogance of historians and commentators who claim to have knowledge of the past and think they understand the causes of present day events.

“Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, “abstract” and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived.” (Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and The Fox)

Starbucks, Citylink Mall, Singapore

To expand on the list given earlier, these have been trotted out as the cause(s) of the rise of ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State/Daesh and/or the resulting atrocities (though even that link shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion) – in no particular order:

crepe with whipped cream and fresh strawberriesThere is nothing like the inability to untangle the strands that led to any one event, the lack of knowledge and processing power to comprehend the nature and nurture that made one individual the way he/she is at this present moment, to understand that we are far from being in control of our world.

There are two possible responses to this helplessness: (1) existentialism and despair; or (2) contending with the God who controls all things.

The absolute sovereignty of the LORD
You can’t really be a god worth worshipping unless you are (i) really in control of every single thing that happens in the world; (ii) eternal so you can control even time. And this is what the LORD claims – he is in-charge of the sway of international affairs as he is of the rhythms of the day and the hirsuteness of an individual:

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven” (Daniel 4:34-35a)

the Most High rules the kingdom of men and give it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Daniel 4:17, 25c, 32b)

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30)

The LORD’s sovereignty over evil

And just so we can be sure no one made up this God, being sovereign also means he has control over evil; there isn’t even a hint of any duality of good and evil that would make him less than completely sovereign:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things (Isaiah 45:7)

But…the present evil…?

The more pressing question is: why the present good? Because evil is to be expected in a fallen world where men’s hearts are evil all the time.

But if God is in control, how can evil happen and he still be a good God?

An old question and one answered succinctly in the Book of Job:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

“Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?
    He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (see Job 38-42!)

The Sovereign God is not obligated to explain his divine decisions to anyone. Job (and with him, all humankind) is put in his place. We have neither the ability nor the right to understand everything because we are not God. But what we do know from the Bible gives us sufficient cause to rely wholly on him as a good and trustworthy God.

Friday the 13th Paris Attacks. Pray for Paris; Pray for Humanity

Far too early on a Saturday morning in Singapore, abruptly awakened by Facebook notifications, I peeked a bleary eye at what was happening. Two friends had, in quick succession, marked themselves safe in Paris, on Facebook’s Safety Check.

Paris Terror Attacks - Facebook Safety CheckNo, I’d thought. No, no, no.

But yes.
screen capture of Telegraph's headlines on Paris shootingSo ISIS (or is it ISIL? Daesh? The Islamic State?) has claimed responsibility, leading to the usual reactions in national and social media:

Immediate Reactions

    • immediate vows of retaliation, and an appeal for unity and togetherness (François Hollande: “So France will be merciless in its response to the Islamic State militants…use all means within the law…on every battleground here and abroad together with our allies”.)
    • calls for non-retaliation – you cannot bomb an idea that is religious, anti-Western, anti-imperialist (Peter van Buren);
    • calls for justice not vengeance – war on terrorism fuels more terrorism (The Nation);

Speculating how this could have been prevented

    • err, pointing to this as an example of why people need the freedom to own guns to shoot “the bad guys” (Donald Trump);
    • the authorities should have had adequate information to stop the attacks (Buzzfeed)

Speculating on the rise and aim of ISIS

  • fingering George Bush’s Iraq War as responsible for the creation of ISIS (Vanity Fair, Huffington Post);
  • rebutting that, qua Leo Tolstoy, no one can really be certain of the cause of historic events – “US invasion of Iraq, massive corruption, recent drought, Sunni v Shia sectarianism, constant Western and Russian meddling, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, trade sanctions, foundational scriptures, Muhammad’s example of religious militarism, Hulagu Khan’s sack of Baghdad, Al-Ghazali’s anti-scientific ‘renewing of the faith’, the Curse of Oil, establishment of the state of Israel etc etc. So many causes of the bedlam in the Middle East. Some are traceable to US foreign policy. Some not at all.” (comments from Muslim Matters)
  • (and also apparent real joy at the American liberation of Iraq (Wait But Why))
  • demanding that politicians finally officially acknowledge that ISIS is a Muslim organisation albeit one that interpretes the Quran differently from peaceful Muslims (The Spectator);
  • explaining that the West needs to know the intellectual basis of their enemy; that the Islamic State really believes that they have set up a caliphate with Baghdadi as caliph, that all good Muslims are to show allegiance to the caliphate, that they are working towards the Day of Judgement (The Atlantic);
  • insisting that it is grossly misrepresentative to say the Islamic State is Islamic (The Slate).

Another group has been greatly offended. Their cause of anger: #prayforparis and #prayforhumanity.

Atheist responses to #prayforparis
Atheist responses to #prayforparisAu contraire, God is neither powerless to prevent evil, nor does he ignore the tragic consequences of evil.

  1. God is so concerned with evil and that most of the Bible, God’s word, teaches how he has dealt with it and will deal completely with it.
  2. Good news for the good guys? Yes. But bad news for all of us, the whole of humanity. Because evil isn’t out there – not zombies, not another country or race or economic group or political party or bloodthirsty terrorist group, it’s in us – it is us. Since the Fall, every intention of the thoughts of the human heart has been evil continually (Genesis 6:5); it has been deceitful all the time and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9); out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matthew 15:19). No one seeks for God or worships him – the ultimate definition of sin.
  3. If God had dealt completely with evil at the Fall, none of us would exist. If God comes to deal with evil now, all of us, on the basis of our own records, will have to be wiped out for justice to be done.
  4. So as I write this and as you read this and life goes on around us, it is erroneous to ask why bad things happen to good people. Because there is no one good, not even one. (Romans 3:10). No one seeks for God. The real question then is this: why do good and bad things happen to us bad people? Why does the sun still shine on us? How can we still enjoy life and love and companionship and food and air?
  5. It is the mercy of God for now. But we cannot be so complacent as to think this means we are home free. There is a judgment to come:

    “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.

    But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:7-10)

  6. And what does repentance look like? It is acknowledging that we have forsaken the true and living God and have wickedly chosen to live our own ways. It is turning back to acknowledging God and trusting his promise that the blood of his Son, Jesus, who died on the cross, has paid for our sins. It is submitting to the lordship of this Christ.
  7. It is to this God whom we pray. It is this judge Jesus whom we must fear. So yes, ISIS is scary but “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

And why pray? The Christian is in a very different relationship with God the Father – able to speak to him and be heard, but of course, God being sovereign may not give us everything we ask for. Skimming the surface of the topic of prayer is D.A. Carson:

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, the Book of Esther, and the Feast of Purim

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeMet the usual gang at Keng Eng Kee Seafood (124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, facebook) for an early birthday dinner. E had successfully booked us a table despite her terrible Chinese, and even managed (accidentally) to pre-order two crabs (having cluelessly said “yes” to something one of the staff had offered over the ‘phone).

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeThe homemade tofu, coffee pork ribs, deep-fried goby fish (laden with lard) were delicious on white rice: Homemade tofu, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore Coffee pork ribs, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore Deep-fried Goby fish, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore

The salted egg prawns were good, but just not as outstanding as the other dishes: Salted egg prawns, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeThere was a lot of loud cackling with this gang, even more so when we repaired to Salute Coffeeshop for Brothers ciders and draught wheat beer.

Those who were in study groups in Adam Road Presbyterian Centre mentioned that they were going through the Book of Esther.

Esther’s a really short read and, intriguingly, takes place during the reign of the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces. There is no mention of God in the book, but his handiwork is everywhere.

Esther 1 sets the context of the story: the court of an internationally powerful king who, powerful and prosperous as he is, can’t get his wife, Vashti, to do his bidding.

Esther 2 seems to be the usual rags to riches story for Esther, except for the repeated idea that any suggestion that Esther was a Jew(ess) would have jeopardised the whole thing. She keeps silent on the strict advice of Mordecai, her uncle.

In Esther 3, narrative tension escalates dramatically with a plot on the lives of all Jews by Haman the agitated Agagite. “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods” (Esther 3:13).

There seems little hope that even Esther can do anything about this. But Mordecai now says that this is not the time for silence. Further, “14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Meanwhile, it seems quite certain to Haman and his friends and wife in Esther 5 that Haman’s star is on the up, and he can do to Mordecai whatever he wants.

creating head in wheat beer, Salute Coffee Shop, Bukit Merah

But a great and wonderful reversal takes place. A series of fortunate events or really, the divine hand at work? And again we see the regrettable impotence of the king, who, having first been unable to distinguish his friends from self-interested courtiers, was later unable to undo his own edict. Still the Jews are saved, and we can be certain from whom their rescue issued – the biblical phrase “and the fear of the Jews fell upon” (or variations thereon) is reminiscent of God’s protection of Israel in the Exodus as they passed through various lands belonging to hostile people.

And Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew (how the writer of Esther emphasises this!) institute the Feast of Purim to celebrate the event as “22 as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 8:22).

According to some reports, Christians are the most persecuted people on the earth now. And while Christian Concern and Open Doors quite rightly highlight and agitate for protection of the rights of Christians, the assurance is that there is a God who will be seen, in the great sweep of human history, to have preserved his people for eternity.