I am completely besotted with my Systematic Theology class. I don’t mean specific people in some kind of creepy sketchy way, although I will say my classmates are pretty remarkably and universally fantastic. What I mean is, I’m really enjoying the dialogue and trying to stretch my brain around all these actually uncontainable ideas. Last week we had this really intense (but never hostile) discussion about predestination and free will, and as we wrapped it up (without actually wrapping it up, because of course that discussion never does get wrapped up), I said, “I think? We should all go find a pub when class is over and keep talking about this over beer.” Beer is a little more acceptable among evangelical Christians than it was when I was a kid, but I was still a little surprised I didn’t get thrown out and that some of the students even seemed to think that was, at least theoretically, not a bad idea. I think we should reopen the Inklings. I’ll be Dorothy Sayers–who maybe wasn’t technically an Inkling, but close enough. Dorothy Sayers minus the affair with the married man, I mean. Then again, I haven’t been entirely “by the book” (or maybe the Book) in that area in the past either . . .
But we’re not talking about that. Anyway, it wouldn’t be as scandalous to most of you as it sounds–or probably to any of you as you are thinking.
Unlike at least one of my classes during a previous iteration of seminary, in this class it is quite clear that the goal is to think for ourselves. The assumption is that the Bible is going to be the basis of our reasoning, but there also seems to be a general trust that each person will approach God and the Bible intelligently, honestly and humbly, and even though Prof SysTheo is quite open about where he stands regarding certain doctrines, if you can intelligently and biblically argue an opposing view, he will not mark against it. He also wants us to read across a spectrum of positions–a fact I respect very much.
I am not sure, therefore, whether Prof SysTheo assigns the book The Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink because he agrees with it in its entirety, or for shock value, but whichever he means, it definitely has shock value to me. I have read all of our other texts with interest and assent, but if this one were an actual book instead of downloaded onto my Nexus 7, it would definitely have flown across the room a few times by now.
Mr (Rev?) Pink wrote his book in the 1930’s and takes a very hard-line view on the sovereignty of Go–meaning (at least as far as I understand him) that God micromanages the universe. There are, on top of this, swaths of text describing with something that reads to me an awful lot like glee (not Glee) the intentional, predetermined damnation of the majority of human life. I get the impression Pink was the kind of child who pulled wings off of flies for enjoyment. I want (I think) to talk about predestination on this blog sometime, but the concept in Pink’s book with which I take most offense is the one that God doesn’t love everybody. No, like, really–he said that. See?
When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom He chooses. God does not love everybody; if He did, then He would love the Devil. Why does God not love the Devil? Because there is nothing in him to love; because there is nothing in him to attract the heart of God. Nor is there anything to attract God’s love in any of the fallen sons of Adam, for all of them are, by nature, “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2.3). If, then, there is nothing in any member of the human race to attract God’s love, and if, notwithstanding, He does love some, then it necessarily follows that the cause of His love must be found in Himself . . . In the final analysis, the exercise of God’s love must be traced back to His sovereignty, or, otherwise, He would love by rule: and if He loved by rule, then He is under a law of love, and if He is under a law of love, then is He not supreme, but is Himself ruled by law (Pink, The Sovereignty of God).
I think, for a theological education, it’s probably important to read some heresies. Yes, I do believe that heresies exist, even though I would agree with anyone who said we can never know all there is to know about God and so maybe we’re all heretics in a way. It kind of worries me, though, when heresies like this one aren’t called out. I don’t mean there should be a witch hunt. I just mean–apparently my own (quite saintly) Grandmother loved this guy. And this, maybe, is why systematic theology is important–so that as much as possible crazy stuff like this (there is equally crazy stuff at the opposite end of the spectrum–don’t worry Reformed conservatives) doesn’t slip through the cracks and get absorbed with our morning coffee. I mean . . . we wonder how groups like Westboro Baptist Church manage to exist? Probably from reading and not critically (and biblically) thinking through ideas like the one above.
Here is what I would say to Rev Pink if I could (though I’m not particularly hopeful he would listen to me):
Dear Rev Pink,
I’m a little shocked to hear that you believe God doesn’t love all He has made. You may be right that He has not destined all people for salvation (I don’t like that idea either, but I believe you may be right). I can see how one might think that that means He can’t love everyone, therefore, but then that idea itself puts limitations on God’s sovereignty, which you seem to think is God’s primary attribute. It seems to me that your unspoken premise is that God may not exist under a law of love, but He does exist in subjection to His own sovereignty. Which seems a little contradictory and self-defeating.
The Bible clearly declares that God is sovereign. However, that same Bible also–and just as clearly–declares God is love. It doesn’t simply say, “God is loving.” If that were all, then maybe you would have a point to say that God’s loving everyone would put Him in a position of subjection to something (an attribute) outside Himself. But it doesn’t just say that. It says, “God is love.” Love isn’t God’s attribute, but His essence. Maybe sovereignty is also His essence, in which case He is sovereign love.
You cite Malachi 1.3, where God says, “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated,” to defend your view. However, though the ensuing verses clearly demonstrate God’s judgment on pagan peoples, I don’t think the “hatred” in this verse is any more literal than it was when Jesus told his followers they had to “hate” their families in order to follow Him (Luke 14.26). When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus and asked how to inherit eternal life, “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” (Mark 10.21), even though it appears he knew the young man wasn’t ultimately going to be willing to pay the price. Jesus came to show us what God is like, and I believe that story shows us–God loves everyone, whether we love Him back or not.
God’s love of everyone doesn’t negate His sovereignty. It enhances it. I agree with you that, since our rebellion, we humans have nothing inherent to “attract” God to us–but He has something in Himself–of Himself. His love is inherent, and by loving sovereignly He is being most true to Himself. We may not understand His ways all the time, but knowing and trusting that He loves all because that is who He is, is a lot more ultimately comforting than believing He is so sovereign even His love must mete itself out, and that at random. I don’t understand the doctrine of damnation, but knowing that God’s love is Himself and that He is sovereign helps me believe that there is something beyond it that I don’t see and that, even though the Bible doesn’t say this in quite these words, Julian of Norwich was right when she wrote, “All will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.”
What would you say to Reverend Pink? (I realise there may be a temptation not to, but please be polite.)