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Schaeffer's Open Sovereignty


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

Schaeffer's Open Sovereignty

For a long time the events of September 11 will raise all kinds of questions about the will and plan of God, about sovereignty and about our response to adversity. In a most startling and objective manner the events put substance behind the deliberations. They bring the discussion out of an airy abstractness down to ground zero.

I have read The Openness of God book by Pinnock, Rice, Sanders, Hasker and Basinger. I have objected to their view before, since they twist passages of Scripture about God's knowledge and turn God into a friend who holds your hand powerfully, but in familiar ignorance. I added to that study also Bruce Ware's God's Lesser Glory and Bill Edgar's The Face of Truth. Some of you may also remember what I wrote about this in FOOTNOTES in such pieces as A Grave Matter (5/2) and The Islamization of Christianity (4/1). I also am aware that some on the L'Abri staff responded critically to my lecture at the Rochester Conference two years ago on "A Christian View of History." It caused such trouble in their mind that one wrote to me and lamented that in his words my ideas were "so far removed from Dr. Schaeffer's views."

That is the context in which I bring you my reflection on the current debate about God's sovereignty. The extreme view is well stated in the view of one PCA pastor in Atlanta, who preached that, "God had everything to do with the shooting in Columbine High School" a few years back.

If sovereignty is defined as "sustaining and controlling what takes place in the world" and nothing else you would come up with such a view. Planes stay in the air or come crashing down according to God's sovereign will. There would be no skill of the pilots, no suicide of the Egyptian, no terrorist determination. It is easy to see how you would also come up with all kinds of problems in the Bible and in life, or conclude that there are no problems at all apart from your own attitude. For both reasons I think it is not a good statement as it stands.

Sovereignty, as it is widely understood, is intellectually parallel to the concept in Eastern religions, that everything is finally one. Everything is in order, closed or finished. Real personality and real actions by choice do not exist. Man is part of the total workings, of all that is, of Being itself, which is considered to be divine. That version of Christianity sees the fall, life and redemption all as a part of a seamless plan of God that remains unaffected by the choices of creatures, made in his image and historically significant. God and world in harmony, the totality of what exists, is taught by both Eastern religions and Islam.

But happily this is not the Biblical view, for it expresses an inability to see God as defined by his attributes, a real and specific person who does not contain everything, neither is everything or are all events an emanation from God. God created a real creation outside of himself, a real history of people and angels and the possibility of their genuine contrary choices and original creations from second causes. God knows all the choices, yet they are real and not just feelings or personal experiences of merely imagined freedoms. This is possible since knowledge in the mind of God is infinite, but God's knowledge of the experience of historic choices and realities is in time. There is no violence done by God to the will of the creature. The Westminster Confession states that part so well.

I remember the very first tape by Francis Schaeffer I listened to. It recorded a discussion on this subject in Cambridge in 1959 or 1960, during which he was suggesting that you either have a totality of Being and no personality (which is the same as Eastern religions teach, an impersonal everything) or in fact you have God, who is a person, and a real history in which choices can be made against the will of God, who is then nevertheless able and willing to act into history to redeem it in a sovereign manner over time. This God is not simply infinite, for nothing could then be known of God. He is the personal-infinite and infinite-personal God of the Bible.

For Schaeffer it was absolutely essential to know that the Bible tells us the origin of evil to lie with man, not hidden in some inscrutable purposes of God or some mysterious narrative. In fact the Good News for Man is that God's is not the planner of or sovereign Lord over a fallen world. Only a desire to have God approve of and be master of all things would move a person to reject the clear statements that the Fall of Adam was in no way linked to the purposes or plans of God.

I wonder at times whether this view of sovereignty is not tied to the sincere desire to have no loose ends, no even temporary unfinished business in the flow of history. Taking everything as coming from the will of God would remove the insecurity of choices, moral responsibilities and uncertain outcomes. The suggestion by some Western Christians in Russia, that if there is anything Russians need to know is that someone, i.e. God, is in control of their situation is not only surprising. It is downright harmful. For if Russians and much of the religious world in other places has heard anything about their life it is that it has always been controlled. The state, the party, history, fate, spirits and gods have always been seen behind the things of history without any real human participation. The persistent social, economic and moral problems of Russia are aggravated by this belief, which lead to an attitude of resignation, of fate as a personal destiny and general waiting until the situation sovereignly changes by someone other's efforts.

The danger in our Western and more ‘successful' societies is that we assume God to be behind it all. From the view of ‘manifest destiny' to the playing with the name of God on dollar bills and presidential greetings to the pursuits of steadily increasing personal ‘rights' in court decisions and in the mindset of people all of history is seen as an unrolling of God's wonderful plan for your life.

Schaeffer said something else, which I believe is much more Biblical. For in the Bible the stage is set that God created all things, including Man in his image with the mandate to create, to have dominion, to subdue and to make a real history. God is not seen as in control of the choices of Man in any way the word ‘control' is used in our age. And the rest of the Bible bears that out.

The problem is with the reading of sovereignty as control in an age that leans widely to determinisms of fate, destiny, psychology, genetics, mechanics and such. From any of such bonds the Bible frees us, by having a moral and mighty sovereign who has created Man in his image with a dependent sovereignty: Man can change the course of events without thwarting the sovereign will of God to offer salvation, to interact with creation, to answer prayer and to do mighty works and miracles. C.S. Lewis points out that a view of tight "providence" excludes miracles, for then there is no reason for extra actions of God, since everything already occurs according to his will.

Culturally it is only in Jewish and Biblical teaching that the human being is in some large measure responsible for his choices and for the reality of history. This never means that God does not also act into history through creation, answers to prayer and real miracles. But it does mean we are choice makers with real, significant results. They may often be outside the will of God. They always deny in practice that there is a destiny beyond the form of the created universe itself. God is not the designer of our destiny, but the moral and merciful judge of the universe who will make propitiation for our sins and bring in everlasting righteousness (Daniel 9: 26).

This of course is the required background for any real view of sin and repentance, for change and improvements. They require a freedom, not a master program of whatever grand and mysterious design.

Under God's sovereignty salvation is sure in Christ, but the weather patterns or crop failures in a field are not. Thus there is a "lawful" nature, made by God, but not a good use of it by man, who may use his delegated sovereignty to misuse it. Therefore we need speed limits, policies, and are justified to be angry and cry for justice after the recent terror. God has ordained that things will be lawful and have their lawful consequences.

God has ordained a real world and the outworking of his will, but not the determination of the will of man, sinful or otherwise. Adam was given the task to name the animals and to form a relationship with Eve. These names or the specifics were not ordained beforehand.

In contrast to what Hinduism teaches reality is real, not illusionary. The command to do something is not just a line in a script. It waits to be done...or it will not happen. There are real causes with real effects; they are not all already set in determined sequence. Often people will talk about things in relation to the free choices of man, but they should also say that therefore the consequences follow the choices, not some ordained program. They do not happen because they are ordained, but because they are chosen by the choice-maker. Ordained are only that such choices lead to such consequences in a lawful, i.e. orderly creation.

We find in the Bible numerous events in which the plan of God is not being carried out due to the real actions of creatures in God's image. But we find little acknowledgment of this in the current debate. Instead we often hear what can only be a horrendous misrepresentation of the passionate and gracious God of the Bible. In much of "reformed theology" he is even associated in a ‘mysterious' way with all kinds of evil things, which are attributed to his sovereign and permissive will in one way or another. The attempt to give approval to all the things happening is to deny that there is an unfinished battle going on. God's will is not yet done on earth in the same way as it is already being done in heaven. (Matt 6:10). His victory in Christ is complete, but the harvest of the resurrection through Christ is still outstanding. We pray, "Your kingdom come", for it is not yet here.

It is a curious observation that those who hold to such a view of "total" sovereignty have to leave out such passages as the description that Israel's sin lengthening the time they had to spend in the wilderness before coming into the promised land (Numbers 14:20-33); or that the angel could not get to Daniel until he and the angel Michael had fought with the prince of the Persian kingdom for three weeks (Daniel 10:12-14); or that Jesus could not do miracles in his home town because the people did not believe there (Mark 6:5); or that Jesus longed for Jerusalem in vain, because though he would have them repent, they would not come to him (Matt 23:37). It is hard to know how the conditional promises of God, as for example those to David and Solomon in 2nd Samuel 7:11ff and 2nd Chronicles 7:17ff are to be understood if, as is suggested, the will of God is behind all events anyway. Did it really matter whether the soldiers stayed on the ship and did not leave in the lifeboats (Acts 27:23 – 32), when God had set that as a condition for the survival of all passengers on Paul's journey? Is history already ordained and written, when God tells David in Keilah (1st Samuel 23:7ff) that the people would hand him over to Saul and therefore David, no dummy, leaves the town without a command from the Lord and is safe?

Likewise the wonderful passage of deliverance in Romans 8:28 is turned around in this view to have the ‘in all things God works for the good' state that God is responsible ‘for all things'. Edgar states about this passage (pg.128): "God allows for hardship when it is for our good." At an earlier place he writes that God has his own reasons for the assassination of JFK. Such views neglect the very heart of Paul's argument in this passage. Paul makes a contrast between life in a fallen world, where we groan and wait for the redemption of our bodies (vs.23), now subject to frustration (20), and the hope we have (24), supported by the inward work of the Spirit (23), for what God will work for good in all things and over against them, not through all things. God did not send Christ ‘in' or ‘through' our sin, but against our sin, to offer salvation and redemption.

It is an odd view to think that bad things happen to us, ordained or "orchestrated" by God, so that he can teach us better things. Do we really believe that sickness is God-given so that we can develop better medicine? Or car accidents to improve break performance? Or nasty neighbors are ordained to teach us patience? Is it not rather that since these realities exist we should now react morally and learn new skills, including patience.

Again, Romans 9 says the same thing in answer to the question what remains so special about being Jewish, if, as the previous argument in Romans had established, both Jews and Gentiles are in the same need of forgiveness of guilt through the Messiah. The next three chapters point out that God chose to elect the Jews as carriers of the Messiah, recipients of the covenant and law in spite of their sin (Jacob rather than Esau), their situation of slavery in Egypt (pharaoh) and their many rebellions through history (the pot and the potter). God is sovereign in that he "will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality" (Romans 9:28), but not that he is causing or even willing all things in any way.

Mysterious is the word often used to explain away the obvious contradictions. Yet there is no mystery ever about God not orchestrating evil. Mysterious in my mind is the interaction of various "players" in reality, how God, Man and the Evil one play a part in the unrolling of history. That mystery is different from what Edgar and others of what has now become almost the standard reformed faith call the mystery. They have turned the mystery into a moral one, not a factual or historic one. For them it is mysterious how a sovereign God includes the fall and all subsequent human sin in his eternal sovereign plan. If there is one thing that is distinct in the Bible it is that God has nothing to do with the rebellious use of free will of man. We can and should know that. It is the foundation for anything Christian, and without it there is no redemption, and no need for it.

Now, I find hints of this in many treatments of providence, including one L'Abri is considering. They wish to conclude that all is under control, that we can have peace with the current events. Yet, we can precisely not, at this time, have the peace we desire. Nowhere is it guaranteed in the form most people would understand it as a peace, a life without conflict or danger. Our peace is in Christ, not in the experience of life in the world. God has not promised to protect us in a dangerous world in any other form than that nothing will separate us from his love and care; but our neighbor can still do a mighty bunch of harm, which is why we have a police, fences, locks on the door and receive an education to train our minds. We can not at this time have the peace we desire. God has not promised to protect us in a dangerous world. For the same reason we should pray for government, punish the evildoer, etc. We pray for safety for our children, but also teach them to look before they cross the street. When they get hurt we do not conclude that God ordained the injury. Psalm 33 does not make a promise, that we do not have to be subject to and support a government's use of the sword against evil.

We find Bill Edgar's treatment very troublesome, wrong and not a credit to his L'Abri connection. He introduces his compassion, interest and such very well for the first hundred pages. But when he gets into theology in chapter eight and tries to explain Christianity he adopts Greek and pagan ideas rooted in his systematic theology, which is not Biblical. For, the temptations of Christ were real, not just part of sovereign history. And in like manner are things real as they appear: evil is really evil, good is really good, choices are real choices, causes lead to real consequences. We are not in the Hindu world of mere appearances. Yet that is where we would be if we explain evil things really as part of a good God's sovereign workings and therefore not really evil.

(Edith, to whom the book is dedicated, commented that this is not what she or her husband believed and that she doubts Bill Edgar would ever have become a Christian if he had heard then what he now believes).

Sovereignty of God is rooted in the fact that He alone is eternal. There is no God behind God, no other lasting power. He will accomplish what he sets out to do: creation, redemption and glorification. But this God is not responsible for everything that free creatures do or what happens in a fallen nature. To join God's ‘train' (Edgar's image) for his destination, regardless of whether God made the train to begin with, is stupid. It is wicked to suggest as Edgar does (pg. 128), that God orchestrated evil for some greater purpose. Why wait for Christ's return, if God is already fulfilling his purposes now under his total control? Whatever happened to the understanding that there is a war going on? It is interesting that Bill Edgar does not mention the fall of man in any consequential way until pg. 127, since in this view there really was no fall from God: it was all part of a sovereign plan. And then he does not really see it as a tragic fall.

Finally, even Edgar's view that redemption is through death as "our exit" (pg130), is Greek, not Christian. The Bible expects better things than a crossing of the river. We wait for the reign of the Lord, which is not yet here in fullness. We look for life, a coming of Christ to a living generation. We look for a restoration of creation, not a flight from it.

I mention Edgar frequently because his view is so profoundly unbiblical and yet it states so well what has become the "reformed view" that Schaeffer rejected. He wanted to have nothing to do with it and agitated against merger with the ‘Westminster' OP churches years back.

Schaeffer's own view, as some of you will surely remember, was drawn from John 6, where four verses are tied together with the phrase "And I will raise him up on the last day." Two of them speak of the work of God, who wants no one to be lost; the other two speak of the work of man, who must believe and eat the bread from heaven. There is a work of God without which no man can be saved. There is a work of man, ("holding up the empty hands of faith", Schaeffer's terms), without which no man will be saved. In this connection Eph 2:8 is ill placed. For we receive from God not faith, but grace, and by grace is meant all of what is stated in chapter 1: i.e. the riches of spiritual blessings in heavenly places, which we have in Christ. It is the grace of God in Christ, which we accept with the empty hands of faith.

At all times, but certainly after September 11 we need to give quite a bit of attention to our understanding of this issue. We should make sure that it respects what the Bible gives as a fuller and moral picture. We must, as a part of this, draw clearer distinctions from both the "Reformed" view and the "Openness" view with their God-made-in-our-image, who is kind, but does not have much of a clue about the end from the beginning, etc.

We hope this is helpful. We are aware that this is big problem, especially in America where the feeling that God is on our side is widely spread. People like to have a fitting and exhausting explanation. We all like to be approved, by God in this case. For then whatever comes to pass, whatever we choose to do, whatever we like comes seemingly approved from God. But without any moral criteria we must shudder. For we are left with what a monstrous god!

With sincere greetings,


Edith Schaeffer wrote the following letter to Edgar:

July 2nd, 2002 Dear Bill,

How well I remember your playing your special kind of jazz at the Music Conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Barbara was near me. I not only enjoyed your music, but we did have a conversation afterwards as food was served and a certain amount of discussion had taken place.

As I am living in Switzerland now, having brought not only the piano, but also all my furniture, which has been so much part of our history, I am surrounded by memories not just of brass, wood and leather, but that amazing thing of memory that God has given us to reconstruct conversations and details of life.

I remember my conversation as a 3 or 4 year old with a little Chinese playmate declaring to her the need of knowing what the Bible teaches, the urgency of feeling that people need to know has continued from this time of life to the present time through amazingly different places and years during my 87 years of life.

As a 6 year old in Monrovia, California, on my way to the Baptist church we attended I fiercely ran past a Roman Catholic Church and a Christian Scientist church, accusing my parents of not being strong enough in their belief, because they deigned to walk slowly past in a dignified manner. "How could you….?"

As I was going with Fran at the age of 17 I determined within myself, though I did not tell him, that I would never marry him if he continued in the Presbyterian Church he belonged to with a very liberal pastor. I have certainly not been browbeaten to have the views I have concerning truth.

I have now had your book read to me two times with a distance of time in between. Read to me? Because I have macular degeneration under my cornea. Sadly I can't read, but have books on tape or have someone read to me.

Your present position saddens me. As many years ago Fran walked out with Bob Rayburn from Westminster Seminary professors and their theological discussions, because of the position they were holding concerning predestination and free will. I more than agree with him and thoroughly agreed with him when he resigned from Westminster and transferred to the newly founded Theological seminary, which met in Dr. Laird's Sunday School rooms, where at 5 PM they all ran to the windows to watch the blue express train on the way to Washington DC.

Later we went to Holland under the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. We had not stopped being Calvinists, but deplored the position of the Dutch Reformed Church, which seemed to exclude anyone who was not "called by God to be Dutch Reformed" and therefore not to go to heaven. My husband and Hans Rookmaaker had many long discussions over Indonesian meals at a restaurant, lasting for hours, and in his apartment. Incidentally Anky and I had times together on a bench outside praying together for she deplored the lack of reality in that church and was hungry for someone with whom to pray for the needs of her children and others she cared about. If everything is already ordained prayer becomes not only useless, but a farce

My own background was the China Inland Mission. As I was born in a house on the property that was the 1st mission station of the CIM I was in thorough accord with young Hudson Taylor, whose story fascinated me as he walked away from the English church Mission Society and their programs to go by donkey cart into Inland China, growing his own pigtail and wearing Chinese clothes to fit in with the Chinese. My own father grew his hair long, enough to have a pigtail, since he scorned foreigners who purchased false hair to attach to their own.

The CIM had as its principle, different from the Dutch Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Missions that they never asked for money, but prayed believing that if they were doing work approved by God he would put into the hearts and minds of people to give. Early missionaries of the CIM were top graduates from universities and from top families, who were not in accord with their families' views that they were wasting their lives in China. They went without approval or visible support, believing that God would put into the hearts of people to send money for daily needs.

My mother and father got married in China and ran a boys' and a girls' school. They had two girls and wanted more than anything else a little boy. When he was born they named him John Eldridge. At 9 months he got amoebic dysentery and died for lack of medicine within 6 weeks. Mother told me in later years that his eyes grew bigger every day and his body got thin and thinner. Had they not prayed? Of course they had. Had they not done the Lord's work in the Lord's way? Of course they had. In those days no missionary could return back to his own country without having been at least seven years abroad.

My father still mourned the death of his one son when he had his 100th birthday. He said to me that day: "Will John Eldridge have grown to be a man? Will he still be a little boy? How will I recognize him in heaven?" He said looking at his hands: "Look Edith, these hands played piano and guitar. Why do we have to have such changes?" My father prayed every day that the Lord would come back and that in a twinkling of an eye his hands would be changed and that he would discover that he could recognize his son a well as his wife who had gone before. He was a preacher and had often preached that death is an enemy and that Christ would come back to a whole generation of people who would never know death, and he hoped to be one of that generation. I don't agree with your statement calling death an exit.

Eternal life, stressed in God's word, stresses the word LIFE, placing it in eternity.

September 11th in New York seemed to be a victory on the part of a wicked group of people who wanted to create a spectacular crime against America, proving their strength and brains. It succeeded in killing thousands of both Christians and unbelievers. Today two planes crashed into each other over Germany, one filled with children, the other a cargo plane flown by two pilots, precious to their families, too. People are all important to families and friends. A newspaper can't be simply turned to the next page to get away from the awful news. History is real and does matter. God is not the author of human cruelty or carelessness. God does not orchestrate tragic events.

Jesus, who wept over the death of Lazarus and cried out at another time: "Jerusalem, how often I would have gathered you as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not", is compassionate. I think of all the passages that say: "Turn, turn, come back." When Christ says, "You would not" it implies genuine human choice.

The Bible concludes with an invitation. "The Spirit and the Bride say: Come and let him who hears say: come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." (Rev. 22:17). This invitation is not given with a fence around it, but to all who are within hearing.

"Whosoever will", is true and is not limited even as the atonement is not limited. I do not believe in a limited atonement. I don't believe in irresistible grace either. I believe God gave choice to human beings, and that choice is real. He respects the negative as well as the positive choice. He made human beings, not by accident, with minds that could think and chose even after the fall. Starting with Cain and Abel you can see the flow of positive and negative choices. The Bible gives and continued through the ages a strong declaration of the existence of human choice, which explains why that freedom brings forth tragedy as well as great joy.

I hope you will understand from this letter that I do agree with Udo and Debby as to the things, which disturbed them in your book. I had also read to me the (critique) Udo wrote …. Actually I thought it should be published, because I thought it was a comprehensive and accurate portrayal of what Fran and I have taught.

I don't know when I shall be in Philadelphia again. I have recently been in New York and enjoyed a concert at Carnegie Hall. I remember you and Barbara very fondly and have always enjoyed your piano playing. I have an amazing Steinway Baby Grand in my old Chalet here, which I wish you could come and play.

Love, Edith

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