A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

In his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1961) J. I. Packer argues that the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is an antinomy. He defines "antinomy" as "an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary" (p. 18). It "is neither dispensable nor comprehensible...It is unavoidable and insoluble. We do not invent it, and we cannot explain it" (p. 21). God "orders and controls all things, human actions among them"...yet "He holds every man responsible for the choices he makes and the courses of action he pursues" (p. 22). "To our finite minds this is inexplicable" (p. 23).

The first thing to notice here is that the antinomy as Packer sees it is not between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. Packer is too good a biblical scholar to think there ever was such a thing as "free will" taught in the scripture. Thus the whole conversation between him and myself can proceed on the cordial agreement that free will is an unbiblical notion that is not part of the antinomy because it is not part of revelation.

But now I would like to ask where Packer gets the idea that this so-called antinomy between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is "inexplicable" to our finite minds? Does he simply have an intuitive feeling that we can't understand the unity of these two truths? Or is it that he has tried for 40 years to explain it and has found that he can't? Or does he appeal to the endless disputes in the church on this subject? Packer does not tell us why he thinks the antinomy is an antinomy. He simply assumes that "it sounds like a contradiction" to everybody. He also assumes that anyone who is discontent with antinomy and tries to probe into the consistency of its two halves is guilty of suspicious speculations (p. 24). I disagree with both assumptions: everybody does not think the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are apparently contradictory (for example Jonathan Edwards), nor is it in my judgment, improper to probe into the very mind of God if done in the right spirit.

Proper Probing

Let's take the second point first. Packer refers (p. 23) to Romans 9:19, 20 "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted his will?' O man, on the contrary, who are you to dispute (antapokrinomenos) with God?" What is Paul rebuking here? A sincere, humble desire to understand the ways of God? No! He is rebuking the arrogance that calls God's ways into question. The word antapokrinomai means "grumble, dispute, make unjustified accusations" (TDNT vol. 3, p. 945, cf Lk. 14:6). Paul's dander is up because he has already explained in 9:14-18 why God is righteous in electing some men and rejecting others totally apart from their distinctives (9:9-13). But the objector, unwilling to accept that answer, calls God into question again. Yet Paul-unwilling that any should say he has failed to explain the matter-goes on and in verses 22 and 23 unfolds further his justification of the ways of God. If finite men are not to understand how God can be righteous while condemning those whom He sovereignly controls, then why did Paul write Rom. 9:14-23?

I think Packer is wrong when he says, concerning Paul's response in Rom. 9. "He does not attempt to demonstrate the propriety of God's action" (p. 23). He does indeed! That is why he wrote Rom. 9:14-23. I also reject the sentiment of these words: "The Creator has told us that He is both sovereign Lord and a righteous Judge, and that should be enough for us" (p. 24). Why should that be enough for us? If that were enough for us Paul would have told the questioner at Rom. 9:14 to keep his mouth shut. But as a matter of fact the only time Paul ever tells people to keep their mouth shut is when they are boasting. If our hearts and our minds pant like a hart after the water-brook of God's deep mind, it may not be pride, it may be worship. There is not one sentence that I know of in the New Testament which tells us the limits of what we can know of God and his ways.

I might just say in response to much silly talk about the dangers of exhausting the mysteries of God, that my conception of God makes such a thought ludicrous. If we may compare God's wisdom to a ragged mountain and our growing understanding of it to a slow assent, I do not have the slightest fear that during some midnight meditation I may (by the grace of God) attain some new ridge and all of a sudden find I am on the peak of the mountain with no more cliffs to climb. On the contrary, for every newly attained height of insight there stretches out an ever more glorious panorama of manifold wisdom. And one can only pity the poor souls who, for fear of finding out too much, never approach the sacred mountains but stand off and chirp ironically about how one should preserve and appreciate mystery.

Seeking to Understand

The other point of disagreement with Packer was his assumption that the two-fold presentation in scripture of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility sounds to everybody like a contradiction. It didn't sound like one to Jonathan Edwards after he thought about it long enough and it doesn't sound like one to me. I think anyone who is going to dogmatically assert that humans can't understand this "antinomy" must first show that Jonathan Edwards has not understood it. I will try to develop in the briefest possible way how Edwards attempts to show "that God's moral government over mankind, his treating them as moral agents, making them the objects of his commands, counsels, calls, warnings, expostulations, promises, threatenings, rewards and punishments, is not inconsistent with a determining disposal of all events, of every kind, throughout the universe, in his providence: either by positive efficiency, or permission" (The Freedom of the Will, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. Inc., 1969 p. 258. All page numbers below are from this edition.)

First, Edwards argues that the thing which determines what the will chooses is not the will itself but rather motives which come from outside the will. More precisely, "it is that motive, which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the will" (p. 9).

He defines motive like this: "By motive, I mean the whole of that which moves, excites or invites the mind to volition, whether that be one thing singly, or many things conjunctly" (p. 9). By "strongest motive" he means "that which appears most inviting" (p. 10). Or as he puts it later, "the will always is as the greatest apparent good is" (p. 10), in which case "good" means "agreeable" or "pleasing" (p. 11).

Man's Enslaved Will

Hence the determination of our will does not lie in itself. It is determined by the strongest motive as we perceive it, and motives are given. Therefore all men are in a sense enslaved - as Paul says - either to righteousness or to sin (Rom. 6:16-23), or as Jesus put it, "Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin" (John 8:34). We are all enslaved to do what we esteem most desirable in any given moment of decision. We are enslaved to do what we want to do most. We are unable to do otherwise provided we are not physically hindered.

Edwards describes this situation with the terms moral necessity and moral inability on the one hand and natural necessity and natural inability on the other. Moral necessity is the necessity that exists between the strongest motive and the act of volition which it elicits (p. 24). Thus all choices are morally necessary since they are all determined by the strongest motive. They are necessary in that, given the existence of the motive, the existence of the choice is certain and unavoidable. Moral inability, accordingly, is the inability we all have to choose contrary to what we perceive to be the strongest motive (p. 28). We are morally unable to act contrary to what in any given moment we want most to do. If we lack the inclination to study we are morally unable to study.

Natural necessity is "such necessity as men are under through the force of natural causes" (p. 24). Events are naturally necessary when they are constrained not by moral causes but physical ones. My sitting in this chair would be necessary with a "natural necessity" if I were chained here. Natural inability is my inability to do a thing even though I will it. If I am chained to this chair my strongest motive might be to stand up (say, if the room is on fire) but I would be unable.

Why This Clarification Matters

This distinction between moral inability and natural inability is crucial in Edwards' solution to the so-called antinomy between God's sovereign disposal of all things and man's accountability. The solution is this: Moral ability is not a prerequisite to accountability. Natural ability is. "All inability that excuses may be resolved into one thing; namely, want of natural capacity or strength; either capacity of understanding, or external strength" (p. 150).

But moral inability to do a good thing does not excuse our failure to do it (p. 148). Though we love darkness rather than light and therefore can't (because of moral inability) come to the light, nevertheless we are responsible for not coming, that is, we can be justly punished for not coming. This conforms with an almost universal human judgment, for the stronger a man's desire is to do evil the more unable he is to do good and yet the more wicked he is judged to be by men. If men really believed that moral inability excused a man from guilt, then a man's wickedness would decrease in proportion to the intensity of his love of evil. But this is contrary to the moral sensibilities of almost all men.

Therefore moral inability and moral necessity on the one hand and human accountability on the other are not an antinomy. Their unity is not contrary to reason or to the common moral experience of mankind. Therefore, in order to see how God's sovereignty and man's responsibility perfectly cohere, one need only realize that the way God works in the world is not by imposing natural necessity on men and then holding them accountable for what they can't do even though they will to do it. But rather God so disposes all things (Eph. 1:11) so that in accordance with moral necessity all men make only those choices ordained by God from all eternity.

One last guideline for thinking about God's action in view of all this: Always keep in mind that everything God does toward men - his commanding, his calling, his warning, his promising, his weeping over Jerusalem, - everything is his means of creating situations which function as motives to elicit the acts of will which he has ordained to come to pass. In this way He ultimately determines all acts of volition (though not all in the same way) and yet holds man accountable only for those acts which they want most to do.