God Is Not In Control, Pt. 3

I claimed that “God is in control” is a problematic expression and that it is not a faithful representation of how Scripture portrays God as sovereign king over his world (Part 1 & Part 2). I hope to draw this out by considering a range of biblical texts, and I begin here with Genesis 1-2.

The Bible’s opening chapters present God’s complex relation to the world in the two accounts of creation. Genesis 1-2 is not a single narrative, but gives us two perspectives on God’s creative work.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 depicts God as sovereign king over his world, creating the cosmos by his powerful commanding word. And Genesis 2:4-25 portrays God entering the world, fashioning creation with his “hands.”

In the first account, God is transcendent, exalted above and distinct from his creation. In the second God is immanent, in that he comes near and is a genuine participant in events as they happen.

Let’s briefly consider the first account. In Genesis 1:1-2:3, God speaks the cosmos into existence. He commands and creation responds. Before God begins to create, the earth has no form and is empty. God brings order to it by forming and filling it. He does not create a “perfect” world (which implies that it is static), but one that is “good” (it is dynamic), which is repeated six times, and finally, “very good” (1:31).

Humanity is the apex of God’s creation. The human is “the image of God,” and this is also a corporate identity—humans are together “the image of God” (1:27). This role indicates that the world is God’s temple, the arena that displays his sovereign kingship. And humanity functions within God’s temple as God’s “image,” manifesting the rule of the living God as they continue the work of bringing order to what is not yet ordered.

God delegates rule over creation to humanity, and humans display the rule of the unseen God in the world when they are fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over every living creature (1:28).

Once God completes his creative work, he “rests.” He sits on his throne over the creation that is his temple, and his reign as king will be seen within creation as “the image” enacts his rule by spreading throughout the world God’s order of flourishing.

After he “rests” from creation, then, God’s sovereign kingship was not to be seen in creation by God acting upon it, but by humans acting within it on God’s behalf.

Let’s now consider the second account. Beginning in Genesis 2:4, God enters his creation and begins to fashion things somehow with his “hands.” This account is intimate and tactile. God is involved in the creation at very close range.

God does not speak things into existence with his commanding word, but forms and fashions creation. He “formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). He “put the man he had formed” in the garden (v. 8). God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (v. 15). He “formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” (v. 19).

And God made for the man a helper: He “took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man” (vv. 21-22).

We see God’s delegated rule and God as a genuine participant in unfolding events when the human names the animals.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals (Gen 2:19-20).

It is the human’s task to assign the animals their identity, because God had given to the human rule over them. God is not “in control” of this process, determining what will happen. Rather, God is an observer of the human carrying it out. He is a genuine participant in the event. We might imagine the human consulting God about various further tasks to be carried out, or even reporting to God what had been accomplished, but we can say that such conversations would have been genuine interchanges.

A few brief conclusions:

First, God put the humans as “image of God” in the garden and their task was to draw upon divine resources in the garden to continue God’s action of forming and filling the rest of creation outside the garden. Beyond the boundaries of the garden was space that was non-yet-ordered—either chaotic or disordered space. And humanity’s task was “to subdue” it by bringing God’s order of flourishing to it.

Second, before human rebellion, God intended to be an observer of humanity as they did this. We can imagine that God would have increasingly delighted in watching humanity carry out God’s commission to bring order and shalom to his world, filling it with beauty. As humanity did so, God’s glory in his temple would have only increased.

This is what we find as God observes the true human in action. When God enters the human drama as Jesus, God observes this human life and grows in delight. Luke notes that when Jesus was 12 years old, he was growing as a person and in wisdom and knowledge. He also “grew . . . in favor with God” (2:40-52).

And, after observing this human life for 30 years, God expresses his delight at Jesus’ baptism: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).

We find the same reality in Philippians 2:6-11, when God responds to the self-expending life of Jesus by exalting him to the place of cosmic lordship and giving Jesus the name “Yahweh.” Based on observing Jesus’ faithfulness, God affirms his pleasure with his life and indicates that Jesus has faithfully revealed the character of the one true God.

God observes Jesus as a human who is utterly faithful and God responds with increasing pleasure and delight. God is presented in Scripture as a genuine participant in unfolding events. He is not presented as being in control of events, but as one who genuinely responds to them.

Third, a point about theological method. When we wonder what God is like as sovereign king over his world, we must begin first with God’s revelation of himself to humanity. The human in Genesis 2 is responsible to name the animals and he experiences God as an observer of this process—a genuine participant in the event.

When the human wonders what God is like as transcendent sovereign king, then, he should imagine that his encounter with God as genuine participant is a faithful representation of what the unseen God is truly like.

This should guide our theologizing about God.

John makes this point in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” That is, to know the unseen God, we look at the life of Jesus and imagine that this is what God is truly like.

If we wonder whether God already knows what the human will name the animals, or whether God has predetermined what the human will call them, we must note that we are speculating. We don’t know whether or not this is the case. Further, we must note that we are thinking in ways that run against the grain of how God reveals himself.

Fourth, the depiction of God in relation to the world is complex and not simple. That is, God is both transcendent over his world and immanent to it. He is both exalted over creation and a genuine participant in unfolding events.

How do we draw connections between the two aspects of this complex depiction?

We don’t. This is where “mystery” comes in. We cannot make sense of how God can be both distinct from his creation and a genuine participant in it. We must hold this complex depiction of God’s relation to the world with humility.

The expression “God is in control” collapses this complex depiction and eliminates the mystery of how God relates to his world. The task of Christian theology is to cultivate the discernment to know how to consider life from the various aspects of this complex depiction.

For example, when we suffer, we can remind ourselves that God is near to us, grieving at unfolding painful events as they happen to us. This brings comfort and clears space for us to lament and grieve along with God.

And we can remind ourselves that God has already prepared the future new creation—the world made new—where Christ is already reigning. And because that world is our true home, we can rejoice that God has already triumphed over all our pain and sorrow, and this brings us hope.

When trouble hits and we only think about God’s transcendence, we rob ourselves of opportunities to grieve. And when we say, “God is in control,” we don’t rightly consider God’s relation to his world, and we fail to properly reckon with how Scripture provides wisdom for God’s people to respond.

There’s much more to say, of course, but with these things in mind, in my next post I will consider what happens in Genesis 3.

7 thoughts on “God Is Not In Control, Pt. 3

  1. George Osborn

    Thanks for this series. Challenging previous ideas and explaining new ones. Thank you for the conclusion toward the end. I was wondering about how God being participant relates to him fortelling a future that we know will come true and your conclusion, for me, answered that. The mystery and tension of the transcendent and immanent.

  2. Paul K

    The idea of God as “observer” seems too passive for the scriptural evidence even though you’ve also described him as a “genuine participant” – how would you combine those two ideas so as not to sound contradictory? God resting on the 7th day is reminiscent of a king resting after his work is done (usually the defeat of his enemies), but even a king continues to direct his kingdom as he sees fit – even if he delegates the work of his kingdom to his subjects. It seems like we get glimpses of God’s kingship, first in the garden as he walks in it and with his image-bearers, second when Jesus ministers in Israel, and third when Jesus rules in person over his kingdom as depicted in Revelation. I think in each instance he directs his kingdom as he sees fit, but what he sees fit to do is rule with his image-bearers (naming the animals, sending out the 72, the saints ruling and reigning with him). Even in this present intermediate stage of Holy Spirit-filled believers enacting Christ’s will until the restoration of all things, Christ is still directing the affairs of his church through the Spirit. Of course, his rule is cooperative with us in a way in which the phrase “God is in control” clearly doesn’t capture. But he still directs his church – he’s still “in control” in that sense, right? Thanks for the series – lots to think about!

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Paul. The manner in which Christ currently rules is consistent with the portrait of God’s intention to rule his creation through his image-bearers. Revelation does not portray a controlling king, but a slaughtered lamb on the throne—a very striking image of a ruler that is unlike any other ruler. That’s not necessarily “passive,” but indicates that his rule is cruciform. God’s character as a ruler is never “controlling.” He commissions humanity to embody his character on earth, and it is our responsibility to do that. When we fail to do that, he remains faithful to his character. He is unlike any other king. Christ does indeed “direct” his kingdom, but that takes the form of his calling the church to portray his rule in cruciform fashion—as those who suffer along with a suffering creation.

      In the Gospels, Jesus goes to the cross and his ascent to his throne is his submitting to crucifixion. And he calls kingdom inhabitants to take up their crosses. This is so radically upside-down, but that is the beauty of the gospel. He reigns as a cruciform king—not at all controlling—over a cruciform kingdom. It is absolute folly to the world, a mindset that tends to see “rule” as “control.”

      1. David C

        With your proposed non-deterministic mode of God’s activity on earth would it have been possible for Christ NOT to have died on The cross but instead have lived to a ripe old age as a “prophet of God” doing kingdom work? Or would this be placed amongst the mysteries of God’s transcendence/immanence with his transcendence ultimately navigating Christ to the cross?
        Btw, really enjoying your blog!

      2. timgombis

        I realize the shocking implications of what I am suggesting. In my view, at every point of the biblical narrative, if we read it as a narrative, it could *always* have been otherwise.

        That is, Adam and Eve did not have to disobey. Israel could have been faithful. And the Jews to whom Jesus arrived did not have to kill him. It could at every point have been different, and things would have worked out differently. But, as it happens, things did indeed get to a nadir with the death of Christ, and this is how God ended up doing things.

        I’m not sure Jesus would’ve lived to a ripe-old age as a prophet, but would have entered his reign as king had the Israel of his day received him as such.

      3. mrsebaumgmailcom

        If Christ’s rule is cruciform, how do you explain passages like Revelation 19:11–16:

        11And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.
        12His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself.
        13He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.
        14And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses.
        15From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.
        16And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

        There are many other references to Christ which explain Him in like manner as the judge of all the earth.

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