God Is Not In Control, Pt. 4

Genesis 3 is an account of the human rebellion that plunged creation into chaos. And it portrays God as a genuine participant in unfolding events.

In Genesis 2, God placed the humans in the garden as his “image,” commissioning them to spread God’s order of flourishing beyond the borders of the garden. They were to subdue what was non-ordered or chaotic.

As Genesis 3 opens, the humans encounter the serpent, a representative of chaos. Their responsibility toward this character is clear: they were to subdue it. How they would have done this is not clear, but they apparently would have been able to figure it out through discussion or even asking God for counsel.

As it happened, the humans did not subdue the serpent, but succumbed to the temptation to grasp for the super-wisdom offered by the fruit that God told them not to eat.

Rather than embodying and manifesting God’s sovereign kingship as God’s “image,” they bought the lie that they were the “image” of something else (Rom 1:23, 25). Instead of representing the transcendent king’s rule over creation, they became representatives of the serpent. They did not spread shalom, but chose to become agents of the chaos God commissioned them to subdue.

When God entered the creation to encounter the humans, as he had done before, the humans hid themselves (Gen 3:8-13). This was not the norm, since they had only known visits from God as delightful encounters. God asks a series of questions in a conversation with the humans.

God then announces curses and consequences, and banishes the humans from the garden.

I’ve kept this brief in order to focus on some conclusions we may draw from the narrative.

First, the text presents God as a character who seeks to determine what has happened. Something has changed and he wants to know what it is.

We may think that God already knows what has happened, and that perhaps God is leading the humans to admit what they have done.

That is both a poor reading strategy and it represents poor theological method. It does not let the narrative shape how God as a character should be understood, but makes assumptions about the character that come from outside the narrative. Good reading lets the narrative inform understanding.

And it is poor theological method because it does not move from the text’s presentation of God to an understanding of God as Christians should know him. It prefers some other starting point for thinking about God.

Letting the text inform how we think about God will indeed lead us toward a complex understanding of God and his relationship to creation, as I mentioned in a previous post. We may prefer one that is simple and that makes sense, but thinking about God from our preferences leads inevitably to idolatry.

Second, and related, God is a genuine participant in events as they unfold. By genuine participant, I mean that his questions are sincere and his further questions follow straightforwardly from what he hears. He is presented as a guileless character, one who is trustworthy and not a hypocrite.

God is seeking to determine just what the humans have done, since what has happened should not have happened. He then considers what he will do in response. Genesis 18 presents God in the same way (cf. esp. Gen. 18:21).

We may think that while the text presents God in this way, in reality he is controlling the situation and directing it.

But that is a posture of resistance to the biblical text in that it prefers some other way of thinking about God than how the Bible reveals him. Further, it regards the Bible’s revelation of God with suspicion, in that while Scripture portrays God as it does, we can’t really trust it.

And it assumes that God is deceptive when he relates to humanity. While the humans think God is relating to them genuinely, that is not really the case.

The narrative does not invite us to ask whether God is in control or if he has allowed this to happen, nor whether he already knew it would take place. Our search to answer these questions is a way of thinking about the scenario that runs against the grain of the narrative. It is a way of not paying attention to Scripture.

Third, the humans chose not to bring God’s order of flourishing to creation, but rather to cast their lot with chaos. The narrative is an explanation of why our experience in this world is filled with pain and suffering, and is one that God did not intend for us.

We will experience this world as chaotic and filled with hardship, pain, suffering, and conflict. In a sense, we inhabit a “God-less” world, one in which we do not experience God’s presence as God intended for us.

To say that “God is in control” stems from the desire to make this world make sense. We assume that God’s sovereign kingship must mean that the world is well-ordered and we should be able to find an explanation for everything.

But that is a way of thinking that does not come from the Bible, and it is a way of thinking that the Bible seeks to correct.

The world will only make sense in the future when God fully redeems it at the day of Christ. Until then, the only explanation we have for suffering and chaos is that it is the result of humanity’s rebellion against God’s intentions. And we respond to chaos and suffering not by explaining that it all makes sense, but by praying that God would come and make all things new.

Scripture commends some other responses and I hope to explore those in future posts.

6 thoughts on “God Is Not In Control, Pt. 4

  1. Betsy Davidhizar

    You have really challenged systematic theology here.
    As I was reading, I was thinking that there is too heavy a force opposing this idea that God is not in control.
    This past week alone, I was in several conversations with ministry leaders, fellow church members, a small group of friends who are just learning the ways of God, walked past a number of church signs…all of them pointing to the idea that God is in control.
    I think there is a comfort there in those words that relieves us of the hard work of understanding this socially distanced Word.
    I have always loved Systematic Theology. But Sys Theo hasn’t really treated me well.
    But to go against this flow….

    1. timgombis

      There are varieties of systematic theology and various starting points. And it is possible to do systematic theology and reckon with the complex portrait of God’s relation to the world. It is certainly the case that some forms of it simplify the complex portrait because that makes more sense and gives us more of a handle on God.

      But yeah, I hear and see the same things, and I have my whole life. I almost always keep my mouth shut. But in my classrooms, as you know, my job is to grapple with Scripture as it is and not as most people want it to be. And I have found that it is so worth it to really dispense with my illusions and get to the clear realities of which Scripture speaks. Because that is where hope is found—in the truth.

      That has liberated me, whereas illusions about God did not. So, it’s worth it to go against the flow, if that’s where Scripture leads. Plus, I know how to do that and still be nice to people (I think, anyway!).

  2. William Rudd

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post. I’d love to unpack it over coffee someday but that probably won’t rise to the top of the list anytime soon for either of us.

    Hermeneutics is another of my great points of weakness. Grace Seminary was better than Bob Jones on this but I’m in a long game of catch up.

    No need to respond (unless to point me to a recommended resource)…I’m just thinking “out loud.” How much do we look at a narrative such as Genesis 3 as anthropomorphic and hence adapted more to our finite state rather than intended to guide our theological propositions? How does God’s apparent ignorance in this narrative fit with “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”? It seems that God’s plan of redemption was anticipated from the beginning which assumes also the Fall.

    I struggle to overcome my training that systematic theology is king now that I’m recognizing the importance of rethinking some (many) of it’s “logical” conclusions.

    Keep using your gifts, friend.


    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Bill. The trouble I have with envisioning God’s behavior as some sort of anthropomorphic accommodation is that this leads to us regarding God’s revelation of himself as inauthentic. But throughout Scripture, there is an emphasis on God’s trustworthiness–you can trust that how God reveals himself is how he really is! When Jesus has emotional reactions to things, or when he’s astounded at the Centurion’s great faith, those are genuine reactions.

      How is that all held together with the reality that Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?” I think the appropriate move here is reckoning with mystery–we cannot figure out how these realities about God can be reconciled. He is too big for our brains, and that’s okay!

      But the wrong move, it seems to me, is to collapse the mystery the name of making God make sense. Or, to overshadow and explain away the immanent texts by highlighting and prioritizing the transcendence texts. We have to hold it all together.

      And this is the move that Scripture does not make: when suffering and trouble hits, we fly to the transcendent texts and we do so wrongly (‘control’). And we completely neglect where the NT writers most often go–to the immanent texts. God grieves with us.

  3. Glen Weber

    Thank you so much for this series of articles! You are bringing such clarity! Sadly the early chapters of Genesis have become a debate about material creation (young/old earth, etc) instead of God laying out a revelation of himself – and humanity – from the very beginning of His written revelation of Himself. And as you mention, the whole concept that God was pretending not to know what Adam and Eve had done would make Him deceptive – and thus part of the chaos, wouldn’t it? Thank you again!

  4. Pingback: On God and Control | Prodigal Thoughts

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