12 December 2005

Where divine sovereignty meets human responsibility

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The extended quotation (below) is from Charles Haddon Spurgeon and is excerpted from his sermon "Sovereign Grace and Man's Responsibility," originally delivered Sunday morning, August 1, 1858, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, London.

I like how Spurgeon defends the coherence and consistency of truth. He clearly would have abhorred the kind of thinking existentialist philosophers and neo-orthodox theologians have managed to foist on the public consciousness for almost a century now—namely, the absurd notion that all truth is inherently "paradoxical." Make no mistake: many who talk nonstop about the principle of paradox really do seem to imagine that God's revealed truth is full of contradictions, which is tantamount to calling it nonsense.

Spurgeon, by contrast, says we should never imagine that God's truth is at odds with itself. Rather than portraying the twin truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility as an "antinomy" (a self-contradictory principle) or even a "paradox" (an "apparent" contradiction), he wisely describes these truths as apparently parallel.

Spurgeon is certain the truth of God's absolute sovereignty and the reality of human responsibility are not so truly and eternally distinct from one another that they will never come together. While acknowledging that it's not easy to see how they come together, he avoids any suggestion that they are in any way in conflict with one another. "Nearly parallel," he calls them:

The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.

I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that "it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy."

I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure.

Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.

That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

C. H. Spurgeon

Personal update

By the way, Darlene and I are in New York City for the next few days. We flew here Sunday evening after church, and we'll return home late Thursday, if the Lord permits.

Darlene was born in upstate New York, and I've been there, seen Niagara Falls, and sensed the spiritual deadness of Finney's infamous "Burnt District." But I've never really visited New York City except for a few hours at a time—always on travel layovers and whatnot.

I first came through here several years ago. That was literally underground, by train, arriving in Penn Station (right under Madison Square Garden) just after midnight for a 1-hour layover. Twice I've sailed into the harbor and seen the Statue of Liberty from the deck of a ship at 5:00 AM. And I've flown through JFK dozens of times, twice stopping to spend the night on my way to and from London. One of those two times, Darlene and I splurged and stayed in a hotel right in Times Square.

But I have never seen New York.

I want to visit Ground Zero, take Darlene to the top of the Empire State Building, and walk in Central Park. There's never been time to do any of those things when we've breezed through here in the past.

So when I learned my friend Christopher Parkening (arguably the finest classical guitar player in the world) and my favorite singer, Jubilant Sykes, are giving a Christmas concert together in Manhattan this week, Darlene and I decided that's how we would spend my remaining vacation-days this year. That's what has brought us here. It's pure vacation, and a rare treat for me.

Before leaving, I finished all the work on my desk (except a thousand unanswered e-mails [sorry]), so it's my first fairly pressure-free, genuine vacation in a long time.

Why am I blogging? I wanted to. If time permits, I'll probably try to write something for the blog each evening this week. But unless the weather is really bad and we end up confined to a hotel room, don't look for anything profound or totally serious until I get back home.

Phil's signature


Bryan Peters said...

Thanks for sharing that bit 'o' Spurgeon. I like that idea of nearly parallel better than using the language of paradox or antinomy. It really does come down to our own frailty in the comprehension of the wonders of God's grace rather than some contradiction in God's truth.

FX Turk said...

Don't even start. There is only one time of year to visit NYC and "get it right", and that's Christmas. The only thing you will miss out on is a decent visit top the Bronx Zoo where the animals will have the sense to stay where they will be warm but not seen.

... do I look jealous? I'm jealous.

Kim said...

You're very good to treat your wife to a little fun time. Have a restful holiday, and forget all about us!

Jeremy Weaver said...

I'd like to go to Yankee Stadium sometime. I guess I would have to visit in summer.
Have fun.
Great quote from Spurgeon.

Kim from Hiraeth said...

I love that the images of the parallel lines of the World Trade Tower memorial pointing up to heaven follow so closely Spurgeons's thoughts about the parallel truths of God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility.

A beautiful image and one I will carry with me today.

Have a wonderful vacation.

Neil said...

Hello Phil, have a good time. Thank you for this good start to the week.

The link to spurgeon's lawofcon.htm is broken. My wife will be delighted that you made this error.

Tony Byrne said...

I used the analogy of train tracks in my Paradox and Mystery post to demonstrate how truths can be parallel, but appear to us to clash. There is danger in overemphasizing God's transcendence, even as there is danger in overemphasizing his immanence. God is distinct from everything, but he has created man in his image with the ability to apprehend (partially, but truly understand) his revelation.

It's unfortunate that many people today think that they are honoring God by making him so "wholly other" that he's virtually unknowable. It's strange that even religious fundamentalists have absorbed aspects of Kantian philosophy, so that God dwells in a kind of noumenal realm.

On the other hand, there are those who impose their own "rational" conceptual systems onto scripture that they end up denying some scriptural truths. Then they claim they are just reading it "contextually." There's deception on both sides. Clearly, we need to approach God's word with great humility, and a certain degree of self-suspicion since we are so easily deceived.

Kay said...

Bugblaster, it's broken because there's no such place as sourgeon.com.


Kay said...

Or sourgeon.org even.

*Slaps self and makes more coffee...*

Chris Freeland said...

You mean we're supposed to expect profound and serious stuff on other days? Hmm...

Make sure to have cheesecake at Lindy's in Times Square.

Hey, you should make a pyromaniac sign and go to the Today show in the morning.

I was in NYC during the Christmas season about 4 years ago. Besides the freezing cold weather and an unfortunate incident that left us lost in the projects in Brooklyn, it was a great time. Hope you guys enjoy it.

Momo said...

Phil, have a great time. Be sure, though, to go through all those e-mails when you get back. You will find several freshly proofed Spurgeon sermons there to add to the Archive. God bless.

David said...

O, what I would give to see Parkening in concert. I'm even more jealous than Centuri0n, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Sharon said...

Have a wonderful time in New York (my one time there was a 4-hour layover during an Amtrak trip. I did take the subway to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty from a distance, but there is so much more!

Don't forget to give us a review of the concert. I, for one, am very interested in what you think (gee, I wonder why?)!


candy said...

I must be the only person who doesn't like New York. I visited during Christmas with my daughter, stayed in some funky apartment down in SoHo, walked all over, took the Staten Island Ferry. Walked in Times Square...which is one overwhelming place! I just didn't like it much. I will Yosemite over New York any day. I do like Boston though.

bluhaze said...

So true..responsible yet preordained.

Thank goodness it all works toward good...however we may look at it.

That, how I view it, is only one track...toward good.

Forgiven Sinner said...

Great Spurgeon Post.

Sled Dog said...

I'm with you Candy. Time at the beach, in the desert or on the mountains is always better than "city" time. Candy, are you on the Eastern slope or the West side?

John Haller said...

Of course, you're going to take in the obligatory Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall right?

It's a great place to be at this time of year. Best things we ever did there were the Cloisters (on the west side of Manhattan north of the GW bridge) and the backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera. Hate opera, but loved that tour. Also loved the Frick Collection on 5th Avenue and East 70th. So much to do, but so little time.

Some great bakeries down in Little Italy (the espresso looks like used motor oil) and great butter cookies at a shop on the west side of Madison between 82nd and 84th street, about one block from the main entrance of the Met.

Yankeerev said...


What? Parkening and Sykes together...I'd think it was almost heaven, except for the fact that they are in the Big Apple...

I distinctly remember screeching my brakes in the parking lot after a Shepherd's Conference Sunday Service -- '96, I believe... Thankfully I didn't hit Mr. Parkening who was two inches from my bumber -- hands still intact. Phew!! That would not have been good.

I am sure that this union will be most beautiful.

Do they have a CD together?

Rod "Yankeerev" Phillips

Kay said...

Never mind New York. You need to visit the Yorvic museum and York Minster in old York..then a walk on the wintry moors.. best of both worlds..

candy said...

sled dog and marla. wow. similar folks. I am on the eastern side of the Sierras in Reno...or as we like to say...only 30 minutes from Tahoe. Marla...the valley is weird..but hiking away from the valley is great! Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls hike is wonderful. Marla, I noticed you are from Marin County. My husband and I like to see at the Marin Headlands at the hostel there. I also totally love Point Reyes.

candy said...

Stay at the Marin Headlands. Sheesh..I just can't post clearly today.

Sharon said...

YakeeRev: "What? Parkening and Sykes together...I'd think it was almost heaven, except for the fact that they are in the Big Apple"

If you'd like to know Christopher's schedule, please contact me off the list.


étrangère said...

Good thoughts from Spurgeon. I never knew he rocked mathematically as well as theologically -

Parallel lines may be defined as those lines which meet at infinity.

Does it for me!

AR said...

The Spurgeon Bit: I think we've seen enough Spurgeon here to know that he wasn't saying to leave this problem alone and just not preach on soteriology and sovereignty. Yet I think this train-track illustration is the most oft-quoted bit of Spurgeon I've encountered, and is usually used to give the impression that we now have it on good authority that this debate will never be resolved or understood and we should just Bless Heaven and turn out attention elsewhere.

I believe it is possible to recognize truth where we cannot percieve it; and also to understand truth where we cannot explain it. So I'm not promoting a detailed system when I say simply that I believe the key to understanding the connection between human actions and divine actions is to understand the connection between human being and divine being, because action derives from being -or is at least dependant on it.

In being, and therefore in action, the human proceeds from the Divine exactly as we find it, with the addition of sinfulness. This really isn't a theological question: it is a psychological one, and the right answer simply underlies all the biblical texts upon which we founder.

The more we understand of human psychology and - I hope this is not irreverant - of Divine Psychology, the more this question will resolve itself. I don't think we can understand the answer until we learn to ask the right questions.

Andrew Lindsey said...

If anyone wants another "dose" of Spurgeon today, I've just posted a quote from "The Soul Winner" on my blog:



DWright said...

Murmur in defense of "paradoxical":

Not that I'm particularly tied to the word, but I'd always understood it (at least in the context of Christian truth) to mean something very much like Spurgeon's two lines which converge at the throne of God. Perhaps I haven't been using the word correctly, but when I've said something along the lines of: Divine Sovereignty and Human responsibility are a paradox, I've meant: "I believe both to be true, yet I don't fully understand how both are true (and sometimes they seem to me to conflict), because that would require divine knowledge that transcends the limitations of human knowledge, but the two truths indeed cohere without conflict in the mind of God."

Here's a frustratingly ambiguous definition from the OED:

paradox (n and a) 2.a. An apparently absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition, or a strongly counter-intuitive one, which investigation, analysis, or explanation may nevertheless prove to be well-founded or true.

I guess in matters of doctrine, I'd always understood it in terms of (partially borrowing from the definition) "An apparently self-contradictory (not absurd, though!) or strongly counter-intuitive proposition, which, warranted by scripture, once free of the limitations of human understanding will nevertheless prove to true."

This acknowledge that some truths are mysterious from a human perspective but not at all illogical or contradictory from a perspective of higher (divine) understanding and that we can use faith in revelation as a basis for having faith that such truths are not truly contradictory.

I wonder how other people have understood the term?

Marlene S. said...

This was very helpful.
Thank you Mr. Johnson.

Bhedr said...

It is such a paradox why we don't use the word parallel. Hmmm this whole thing is an anomaly to me. Truly parallel does seem a better word to use as it does not interfere with the space time continuum and leaves God on His throne. Indeed as Cat Stevens once sang, "Life is like a maze of doors and they are open from the side your on. keep on pushing hard, try as you may your gonna wind up where you started from!"

Are you rolling your eyes Phil? Indeed this is a Nexus of sorts.

Ah I kind of feel like watching those Star Trek: Next Generation re-runs. Dr. Who anyone?

Parallel? Fascinatingly accurate.

Darel said...

You know, this is one of those Spurgeon quotes where I see him admitting his own limitation. Not necessarily saying that no-one can possibly understand it (though I see how one might see that in there), but that he doesn't himself understand it.

Humble, I think is the word I was looking for. Realizing one's own limitations, even in one's chosen field of expertise.

Also, Libbie, it should be illegal for someone to use their own picture as an avatar if they are good looking. The rest of us have to put up with humorous or silly avatars... you're making us look bad.

Bhedr said...

BTW, what do you make of this?> "He goes to the secret fountain of the heart, and he knows how, by some mysterious operation, to turn the will in an opposite direction, so that, as Ralph Erskine *paradoxically* puts it, the man is saved "with full consent against his will;" that is, against his old will he is saved. But he is saved with full consent, for he is made willing in the day of God's power."-Human Inability. Spurgeons Sermons. Vol 4 p.423 Baker Book House

AR said...

bhedr: That is a beautiful quote. I read the longer version on your blog. That is what I meant by understanding where we can't explain. That kind of knowledge of God, that kind of humility does not leave us with nothing to say about him. It leaves us knowing where to stop, perhaps - like Paul in Romans 11. I believe we are supposed to know and believe at least that much about this subject.

Bhedr said...


Wait for my next post. King Kong on irresistable Grace:-)

It's there...really it is.

Bhedr said...

BTW Alana thanks for the comment, but I was kind of hoping that Phil would comment on Spurgeon's use of the word Paradox too.

Phil Johnson said...

Sorry, Behdr, I missed that when I first read it, so I didn't understand what you were asking.

Spurgeon is referring there to a figure of speech. He's not using the concept of "paradox" the way it was popularized in the 1900s by neo-orthodox writers and other existentialists. Spurgeon would have scoffed at the suggestion that when Erskine penned that expression, he was affirming an actual self-contradiction.

I have no problem with paradoxical expressions, as long as we understand that they are merely figures of speech. In fact, I rather like them. I'm just eager to guard against the notion that truth itself might be really self-contradictory.

Bhedr said...

Hey Phil,

Good answer. You make good sense. I think your right.