Like most suburban kids my age, I played soccer as a child. It's great, right? Good exercise for young bodies, lessons in sociability, the value of teamwork, sacrifice, frustration, and the joy of a game well-played. It's also one of the earliest experiences in understanding human choice and action I can remember. Soccer is all about learning to coordinate your own body and mind through instinct and training, as well as that of your teammates and opponents. You pass the ball, they receive it, pass it back, and you shoot. Or they have the ball, you run up, slide-tackle, take the ball, hope the ref doesn't see it, and you shoot. Such is human agency in little league.
With a version of the soccer-field-God in place, we see disputes flare up as to how God plays the game. Does he monopolize the ball all the time in order to ensure victory, or does he hang back sort of coaching us so we can make real passes and take real shots? Is God totally sovereign and in control of his creation, or does he give us real free will to make choices that matter? We're then tempted to collapse the tension in one of the two directions depending on our other theological commitments, with disastrous results. Deny freedom and you cut the nerve of moral responsibility leading to apathetic disengagement, while downplaying sovereignty can lead either to panicked efforts or a Hamlet-like paralysis of the will.
I want to suggest, however, that this popular tendency is misguided. While it's absurd to think we can solve the riddle of human responsibility and divine sovereignty in a short article, there are three classic theological concepts that we must keep in mind if we're going to avoid the worst mistakes in our thinking on these matters.
God Who Creates
The fundamental divide at the heart of all of our biblical reasoning about the relation between God and humanity is the Creator/creature distinction. According to the Bible there are fundamentally two kinds of reality: God and everything else that God made. Though God is presented as immanent and present to all of creation, the narrative of Israel's dealings with God begin with his transcendent command to create the world (Gen. 1:1). The Lord is he “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). It is by “faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). As Kevin Vanhoozer says, “To confess God as Creator is to acknowledge him as Author of all that is” (Remythologizing Theology, 65).
From this it follows that we don't exist on the same level of being. Though we use images drawn from creation to describe him, the Bible is clear that the Lord is unique and incomparable to any created thing: “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18). Read the rest of Isaiah 40 and witness the stark contrast between God and any limited, finite thing we might think to measure his infinite majesty against. Given that perspective, we need to get clear of the idea that God is an actor like any other, or a character operating with a will just like the rest of us.
God Who Preserves
Flowing from this first point is the idea that all things depend on God for their being. The psalmist declares, “O Lord, you preserve both man and beast” (Ps. 36:6), and “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29-30). In fact, Paul says that all things are currently held together through Christ (Col. 1:17), just as the author of Hebrews reminds us that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
God, then, is not only the origin of all things not himself, but also the constant source of all existence. He didn't just set the world to spin on its own strength; he upholds it by his power. If he took his hand away, it would fall away into oblivion. In theological language, he “preserves” creation, maintaining all natural, biological, chemical, physical, gravitational, and whatever other processes in working order, functioning according to the pattern he decreed in Christ. Creation has its own proper existence and is real—but at every moment it depends on God's active will for its continued integrity.
So we, too, are part of what is being upheld at every moment by God's hand. For this reason it's a confusion of thought to say that God has to give his power away for us to have it. It's only by a constant acting of his power that we currently have any power at all!
God Who Concurs
In this light we can make sense of the classical tradition including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theologians who spoke of the idea of divine concurrence, that God's action runs underneath, cooperatively funds, and supports “secondary causes.” While God sometimes acts immediately and directly in the world through extraordinary means like miracles, usually he does so through mediate, indirect, and ordinary means like the functioning of the natural order and human wills that he maintains. The earth spins round the sun because God concurs with the natural force of gravity to keep it in its orbit. In other words, it's not theologically or biblically appropriate to say either God is the sole cause of all events, nor that he is excluded as a cause from any event. Rather, he is guiding them toward their appointed ends in ways that are appropriate to their own created reality.
Assuming something similar at the human level, Paul says, it's important for you “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). You lift your hand to scratch your nose because you freely chose to, but also because God is simultaneously concurring with your powers of volition, nervous system, muscles firing, and ligaments involved.
To be sure, the classic theologians were also careful to say that God doesn't will or concur with every action in the exact same way—he is not the author of evil, though he does permit it. Still, the important point to capture is summed up by Aquinas: “When the free will moves itself, this does not exclude its being moved by another, from whom it receives the very power to move itself” (Summa Theologica, 1, q. 83, art. 1, reply 3).
Maintaining the Tension
With these distinctions in mind we begin to see that while God does interact with us on the field of history, he isn't just another player—he's the reason any of us can play the game. That said, because of preservation and concurrence, he sustains us in such a way that we really are playing the game. So if you're tempted to say that your choices don't really matter because God's in control, you're ignoring that God is at work even in our choices. And if you're tempted to be overwhelmed at the weight of human responsibility, remember, you're not a demi-god whose autonomy extends beyond God's will. He's still in charge.
The Bible and good theology simply won't allow for either of those simplistic answers.