Posts Tagged ‘first cause’

Let’s take a closer look at that saying of Joseph’s.

You planned evil against me; God planned it for good.    Genesis 50:20

Firstly, can we trust Joseph’s words? Are we supposed to? He’s the good guy in the story, and he’s a prophet too, he has insights into the mysteries of God’s purposes. So we’re probably supposed to trust his words. Also this statement comes at the end of the whole story, like a concluding reflection on the meaning of the whole. That gives it weight. So, yes, we probably are supposed to accept Joseph’s assessment of things as a truth statement.

Ok. But what does he actually say? Literally he says

“And you designed upon me evil, but God designed it for good…”

The first thing to notice is that there is no mention of causality here at all. The focus of the saying is on ‘intentions’, or purposes. The brothers had one intention, God had quite another one. So it’s a pretty weak verse to use as a proof text for causality of any sort.

But we could say, the language of design implies here a causality also. ‘You designed evil upon me, and carried it out, but God designed it for good, and brought good to pass.’

That’s fair enough: secondarily, by implication, something is suggested here about causality. It’s not the point of the verse, but it kind of follows from it. Pity though that our doctrine is only implied in the best proof text we have.

But if something is implied about causality, what is it? What can we legitimately infer from Joseph’s words about the causality of the events? That depends on what is being said about design or purpose here. What does Joseph say about intentions here? There are a few possible ways to take his words. They could mean:

1. You designed upon me evil, but behind that was God who intended that you should design that evil, and he all along had a higher plan to do good to me and to others through your crime. God was the first cause of your crime. (The two-layered sponge cake)

OR

2. You designed upon me evil, selling me off as a slave. But God intended a good outcome for me. He was working at the same time, following a very different agenda. God subverted your plans and established his own ones. He made sure my coming to Egypt was a blessing. (A tug of war image?)

OR

3. You designed evil upon me, but only because God allowed you to do that. He hated what you did but permitted it. And it coincided with his own plan that I should become lord of Egypt.

Reading 1 has a problem of grammar: On this reading, ‘God meant it’ should be referring to the brothers’ ‘crime’ – the word they have just used repeatedly. But ‘crime’ is a masculine word in Hebrew, while the ‘it’ here is a feminine: ‘God meant it’ can’t be referring to the word ‘crime’. But it’s hard to see what else ‘it’ might refer to. The grammar seems to be against this reading.

Personally, I think Readings 1 and 3 are over-readings, unnecessarily complicated, reading into the text ideas and concerns that are not there. While I think 3 is probably true in fact, I don’t think it’s what Joseph says here.

I think Reading 2 is the most natural and simplest way to take Joseph’s saying. ‘God meant it’ refers not to the crime, but to the outcome God intended for Joseph. In fact, the rest of the saying pushes us to read God’s intention in terms of outcomes: “God meant it for good, to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (HCSB)

And the LXX seems to agree with this reading. It renders Joseph’s words:

“You planned against me for evil,

 but God planned for me for good.”

While you could read this as compatible with double causality, it’s not actually asserting anything so complex. This LXX version reads as a much simpler claim, theologically speaking, than the sophisticated ideas which would be invoked in Reading 1. There are two competing plans for Joseph’s life: that’s all.

But whichever you think is more likely Joseph’s meaning, the main point is that there are a range of options for interpreting his words. We are by no means forced to adopt Reading 1, the reading that might imply double causality.

So Genesis 50:20 is not really a very good proof text for our favourite doctrine of God as first cause of everything. It’s not talking about causes as such, and what it says about design doesn’t seem to be structured in the ‘layer cake’ way that double causality requires. It seems more like a tug-of-war than a sponge cake!

Also, Genesis 50:20 is a comment on one particular event. It does not generalise to say that God behaves in the same way for other events (let alone all events). Using this verse to build our doctrine of double causality involves a massive extrapolation from the text.

But if Genesis 50 is the best proof text for this doctrine, and it’s not really a good one, then… what?

Could it be that the doctrine of double causality is actually without biblical support – that it is a foreign import, a cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest of Christian faith?

What do you think?

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

So goes the Westminster shorter catechism. It’s a big, magisterial statement: ‘he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.’ Whatsoever. Impressive. If a little difficult to substantiate from Scripture.

This is the doctrine of double causality. Think of reality like a sponge cake with two layers. The top layer is God’s plans. The bottom layer is our choices and decisions, and everything else that goes on down here.

Whenever something happens, it has two sets of causes  (the Greeks identified more than two sorts, but two will do for now). There are immediate causes, such as your decision to get out of bed in the morning. It was your decision. But behind that decision there is the first cause. God ordained that you should get up, and so that you should make that decision, and moved or caused you to do so. God is the first cause of everything. Whatsoever comes to pass.

This idea of double causation is pretty deeply entrenched in the western mindset. When someone’s house gets burgled, they might ask. ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ A common question in our culture is, ‘If God is good, why are there wars?’ The common assumption here is of God as first cause. Of everything.

It’s a nice tidy doctrine that seems to tie everything together powerfully. Appealing. People like it.

It does have problems however. Moral problems: it’s pretty hard for a first cause to avoid responsibility for the things the cause causes. Like wars…

But the problem I want to explore is about Scriptural backing for this idea. For a concept so foundational to western thinking about God, it’s surprising how little there is in the Bible that expresses or even implies double causality.

Of course in our tradition we like proof texts, and this is particularly embarrassing, because, I mean…where are they?

They’re so thin on the ground, people end up going back to the Joseph story from Genesis to find one. That’s not a good sign, when your doctrine can only found in the OT not the NT, and when it’s only in the oldest part of the OT. Progressive revelation suggests that we should have found out a whole lot more about such an important truth later in the Scriptures. And yet Genesis seems to have to clearest example of this doctrine being taught.

Or does it?

Let’s take a look. We’re in Genesis 50, the final chapter, and Joseph’s brothers are panicking. Their dad has just died, and they’re worried that Joseph will take that as a cue for pay-back time. They sold their brother into slavery once – what will he do to them now he’s in power?

But Joseph reassures them:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.”    Genesis 50:20-21 (NRSV)

That seems to capture the shape of the doctrine: two parallel causes working simultaneously but for different ends. God in heaven, and J’s brothers on earth. I remember as a youngster hearing Don Carson use this text to teach that exact doctrine. Double causality.

But is that really what Genesis 50:20 teaches? Let’s look more closely.

Tomorrow: conclusion