God’s Sovereignty by the Rules

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by Roger Olson

Some comments here are so good that I want to make them posts. I hope “Robert” won’t mind if I do that with his recent comment about God abiding by rules in his interactions with the world. This is simply another way of saying God is sovereign over his sovereignty. He can choose how his sovereignty will be exercised. Only such an explanation (as given by Robert below) explains why God is not arbitrary. Here is Robert’s comment in response to someone who questioned my suggestion (based on the ideas of E. Frank Tupper and Greg Boyd) that God follows rules in exercising his sovereignty.


“Did God create these rules or have they always existed? If He created them, doesn’t that mean He intentionally made rules He knew would allow Him to prevent tragedies (murders, fatal car accidents, etc) only in certain situations? If the rules aren’t eternal and are something He chose to create, couldn’t He have made the rules in a way that would allow Him to stop every single tragedy that could ever happen?”

I think I understand what Roger is getting at, it is not a complex idea and yet if valid and relevant to the problem of evil, has important ramifications. The idea is this: God as creator of the universe decided beforehand certain design features which would be present in this universe (my own word for this is “parameters”). To use an analogy: he decided what the rules of the game for this creation would be.

Now in most games we are told and urged to “play by the rules” (i.e., act in accordance with the existing rules of the particular game being played: e.g., in soccer unless you are a goalie in a certain part of the field you are not to use your hands). And sometimes people violate the rules of the game being played. But in each of these games the competitors agree beforehand as to the rules of the game. And these rules were chosen by the originator of the game and fair play is considered playing by the actual rules of the game. When we speak of God setting up the rules, it is a lot stronger, as it is not something that he and we agree about (say he and we agree that humans will have free will, so having free will is one of the rules of the game). No, the rules are set up unilaterally by God (if he designs people to have a capacity for free will, then we will have this capacity, whether we want it to exist, or deny that it exists, or hope that it exists, our opinions about the rules of the game really don’t matter as He alone decides the rules of the game before we even get on the field).

Now I believe (perhaps others disagree) that God is both rational and He does not contradict Himself in his actions. In some games, while one player plays by the rules, another player may cheat or try to change the rules or do things to get past the rules of the game. The issue here would be if God designs the rules of the game, that since He does not contradict Himself (and He is perfectly consistent with both his character and His own intentions) He will not contradict the very rules which He has set up. To use another analogy, if a designer designs something well, say, exactly according to his intended specifications, designs something perfectly, that designer will not later come along and then tweak or change the design. Only an “incompetent designer” would do such a thing. Now I assume that God, contrary to the “incompetent designer,” is an extremely competent designer (i.e. whatever he had in mind for X when designing X is exactly what X will be).

So, take a relatively noncontroversial example. Say one of the rules of the game as designed by God regarding human persons is that humans would have their own individual minds. This would mean, as Plantinga puts it, that the design plan for humans would include a cognitive ability to know and understand truth. It would mean that is our inviolable nature to be truth-seeking persons. As that is the way we are designed we cannot help but be truth-seeking persons. Now if that is true and that is one of the rules of the game then God is not going to later change or tamper with human nature so that we become non-truth-seeking persons. He will “play by the rules of the game,” which He himself has designed. And it is not a question of God’s power, to ask whether He will then contradict His own design plan concerning humans and truth-seeking. To ask a question such as, Does God have the power to take away and eliminate human minds from operating? commits a categorical mistake, because the issue is not God’s power but His PLANNING (His design, the rules of the game, which He Himself set up).

A better question, which does not commit a categorical mistake, is to ask whether or not God will contradict His own design plans — the rules He set up and intended to be in operation? I believe the answer is that since He is rational and since He will not deny or contradict Himself or his own plans and purposes, he will not go against the very rules of the game which He himself set up.

Now with these things in mind (and more could be said, but I think this gets the ball rolling sufficiently for purposes of this discussion), let’s look again at “EDHs” questions:

“Did God create these rules or have they always existed?”

The rules are not created, material things, like God creating a rock. Rather, they are the parameters or rules of the game that will take place in this universe (kind of like the software of a computer, the hardware of the computer actually makes the computer work, but when working it will work according to its pre-specified software). Speaking of humans, the rules may include that humans have a mind, that humans have self-consciousness, that humans have capacities for doing their own actions and having their own thoughts, that humans have a capacity to have and make their own choices, that humans walk with two legs, have two eyes, two ears, etc., etc.

Now, we know that in this world humans with these features exist. But could God have also created, say, a world without humans? How about a world with angels but not humans? How about . . . The point is that whatever particular creation God creates is going to have the design features/plans that He intends for it to have (with these “rules of the game” being completely up to Him).

“If He created them, doesn’t that mean He intentionally made rules He knew would allow Him to prevent tragedies (murders, fatal car accidents, etc.) only in certain situations?”

Now, in answering this question things get interesting. If God makes the rules and is entirely consistent with the rules that He Himself set up, then it appears He is not going to go against those rules. Again, it is not a matter of His power, but a matter of His plans — his rules that He set up.

Say one of these rules is that human persons are created with the capacity to have and make their own choices (i.e., free will as ordinarily understood). If God intends for this to be one of “the rules of the game,” a rule that He set up and, unlike the incompetent designer, does not go back and change or tweak them, then a person acting freely may do some action that will lead to harming another person or himself (say, shooting a gun at another person or shooting themselves in an attempted suicide). So God “allows” one person to shoot another person or shoot at themselves and this kind of thing could occur as part of the events that occur as real history.

Now, some are shocked at someone shooting someone else or shooting at themselves and so ask, Why doesn’t God prevent that shooting (whether of another or towards oneself) from happening? But if free will is one of the rules of the game, and God doesn’t change the rules that He made and is consistent with the rules that He made for this world, then God not preventing such a shooting is, again, not a matter of God not having the power but God not contradicting Himself (to go against His own rules would be for Him to contradict Himself and he never contradicts Himself).

So, in answer to EDH’s question, it is quite possible that in setting up the rules of the game, with one of those rules being humans having free will — having control over their own bodies — having their own minds, etc., that shooting others and oneself becomes unpreventable by God. So this means this whole issue of whether or not God has some rules that He set up and is playing by and is always consistent with, becomes very important in discussing God’s actions in the world.

This shouldn’t be mistaken for deism, where God winds up the clock and then lets it run without any interference or intervention by Him. No, the Bible presents many instances of God intervening in the creation (can anyone say “the incarnation of Jesus,” the word became flesh and dwelt among us!). So we know that He intervenes (if we believe the Bible). What we don’t know is whether or not He has set up rules for this game which He plays by, which He himself will not alter, tamper with, tweak, or otherwise change.

“If the rules aren’t eternal and are something He chose to create, couldn’t He have made the rules in a way that would allow Him to stop every single tragedy that could ever happen?””

I would not call them rules He “chose to create” (as if they are things like rocks). I would see them, instead, as the parameters of acceptable play within a particular game (like the rule that only the goalie, when inside the box, can use his hands, other players or the goalie outside the box are not permitted to use their hands). These parameters, as they are universal and decided upon by God, are universally true conditions or realities.

As a human person, no matter where you go in this universe, you have a mind and are able to think thoughts, reason, evaluate, choose, decide, etc. Now, note that last question, Could God have set up the game so that no matter what happens, God could stop or prevent every single tragedy that could ever happen? I don’t think so. Certain parameters or rules of the game make tragedies possible. If a mother has her own mind and makes her own decisions (God designed humans to have a mind and make their own decisions, she is a human, so she has these same capacities, she partakes of the same design plan as every other human does), having those capacities, she can then decide to drive her van carrying her own children into water, killing all of them (though one escaped). She is exercising that same capacity that allows one person to choose to shoot another person or shoot themselves.

If God set up the rules, and one of these rules is free will, and He does not contradict His own design plan for humans, then unlike the “incompetent designer” he will not contradict Himself or His own design plans and purposes. If that is true, then He is not going to prevent every tragedy from occurring. Now we may not like the rules and we may have strongly-held and intense opinions about the rules, and we may wish for exceptions when the rules impact us, but our opinion of the rules (i.e., our own subjectivity) really isn’t going to change the rules at all (the objectively present rules, the rules that God decided upon and plays by, the rules we cannot change and may not even know which may only be known to God). And we can attack and question the maker of the rules, mock him and ridicule Him and set up ethical dilemmas and scenarios all we want, the one who decided the rules of the game did in fact set up those rules and our comments won’t change a thing.

An old theological term may help make this clear here: what God “decrees” God will not contradict (to wonder why He won’t contradict His own decrees shows only that we do not understand the nature of God’s plans nor that we really believe that he is both rational and consistent with His own planning). Knowing that He does have rules in mind, that he has decreed some things to be true, and that He never contradicts His own plans or decrees, however, may help us understand things a bit more.