Abuse of Freedom

My interaction with comments from British Methodist theologian William Burt Pope on the creatures’ (supposed) abuse of freedom, the origin of evil/sin, etc., from A Compendium of Christian Theology (underlining and bold-lettering mine).

Pope writes:

“Of every phenomenon we ask the cause; and it is impossible to avoid asking the cause of this the worst of all phenomena. But causes are variously defined as originating, efficient, formal, instrumental and final. Of evil we dare not ask the originating cause, save as it passes into the efficient; and that is the will of the created spirit. The formal cause, which makes evil to be evil, is the abuse of the freedom of that will separating itself from God. An instrumental cause there could not be, in the case of the original sin of the universe. As to the final cause we must not speak save to quote tremblingly our Savior’s words, spoken on the only occasion when the permission of evil was proposed to Him as a problem, that the works of God should be made manifest.”

The word “cause” (or even “because”) can be somewhat ambiguous, so of course, it is important to explain what you mean by the term.  My attempt to simplify the various kinds of “causes” that Pope lists, I invite the reader to consider Isaiah 10:5-15. This passage describes God the sovereign Creator as Woodsman and the dependent creature as the ax.  Pope excludes the existence of an “instrumental cause” so I assume his allusion is to Satan and not to Adam and Eve, since an “instrumental cause” would be the temptation of Satan in at least the case of Eve. [I’ll leave off commenting on the “instrumental cause” since Pope also does, it not being applicable here.]

Okay, so back to Isaiah 10:5-15 and the Woodsman and the ax in view of Pope’s definition of “causes.” The Woodsman (God) swings the ax (the creature-king of Assyria). God is sending (or swinging) the the Assyrian Ax against an ungodly nation, the people of God’s wrath (Isaiah 10:6).

The Woodsman is the originating and efficient cause (as I understand Pope’s terms) since an ax does not have the metaphysical capacity or power to be the ultimate initiator its own swing. Isaiah 10:15 states that a staff CANNOT lift itself up AS IF it were not wood! That is, a staff, a rod, a saw, an ax — A MERE CREATION CANNOT move or lift itself AS IF it were not a creature! Deeply and thoughtfully consider how God’s statement of self-existence (“I AM”) in Exodus relates to the Sovereign activity statements in Isaiah 10:15.

The “formal cause” (which Pope defined as that which makes evil to be evil; abusing the freedom of the creaturely will) is the swinging or chopping of the Assyrian Ax. The destructive action the king of Assyria performed (whether swinging or chopping, or both) was sin. The ax swung; the ax chopped; the ax transgressed the law of God. And “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). So, again, Pope’s “formal cause” would be the transgressing ax of Assyria, the Assyrian king. The Assyrian ax engaged in abusive behavior to be sure, but he was certainly NOT abusing and thus separating his ax handle from the Sovereign Hand of the Woodsman.

The proud king of Assyria is seriously admonished to NOT swing or chop so wickedly. And He will be severely punished if he swings and chops so wickedly. And not only that, but the seditious and stouthearted Assyrian’s punishment includes the BOAST that he was not ACTIVELY CAUSED by God to do what he did.

The Assyrian King is MORALLY RESPONSIBLE for his swinging and chopping transgression. AND it is true that he totally cannot and is absolutely unable, to “[separate himself] from God” (Pope). The ax is not able to escape or slip out of the Woodsman’s Hand.

Many vaunting axes feign concern for the Woodsman’s justice, righteousness, and holiness in holding them responsible for transgressing actions that He has actively swung (caused) them to do. Clearly, creaturely responsibility to God DOES NOT IMPLY creaturely freedom from God. Isaiah 10:5-15 sets forth a Woodsman who holds axes responsible for their transgressing swings.

The moral culpability question IS NOT:

Did the Sovereign Woodsman ACTIVELY SWING or CHOP with the Assyrian Ax?

Rather, the moral culpability question is:

Did the Assyrian Ax transgress (swing and/or chop)? Since the Assyrian Ax DID in fact swing and chop, he is morally responsible (accountable). The metaphysics of the Woodsman ACTIVELY SWINGING him is NOT relevant insofar as moral responsibility is concerned.

If creature-man (axes, saws, etc.) is “free” in the way Pope imagines, then axes by themselves are swinging and saws by themselves are sawing (v. 15). This is to confound the creature with Creator; this is to blur the Creator-creature distinction. Anyone who has done even a cursory reading of the Bible, will notice one theme (among many). And that theme is that God is against proud and lofty-hearted rebels who arrogantly suppose that when they sin they do so apart from God’s active causation.

I will visit on the fruit of the proud heart of the king of Assyria, and on the glory of his lofty eyes. For he says, I have worked by the strength of my hand and by my wisdom; for I am wise. And I take away the borders of peoples, and have robbed their treasures. And like a mighty one, I put down [ones] living [in it]. And my hand has found the riches of the people. Like a nest, I also have gathered all the earth, as forsaken eggs [are] gathered. And there was not one moving a wing, or opening a mouth, or one chirping. Shall the axe glorify itself over him chopping with it? Or shall the saw magnify itself over him moving it? As [if] a rod [could] wave those who lift [it]. As [if] a staff could raise what is not wood!” (Isaiah 10:12-15; underlining mine)

Is the prophet Isaiah making the Woodsman the “author of sin”?  Why doth the Woodsman yet find fault? For who (ax, saw, rod, staff) has resisted His will? How can any of these creature-tools resist the active and powerful swing of the One wielding them? Shall not the recalcitrant ax, saw, rod, and staff legitimately complain, “Why did You make [us] like this?” (cf. Romans 9:20)

Pope then speaks of the “final cause”:

“As to the final cause we must not speak save to quote tremblingly our Savior’s words, spoken on the only occasion when the permission of evil was proposed to Him as a problem, that the works of God should be made manifest.”

I presume Pope’s allusion is to John 9:1-7.

“And passing by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Teacher, who sinned, this one, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither this one nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God might be revealed in him. It behooves Me to work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day. Night comes when no one is able to work. While I am in the world, I am [the] Light of the world. Saying these things, He spat on the ground and made clay out of the spittle, and anointed clay on the blind one’s eyes. And He said to him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, which translated is Sent. Then he went and washed, and came seeing” (John 9:1-7; underlining emphasis mine).

It appears the “final cause” is the glory of God manifested by the healing hands of Jesus Christ. I thought of this passage in light of John 9:1-7:

“And Moses said to Jehovah, O Lord, I [am] not a man of words, either from yesterday or the third day, nor since You have been speaking to Your bondslave. For I [am] heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue. And Jehovah said to him, Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? [Is] it not I, Jehovah?” (Exodus 4:10-11; underlining emphasis mine)

How many thankless God-haters would quibble, murmur, and complain that it is incredibly cruel to cause this man to be born blind in order to manifest His beautifully sovereign healing power?

“O Jehovah, the Hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be ashamed. Those who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken Jehovah, the Fountain of living waters. Heal me, O Jehovah, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved; for You [are] my praise” (Jeremiah 17:13-14).