As a Bible and theology professor, I receive a lot of questions. And over time, I find that certain questions perplex and gnaw at students more often than others. Likely one of the most frequent questions (and also most urgent) I have received from students relates to the way in which the Bible affirms both divine sovereignty and human freedom. Many students feel the tension between these two, fail to understand how both can be true, and begin to think they are contradictory. I often tell them that this tension is not a contradiction, but rather an apparent paradox. I go on to tell them that we should understand this paradox the way G. K. Chesterton tries to answer paradoxes in his book Orthodoxy. The answer for Chesterton was not to take a midway point between two truths, but rather to radically affirm both and allow them to blaze alongside one another.
When we read Scripture, we regularly encounter the reality that we are genuine agents with a free will and we are held responsible for our choices. Likewise, we frequently find passages that relate to God’s sovereignty, that He is in control of all things, and that nothing happens against His will. In order to answer how this is the case, many theological systems begin redefining the nature of free will or in what manner God is in control. On extremes, we see Christians who claim to be determinists, that there is no free will and everything happens in God’s plan, and we see open theists, who say that God does not know the future and is doing the best He can to make the most out of our bad choices. I think both of these are unbiblical and should be abandoned. Other answers, such as compatibilism and molinism, fit better within the scope of Scripture, but neither is able to answer all of the questions. Frankly, I don’t think we are meant to know or understand all of the answers to these questions, but I do think they are helpful to discuss to show how it is possible that these two truths—divine sovereignty and human freedom—although in tension, are not contradictory.
But many are not merely satisfied with a philosophical and theological argument that these two truths are possible; they want to see how it can play out. What does this look like in reality? This is where I think the narratives of Scripture help us understand this reality. Even if we cannot explain the complexities of how these two truths coexist, we can see them play out in narratives. One of the more powerful stories in this respect is the story of Joseph. Though his brothers meant evil (showing genuine human freedom and volition), God brought about good (divine sovereignty). And God brings about this good by regular acts of human volition. People make choices, yet we can see how God’s plan is achieved through these choices, not merely in spite of them.
I find comfort resting in the paradox of divine sovereignty and human freedom because I see the truth of both realities and the way God has brought about His ends repeatedly in the stories of Scripture. And since the answer for me is in stories, I think that’s why I so appreciate when fictional stories latch on to theological realities (whether intentional or not). It is just such parallels between theology and fiction that led me to begin this series, “Theology through the Eyes of Fiction,” in the first place. And one of the more profound parallels I have found that balances divine sovereignty and human freedom comes in a strangely odd sub-narrative of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
At one point in this story, Harry is trying to collect an important piece of evidence, a memory, from one of his professors, but he has been unsuccessful for a long time. He finally decides to use a potion called felix felicis, known as liquid luck, to help him secure the memory. What follows is a fascinating story of how Harry makes cognitive, conscious, autonomous, free choices that bring about his desired end. Felix felicis does not directly do anything, yet it seems to mysteriously superintend the day such that the free choices of the individuals lead to Harry’s desired end. The story is certainly not an exact representation of the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom, but it is a fascinating depiction of a similar phenomenon.
More important than understanding the deepest details of this theological question, however, is that we live faithfully. Whether we are confident or not in our answer to the question of divine sovereignty and human freedom, we are nonetheless responsible for our choices. And even though we don’t have felix felicis to help us reach our desired ends, we do have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is not a magical potion but a divine person directing our path if we will submit to His will and not our own. So in answer to my students’ questions, I could explain the intricacies of various theological systems and their answers, but it’s sometimes just as helpful to tell them a story, a story that teaches them to make wise choices by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to do so with the trust that God is in control.
Feature Image: Kris Van de Sande on Flickr