Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Does God Lose Arguments?

I am in the middle of reading Leonard Sweet’s, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, and without giving away my overall impression which shall be saved for a future review, I was just reading one section that really caught my attention.  In the context of dealing with the story of Abraham offering Isaac, Sweet brings up the topic of how often biblical characters, specifically prophets, argued with God and appeared to win their cases.  As a short list, Moses, Jacob and Abraham all argued with God and he appeared to change his mind.

In all this, Sweet’s point is that our genuine interaction with God is found in relationship and not in belief or doctrine.  In support of this point, he quotes a book by Conrad Gempf.  Gempf notes that disputing with Jupiter or Allah is likely to end badly for the human and disputing with Buddha will result in him chuckling at our missing the point of unreality.  But,

“when you start arguing with Yahweh, he smiles, rolls up his anthropocentric sleeves, and starts to look interested.  The strangest thing is that he likes losing the arguments even more than he likes winning them.”

My first reaction was, “is ‘losing the arguments’ the right way of putting that?”  Does God ever ‘lose’ an argument, and if so, what does that mean about the biblical God?

I have to admit that these passages concerning those who wrestled with God or argued with him are fascinating, certainly full of meaning, and possibly very hard to wrap our theological selves around.  So how ought I to approach these passages?

I think a first rule of thumb, contrary to Sweet’s intent, is that God never loses.  If Sweet and Gempf intend to mean that God loses arguments in the sense that his original plan is exposed as wrong, shortsighted, or faulty in some fashion by a human, then I think they may both be way outside of the biblical witness of the nature of God.

One hermeneutical rule of thumb is that we ought to interpret the difficult passages in light of the clearer passages, and it is clear in Scripture that God is omniscient.  Thus, it would not be in keeping with Scripture’s clear witness if we hold to a notion that God loses arguments in ways analogous to how I might lose an argument.

Maybe a good place to begin when looking at these kinds of passages is the exercise of God-given free will combined with an obedient relationship with God.  If I am sure God never mistakes the effects of his actions and the set of current circumstances, then I am inclined to believe that ‘arguments’ with God are more about the display of human will and affection than of genuine argumentation.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Abraham was sincerely debating God over Sodom and Gomorrah, but because God’s ‘original plan’ was not wrongheaded, then I might more easily believe the conversation was intended to bring out Abraham’s affection for Lot and other humans than it was to correct God.

Nothing easy about these passages.


Son of Man said...

Very solid post. These passages are pretty intense. Check out the tension between Moses's prayers in Exodus 32 and 33. In one, he convinces God to spare the people, in the next, God's answer is 'I will have mercy on whoever I want.' Neat. Your blog is very enjoyable.

Phil Steiger said...

Thanks! I have always said that where the biblical text is thorny and difficult, there are amazing things awaiting the diligent student, and these kinds of passages are no exception.

I love the tension you raise in that prayer and response between Moses and God. I think it helps my point that God doesn't 'lose' arguments, but is ready and willing to journey alongside His people as they/we learn what God's will is and how it works out here in our lives.

Ruan said...

Perhaps it is God's will that he loses the argument to Abraham. In other words, it was a "planned" loss and thus God never really "lost" it if you get my drift. I'm not really sure how to put that in words, I tried my best.

Dave said...

The idea that God loses arguments is a bit ridiculous. Using the illustration of Abraham and Isaac is even more ridiculous. Abraham never argued with God about saving Isaac's life. Abraham was obedient to God and God rewarded Abraham for passing His test of obedience by allowing Abraham to keep his son.

As for any other instance, alot of times i believe God gets so frustrated with people talking back to him He finally just says "Okay, you can do it your way and when you're through failing then come talk to me again."

In the case of Abraham and Soddom and Gommorah, I believe he is only allowing Abraham the extentions he asks for to allow him to see that God's plan is inevitably the only course of action.

There are alot of explanations for why things happened the way they did, but to say God "loses" arguments is ignorant in my opinion.

ConradGempf said...

Hi! Just noticed this thread. I agree with Dave about Abraham and Isaac -- that one was meant to take Abe by surprise. Elsewhere in the OT, though, there are places where it sure looks as though God is genuinely in conversation with His people. Throughout the Bible, the way that He operates demonstrates a God who is at once both completely in control and yet also willing to cede control... even in creation, He doesn't fashion everything Himself, but says "Let the earth bring forth..." and lets his little humans do the naming and take part of the process.

He loves us -- the Father and his children analogy is a good strong one. And he lets us question Him, though He'll roar his answers back as he does with Job. If you and I, being sinful fathers, can be happy when our children start holding their own in conversations and winning the lightly contested chess game, how much more delighted will our Heavenly Father be when we take opportunities He cedes to us to "let us win".

It's "ignorant" to say that God loses arguments? I think not. It's a caricature, certainly. But both the Father and the Son both display this willingness. Think of the Syro-Phoenecian woman -- Jesus says, apparently, "No..." but I think he means for her to answer back and "win" the argument: "even the dogs may eat of the crumbs..." No, He doesn't lose in the sense that His purposes are thwarted, His plans defeated. But yes, He was willing to appear to lose an argument and loved doing so -- commending the woman's faith. Try that in any other religion with their gods -- "Yes I hear you saying that, Allah, BUT..." -- and you'd be fried to a crisp before you finish the sentence! Not our God. He loves it, He commends it. That's what I meant.

No way I would argue that God loses any argument because His plans are shortsighted. But maybe sometimes he deliberately squints to give us a chance. Yes, of course, without any doubt, God would never lose an argument he plays to win. But He doesn't always play to win. Sometimes in Scripture, it sure looks as though He's making openings for us, His cherished children. Does this help?

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for your thoughts, and I am glad to have you post them in this thread. I do think what you said in the comment helps me understand better your intent. I believe it is true that the God of the Bible is vastly different from the gods of other religions in this respect--but getting at exactly what that means is no easy task.

I also agree that what we sometimes call 'free will' is something God allows us to exercize deliberately, but I do not want to go so far as to propose something akin to what an open theist would agree with (not that you do).

I am glad you provided some context for your thoughts above. Thanks!