Quite a time has passed since I read Mr. Otis Q. Seller's booklet "Is all out of God?"; and since then some rather sharp controversy has broken out. While a good deal of what he wrote carries conviction, I was not wholly satisfied, and even less so when I read his reply to Mr. A. E. Knoch in "The Word of Truth" for June, 1954. The difficulty seems to be to decide the scope of 'ta panta,' literally 'the all things,' in its various occurrences; yet this generally ought not to be a very difficult matter. The reasonable answer to the question, each time, is to ask another: What are we talking about?
Mr. Knoch's subject was 1. Cor. 8:6, 7, but in the above mentioned reply Mr. Sellers deals mainly with Rom. 11:36, to which we will therefore turn first. It is noticeable that he gives no attention to the subject of this text, Rom. 11:33-36, which is the real context of 'ta panta' in Rom. 11:36, but refers us instead to John's Gospel and to Col. 3:8; and he says of Rom. 11:36 that "it tells us that God is the source, the channel, and the ultimate goal of all that is meant by ta panta." This is not true. It becomes true only if we add after 'ta panta' the words in this context. We cannot explain Rom. 11:36 by something right outside its context. Yet, oddly enough, in his booklet he applauds a lengthy quotation from Mr. Alexander Thomson and adds, very truly but inconsistently: "I find myself in complete accord with the main thesis of his study—that Romans 11:36 has a context, and we must not go beyond this context in any application we make of this passage." So do I; and I therefore insist that in seeking to discover the meaning of ta panta in Rom. 11:36 we must not go beyond its immediate context, Rom. 11:33-36.
But, it may be asked: "Is not this a part of Romans 11?" This question is linked with the mistaken notion that the ordinary chapters of the Bible are in some way a part of the original. Romans 11 is not an isolated entity; it is generally admitted to be a part of the discussion which begins at Romans 9. At the start is the conjunction 'oun,' then; so I would go further, and contend that there is no special change of subject at its start; or for that matter at the start of the ninth chapter; and that the whole of the eleven chapters form one thesis, the really important change being at Chap. 12. Rom. 11:33-36 is not really a part of the theme of the rest of the chapter; it starts with a much more definite change of subject than the eleventh, the tenth or even the ninth. It is something separate, a sort of coda, a closing burst of praise to God for the glorious purpose He has revealed in the foregoing chapters; it extols His riches, wisdom, knowledge, His inscrutable judgments, His untraceable ways. Details of these ways are now left behind; the scene is shifted to God Himself (vv. 34, 35) and the great climax of v. 36 is reached: "Seeing that out of Him and through Him and unto Him is the all: to Him be the glory unto the eons! Amen!" All what? Plainly, all of what is written in vv. 33-35. And not 'the all' from some other passage or even epistle. This passage is indeed analogous with the three closing verses of the epistle itself, which arise out of it, but certainly are no part of the sentences which immediately precede them, and, indeed, are so abrupt a change of subject that many have deemed them misplaced or an unauthorised addition. Rom. 11:33-36 are not so abrupt a change of subject; but they add nothing to it, in and by itself. They do not even sum it up. They arise out of it: they are not part of it.
Suppose you are relating a narrow escape from death; then, at the end of the story, you add a few sentences of praise to God for the marvelous goodness and mercy He has shown in the way He has kept you throughout your life, finishing off in fact, somewhat as Paul does in Rom. 11:33-36; would it be correct to insist that those sentences formed part of your narrative? They would have arisen out of it, admittedly, but it would be factually complete without them.
Mr. Sellers insists "that Romans 11:36 should be translated in harmony with Paul's clear example of the use of ta panta in Colossians 3:8. There it means 'all these,' and what this means can be gained from the context." But why? As quoted earlier, "Romans 11:36 has a context, and we must not go beyond this context in any application we make of this passage." If Col. 3:8 is in the context of Rom. 11:36, then any other text may be; so why not interpret in harmony with Heb. 2:8 where he admits that ta panta "means something that is unlimited"? The truth is that ta panta has no universal general meaning independent of the immediate context in which it is found; and discussion of the position of the Roman Catholic Church or of Christian Science is wholly irrelevant to the interpretation of Rom. 11:33-36. This short passage is concerned with the glory of God; and what it says must not be modified or watered down by matters which lead up to it, and still less by meanings drawn from another epistle.
I am perfectly willing to exclude from ta panta in Rom. 11:36 everything which is outside the scope of Rom. 11:33-36; but this passage is wide enough to cover most of God's activities in His universe; and most of what may seem to some of us bad, if not all, as well as the good. If such matters as the existence of powerful heresies and of false and evil systems could be shown to be outside His untraceable ways, we should exclude them; but this showing is as yet all to be accomplished, and any appeal to emotion or to prejudice or to wishful thinking is out of place or worse.
This is not written with any desire to intervene in a controversy about which few, if any, of us are really competent to pronounce judgment; but to utter a warning against the superficial way one of the profoundest problems of all is tending to be handled. Certainly I would not dare to attempt to pronounce finally on this subject. The friend who persuaded me to write this is aware that I have yielded with reluctance; as it is a subject which always generates much heat, but remarkably little light. My only motive is to make the point that, as I see it, both Mr. Knoch and his critic Mr. Sellers are in their separate ways tending to go further than the bare facts of Scripture actually allow. Perhaps this is unavoidable if one is to do any thinking at all about these matters; but if one does elect to put various passages together and make deductions from them, one assumes the responsibility of seeing to it that the deductions are not only sound but thorough: that is to say, that the deductions are carried to their logical conclusion. Mr. Sellers does not appear to attempt to do this; he gives solutions which raise as many difficulties as they seem to solve. Mr. Knoch does make the attempt; and I consider that those who fail to carry their conclusions to the limit should not attack those who do. It is hardly fair to shelter behind an uncompleted case.
Quite likely this will be criticized as hesitating between these two lines of teaching. I am unrepentant. Experience has taught me that more often than not the truth is in the middle course. Sometimes it is even best to put two conflicting ideas into a suspense account, so to speak, until further light comes along. This is better than impatiently insisting on an "either. . . or . . ." solution. At this stage, I am content to set out some of the implications of these views, and leave it at that.
Certainly it is untrue to claim that either Roman Catholicism or Christian Science is out of God or that its goal is God. But, on the other hand, is it true to claim that the existence, and even the prosperity and power, of these religions is contrary to God's will and beyond His control, as if they were the product of some rival agency sufficiently powerful to overcome His will, and a hindrance to His goal? Neither of these brethren can, I think, fairly be charged with holding one or other of these views; so it seems most inadvisable for anyone to write as if they did. I cannot think that Mr. Sellers has given full enough consideration to what he has written about these religions. Indeed, my own impression is that neither of these teachers has yet set out fully either what he believes about this matter or the implications of his belief. If so, none of us is in the position to judge either party or the general issue. It is easy to make assertions about them or to find fault with the assertions of others; but it is hardest and far more important to consider what each assertion implies. If we were to do that, we would soon discover that many apparently harmless statements carry implications which are extremely harmful.
Well, I can only urge that we should be very, very careful how we limit this.
Mr. Sellers declares that what is 'ta panta' in this passage is the knowledge which had caused some of the Corinthians to be puffed up—at least, that is the only way I can understand his words. He claims to be following the principle that the passage has a context and we must not go beyond this context; yet he does not hesitate to go right back to 1. Cor. 4:7. If, more moderately, we confine the context to Chapter 8, we find 'knowledge' 5 times and 'idol' 7 times. What, then, is to prevent some other teacher from maintaining that "the subject of this portion is sacrifices or offerings made to idols," to quote Mr. Sellers' own words? Then, all the idols are out of God and through Jesus Christ! "But this idea is outrageous!" someone will say; and rightly, apart from the proviso stated below. Nevertheless, that is the logical conclusion, if we make the context of 'ta panta' any wider than vv. 5, 6. "But this violates Common-sense," may be the reply. Perhaps: but Mr. Sellers is not appealing to Common-sense, but to a Principle of Interpretation. We can have it one way, or the other way; but not both ways. Commonsense regards the statement of 1. Cor. 8:5, 6 as a special declaration of special importance given to solve the problem about idols, and all the rest as the application of that declaration. The Principle of Interpretation, however, for some reason which I cannot fathom, must insist in practise that a context of a mere two verses (or four in Rom. 11:33-36) is too limited; and this demand must be maintained whatever strange results may follow. I am not trying to put the foregoing suggestion about sacrifices on to Mr. Sellers, I am simply pointing out that it is no more unreasonable than his own. To make the word 'context' mean anything but the immediate context is always mistaken unless some good reason can be given for so doing.
Furthermore, another point has to be guarded. Before we insist that the idol sacrifices are not "out of God," we need to define extremely clearly what those words mean in this connection. Do we mean that the sacrifices are due to some other agency and that it is beyond His power to stop it and prevent them? Is the existence of such other agency outside His purposes; so that He stands by, a helpless spectator as it were, powerless to curb its activities? Or is it set up ultimately by His desire, so that while opposing His will it is ministering to His ultimate purposes? Frankly, I must admit that no solution of "The Problem of Evil" so far propounded is wholly satisfactory; and I greatly doubt if any solution is possible that is comprehensible to our minds as they now are.
If, contrary to Greek grammar, we read "all this knowledge" for each of the two occurrences of 'ta panta' in 1. Cor. 8:5, 6; the following sentence: "But not in all is there this knowledge" reads very queerly, to put it mildly. Another question arises, too. What is, then, the meaning of "and we for Him" and "and we through Him"? With Mr. Knoch's interpretation of 'ta panta' these two make sense, which they do not with Mr. Sellers', or any other known to me. It is difficult to believe that this novel idea will commend itself widely. I fail to see, at present at any rate, what else 'ta panta' can mean here but 'the Universe'; and, except for the reference to Rom. 11:36, I can find no fault with the C.V. Note to 1. Cor. 8:6. To get angry with Mr. Knoch about it does no good to anyone unless he be first proved wrong here, and this has not yet been accomplished.
It is all very well to complain of Mr. Knoch declaring that "all is out of God, the good as well as the bad"; but those who take such a line lay themselves open to the charge of being wholly destructive critics unless they at least attempt to put a better and sounder teaching in its place if such exist. Let us candidly face the question where evil and sin come from. From fallen man, or fallen spirits or the evil one? Then who, or what, made them evil, or made them so that they could fall or become evil? A being, however lofty, who is so created that he can fall is, to that extent, a faulty work; and if God created something with an interior flaw, it is hard to see how He can be other than in some sense involved in the result of a flawed creation. I say "involved in" deliberately. I decline to say "responsible for" because that is so readily extended to mean "to blame for," and no sort of question of blame arises. Here is the most serious difficulty in discussing this subject: the most innocent intentions are so easily twisted into meaning something quite sinister.
I realize some may think it blasphemous to say even as much as the foregoing paragraph; yet surely it is far more blasphemous to say what implies as much, or perhaps something different and even more serious; and yet to lack the moral courage to face the implications of what one says?
Some may argue that Adam need not have sinned; but no attempt is made to prove this from Scripture. If he could sin, we have no right to be surprised that eventually he did sin. "But," it may be argued, "his obedience to God would have been of little worth unless he had the power to disobey." Quite so; but why? Would it not have been better if God had created him capable of sinning and yet free from any danger of sinning? The answer is simply that the material Universe is not made that way. Obedience cannot be both voluntary and involuntary. We cannot choose unless we have the power of choice; and if there is only One course open to us, any choice is out of the question.
It seems, then, that with things as they are; that is, in the material Universe; there is an iron law of Necessity against which there is no sort of appeal and from which even God Himself is not free or has voluntarily yielded up His freedom. But note well the word 'material.' I am not suggesting that God is in any way less than wholly and absolutely omnipotent in the spiritual Universe. What I do suggest is that when He chose to bind spirit into the electron and thus create matter, He also chose to accept the full consequences of His act, one of which is that the material Universe comes under the rigid law of Necessity, of cause and effect.
If this be the case, we must accept the consequences. Why He empties Himself to such an extent we do not know and probably cannot even imagine. Assuming all this, we do know that His 'kenosis' inevitably had to lead to the kenosis of Christ Jesus and all the glory which will flow from it. For the benefit of any who may be unfamiliar with this word 'kenosis,' it comes from the word 'empties' in Phil. 2:7 and is commonly used as a convenient term for what is there described.
The two foregoing paragraphs are to some extent speculative, and I would not in any circumstances press them. I have written them simply in order to point out one apparently possible explanation of our problem—not necessarily to commend it to others, but simply to make the point that some sort of explanation is conceivable, and therefore we should not be too ready either to declare that there is none, or to adopt one, or to cast anathemas at other brethren whose view may not commend itself to us. The objections to Mr. Knoch's teachings are not that they can be proved to be unscriptural, for I do not see how they can be; but that they do not commend themselves to the views about God held by his critics. If I have succeeded in showing that Mr. Knoch's teaching is not necessarily open to the deductions which have been made from it, I am for the moment content. I do not claim that my view, above, is either scriptural or unscriptural; but simply that I can find no plain ruling from Scripture either way. I am not prepared to condemn anyone for what other people choose to deduce from his teaching.
Yet having said this much; I would most earnestly add I detest the deduction which appears to be made by some of Mr. Knoch's followers, that since all is out of God, our sins are also, and therefore that we have no need to trouble ourselves about them. This is abominable. Whatever view of the Problem of Evil we may incline to, we must not in any circumstances use it as an excuse for sin. God hates sin; and if we do not hate it also, we are none of His.
I decline to enter here into a discussion of "free will," beyond pointing out that, whatever may be true of others, God's own people have an absolute choice between doing evil and doing good, and are without excuse if they do evil. No amount of sophistry can alter that fact. Those who affirm that all is out of God, and then in one wild leap deduce that He is solely responsible for all their sins, are not reasoning. It is an insult to reason to call so irrational a process by that name.
On balance, then, I incline to Mr. Knoch's side in "Unsearchable Riches," Vol. 45, pp. 129-131; but with the proviso that I am not prepared to reason out this matter either way into a final cast-iron system. Why not accept 1. Cor. 8:5-7 exactly as it stands; but without going outside the immediate context and without attempting for the present to define too closely what 'the all' means in this context and certainly without trying to restrict it in the drastic way Mr. Sellers does? If we take Paul's words here as the simple truth, while acknowledging that in many respects we possess neither the knowledge nor the mental power to make any sound deductions; but believing in simple faith that, whatever appearances may indicate, God is ultimately in control and that ultimately His will shall prevail: then they can become a deep comfort to us instead of a continual source of strife.
It was Paul's intention that in prayer the men should be lifting up benign hands, apart from anger and reasonings. This does not mean that we should not reason at all. Rather, it means that our prayer should be singleminded and not tainted with anger and reasonings. This is to the end that we should be able to lead a mild and quiet life in all devoutness and gravity. Nevertheless, Mr. Knoch is right in quoting 1. Tim. 2:8 here. Paul's exhortation is in the context of another statement that there is One God (1. Tim. 2:5). All thought about the nature and being of God is, or should be, of the nature of prayer, of communion with Him; and in such circumstances reasonings are definitely out of place. About many matters we should, and indeed must, reason; but not about the ultimate nature and being of God. These matters are too high for our limited intellects, and therefore there is no scope for reasoning. Scholastic philosophers claim by the "Five Ways" to prove the existence of God; but some thinkers consider that these proofs are more properly to be described as definitions of what we mean by the idea of "God." That God exists is ultimately a matter of intuition and faith and perhaps, indirectly, experience; but not of formal proof. These subjects are not fully amenable to human reasoning even though they are not inconsistent with human reason. Also it should be added that the study of the Five Ways and kindred matters is good and profitable for those who are equipped to undertake it. To understand deeply what the idea of "God" means to the human mind, what it implies, and how it affects our thinking about other matters, is in no sense a substitute for God's Revelation, but it can be of value as an adjunct to and as preparation for deeper studies of it.
As already mentioned, some are going to strange and wicked extremes in trying to excuse sin and in blaming God for it. So shocking a heresy cannot be condemned too strongly. If it were the truth, there would be no need for God to reconcile anything. As they would be within His immediate wish and activities, there would in reality be no such things as sin and evil; and, in fact, it is hard to see how anything would matter much, any way. Perhaps it does not for such people, if the extreme lukewarmness shown by some is any guide.
All this may be denounced by some as a cowardly attempt to "sit on the fence" and keep in with both sides. I am not such a coward as to fear being called one. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I am not stigmatizing others as fools; but simply suggesting that it may well prove, after all, to be the wisest and the bravest course to keep an open mind where God has not seen fit to give us any explicit pronouncement. Moreover, before we can even discuss the matter rationally at all we have to know just what we are talking about. The question: "Has God predetermined every detail or has He not?" is a totally different one from: "Is God responsible for everything, sin and pain and evil as well as good?" A negative answer to the former does not settle the latter; and it is open to question whether a positive answer to the former has any real meaning at all. Perhaps, could we but think more clearly than our mortality now permits, we might perceive that both are meaningless, I suspect that they are.
People who claim to be Theologians—as well, sad to say, as less pretentious members of the churches—are far too fond of talking about ideas which on analysis are seen at once to be meaningless. "Eternity" is one of them. God is supposed to be able to view past, present and future as "one eternal Now." But as the future does not exist, it is impossible to understand how God can see it as something which does exist. He can, and no doubt does, foresee it; but that is another matter. If it really does exist as something already fixed and unnalterable (which seeing it as now implies), then all idea of free action or free will for any creature (and indeed for God Himself) becomes meaningless; for it is impossible to alter something which is inherently and perpetually unalterable. But what about God's omniscience (all-knowledge)? If it means vision of all that exists—that is understandable. But if His vision covers only what exists; it applies to the future only if the future exists in the same sense as the past exists, as a set of definite, orderly and unalterable events. But if the future is not fixed and unalterable, God's omniscience would see it as it is; not fixed, not unalterable. God would not be omniscient if He saw it fixed though it were really nothing of the kind.
Perhaps some may think they see a way out in contending that God can do what is impossible, that is, what cannot be done. It is useless to argue with such.
Another argument sometimes presented is that God, being perfect, must survey events from a standpoint above time; since, being perfect, He cannot change, as change from perfection can only be imperfection. The fallacy here is easy to detect: it is the idea that perfection implies unchangingness.
I believe the truth about this problem of free-will is simply this: that God has delegated to His creatures a considerable measure of control over the future, while yet His ultimate purpose cannot by any means be deflected one hair's breadth. How this is to be carried out is a mystery beyond our limited understanding. One can see that it is not impossible, but that it involves far greater wisdom and power than any mere "puppet show" ever could. That it is to be carried out eventually seems a plain deduction from the whole teaching of Scripture. If we actually have such freedom, complete freedom within certain unspecified limits, this life takes on an importance transcending anything possible under the idea that we are really puppets, acting in a predetermined plan. What we do REALLY DOES make a difference. What we do, moment by moment, or fail to do, will not hinder God's ultimate purpose; but if it is contrary to His declared will and command, it means fresh agony for His dear Son and even perhaps a fresh cross for some other of His saints to bear.
In conclusion, a word about the rendering "the universe" in the 1930 C.V. for some occurrences of 'ta panta.' This has now been dropped-under pressure, perhaps, from the extremists who insist on rigid concordance at all costs. If the three occurrences of 'ta panta' in 1. Cor. 15:27, 28 do not actually mean 'the universe,' what do they mean? Mr. Sellers himself declares that they mean "Everything with One exception," the exception which Paul himself is so careful to point out. If that is not the Universe, what would be? The same applies to Col. 1:16, 17. Mr. Sellers refuses to be "stampeded into believing that there is anything universal about the statements made here." I, in turn, refuse to be stampeded into denying it! Actually, it all depends on what we mean by "the universe" or "universal." If we confine these terms to the whole creation, to everything which God created, we are simply repeating Col. 1:16, 17 in other terms. But if we include sin and wickedness, we are going outside our context here and outside every intelligible definition of "the universe" and, moreover, every intelligible definition of "all creation" or "all these things." Do let us all show more understanding of the immense difficulty of this subject. It is not so much a matter of humility, in the simplest sense of the word; but of what is actually the pre-requisite of a humble approach to the problem: sufficient clearness of sight to appreciate the magnitude of the philosophical as well as the theological problems involved. On the whole, I agree that "the universe" was best dropped from the C.V.; but best only on grounds of expediency; not because it is always wrong in itself, but because it gives an opening to false reasonings. Incidentally, it is not true that in Co1. 1:20 'ta panta' refers back to Co1. 1:16. The 'whether' in the concluding sentence makes this quite plain; for the things enumerated by 'whether' in the two passages are not identical, so the second cannot refer back to the first.
'Ta panta,' like 'parousia,' takes its colouring entirely from its context. To attempt to force it into anything like a 'strait jacket' is at least as mistaken as to expand it into meaning anything we may choose.
R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 29.9.2005