More Than a Potter

“If God determines all that we do so that we are not free from him in any sense, then we are nothing more than robots and puppets.”

This is one of the most common objections against the teaching of divine sovereignty. Popular Calvinism answers it by attributing to man some kind of freedom or power of “self-determination,” alleging that this is somehow “compatible” with God’s control over all things. Some Calvinists (e.g. A. A. Hodge, R. L. Dabney, etc.) answer the objection in a way that sounds similar to open theism. They say that since God knows the dispositions of his creatures, he is able to “control” their decisions and actions by manipulating their circumstances, and thus “inducing” them to “freely” think and act in ways that are in accordance to God’s plans.

Some of these Calvinists also realize that this explanation of God’s “control” over the decisions and actions of man is logically incompatible with their alleged belief in God’s sovereignty. So after some initial explanations and evasions, they finally have to call it a “paradox” and a “mystery.” It will save everyone a lot of time if they would admit the contradiction at the beginning, and call it a “paradox” and a “mystery” from the start. This way everyone can go home early.

Since I reject compatibilism and human freedom in any sense relative to God, it follows that I offer a different answer. I affirm that God is sovereign and man is not free. This position provides the only biblical and rational answer, which also happens to be the simplest and boldest response against the challenge. Since I have explained and defended the biblical teaching of divine sovereignty elsewhere,[1] I will not repeat all of that. What follows will be an application of what I have written about divine sovereignty to the above objection.

The objection is incomplete. It fails to specify what it is about robots and puppets that would make them relevant. Why would we be like robots and puppets if God determines our thoughts and actions? What would be the similarities? Then, the statement fails to become an actual objection by neglecting to say why it would be a problem for us to be robots and puppets. Would it mean that the Christian faith is false, or would it contradict the Christian faith, if we are robots and puppets? The objection does not explain. Would it undermine moral responsibility if we are robots and puppets? The objection fails to even mention this.

Our opponents try to get away with making lazy and half-baked objections. They assume that they understand the issues and that their objections are unanswerable, but they are not as intelligent as they think. This objection has been neutralized even before we begin to answer it. Nevertheless, we will address the topic anyway.

First, the fact that God controls our thoughts and actions does not make us robots and puppets, because even when controlled by God, humans are very different. Humans have minds – they reason and decide. In fact, since our identities are preserved when we are disembodied, humans are minds that live in bodies.[2] Robots and puppets are not minds, but are entirely physical objects. They have no thoughts to be controlled, but only physical parts and properties to be manipulated.

Some of our thoughts are occasions for physiological events. There is no inherent and necessary relationship between mind and body, but it is God who directly controls both, usually but not always correlating the two. This is different from robots and puppets, since they have no thoughts at all. Their physical movements are not occasioned by their thoughts, since they have none, but by the thoughts of those who use their hands and instruments to control them. And it is God who directly controls them all – the human mind, the relationship between the human mind and the human body, the human body itself, and the relationship between the human body and the instruments, the robots and the puppets. On the occasion that God directly acts on one (for example, when he causes the human mind to decide to move a finger), he also directly acts on the other (he causes the finger to move).

The objection does not explain why it is a problem for humans to be robots and puppets, and so it fails before we answer it. We point out the differences between humans and robots and puppets not because the objection compels us, but to show that the objection fails even if we pretend that it makes sense. It is obvious that even if humans are controlled by God, they are unlike robots and puppets.

Second, although sometimes unstated, the objection falsely makes human freedom the basis of moral responsibility. The assumptions are: (1) It is necessary to affirm that humans are morally responsible; (2) Moral responsibility presupposes human freedom; and (3) Robots and puppets are not free. The opponent correctly reasons that if God is absolutely sovereign, then humans are not free. Then, he likens these humans, who are not free, to robots and puppets, which are also not free. This in turn means that if God controls all things, then humans are not morally responsible, but since it is necessary to affirm that humans are morally responsible, it means that we cannot affirm that God controls all things.

We will first remove a distraction, and that is the unnecessary analogy of humans to robots and puppets. This step could be skipped and the objection would be unaltered; in fact, it would be clearer without the analogy. It would be simpler to say, “If God controls all things, then humans are not free. But since moral responsibility presupposes human freedom, this means that if God controls all things, then humans are not morally responsible. However, since it is necessary to affirm that humans are morally responsible, we must deny that God controls all things.”

The conclusion would be correct if all the assumptions are true. However, not all the assumptions are correct, and so the objection crumbles. The fatal error is the assumption that moral responsibility presupposes human freedom. This premise is explicitly contradicted by Scripture, and it has never been justified in the history of theology and philosophy. It is so ingrained in most thinkers that when they even bother to mention it or consider ways to justify it, they would often say that it is known by intuition and move on.

However, the assumption is false. By definition, “responsibility” refers to accountability. For one to be morally responsible means that he is morally accountable to some person or standard. Whether this person is free is irrelevant. The only relevant issue is whether the one who has authority over this person has decided to hold him accountable. Since God rules over all of humanity, and he has decided to judge every man, this means that every person is morally responsible, regardless of whether he is free. Human freedom has no logical place to enter the discussion.

God could just as easily hold robots and puppets responsible, not in the sense that they could understand their actions, but in the sense that God could reward or punish them if he pleases. Jesus cursed a fig tree to death for failing to bear fruit. The tree was not free, or even conscious, but it was punished, and Jesus was justified in doing it. Whatever symbolic meaning the event conveyed,[3] the tree failed to bear fruit, and Jesus cursed it for this reason. Likewise, if God pleases, he could destroy a robot for malfunctioning, and since he is the sole standard of morality, he would be righteous by definition in doing this. He does not need to request our permission or to satisfy our silly assumptions about justice. He is justice.

Humans are morally responsible for precisely the opposite reason assumed by the objection – we are responsible because God is sovereign and we are not free.

Third, contrary to its intent, the objection uses an analogy that ascribes too much freedom to humans relative to God. Our opponent expects the Christian to explain how humans are more free than robots and puppets, or how humans have genuine freedom while robots and puppets do not. Those who follow popular Calvinism will try to affirm both divine sovereignty and human freedom at the same time. This plays right into the opponent’s expectation – it shows that popular Calvinism is incoherent and paradoxical, and that it is affirmed by force, as even some Calvinist and Reformed theologians admit.[4]

However, if we would cast aside the usual false assumptions, we would confront the objection by claiming the opposite. The objection cannot apply to the biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty, not because its analogy denies freedom to man, but because it concedes far too little control to God. God has infinitely more control over us than we have over robots and puppets.

When it comes to robots and puppets, we can only rearrange and combine preexisting materials to form objects whose designs and functions are limited by its materials, by our intelligence and creativity, and by our ability to maintain and manipulate them.

This is not so with God. Whether we are speaking of robots, puppets, or humans, God is the one who creates, sustains, and controls the very materials from which they are made. He is the one who conceived their designs and functions, and he is not limited to these, but he can change them at any time if he wishes. He can create out of nothing (Genesis 1:1), change water into wine (John 2:9), turn stones into humans (Matthew 3:9), and humans into salt (Genesis 19:26). He could cause any object to function in ways that is apparently beyond their original design, such as to cause a donkey to speak (Numbers 22:28, 30; 2 Peter 2:16), and stones to cry out and praise him (Luke 19:40).

It is an abominable insult to God’s majesty and power to suggest that he has no more control over us than we do over robots and puppets, or that we have more freedom relative to him than robots and puppets have relative to us.[5] Of course humans are greater than robots and puppets, but God is far greater than humans.

This brings us to a related objection against divine sovereignty. However, this time the objection is not based on an extra-biblical analogy, but it is a direct attack against Scripture.

18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 19One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:18-21)

Paul refers to an objection against God’s total and direct control of human hearts, including his power to directly cause faith and unbelief in them. The objection assumes that if humans cannot resist God’s control, then they should not be blamed. Like many non-Christians, Arminians, and Calvinists, it adopts the unbiblical assumption that responsibility presupposes freedom. We have refuted this premise.

This other objection that I have in mind, related to the one about robots and puppets, attacks the analogy in verse 21. It has been stated by some liberal theologians who reject the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, and also by some professing Christians. They identify with the objection against divine sovereignty in verse 19, and they consider Paul’s response in verse 21 fallacious. Paul writes, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”[6] They answer, “But surely we are more than clay and pottery!”

They assert that Paul’s response fails because his analogy is false. He likens humans to clay and pottery, but humans are more than clay and pottery, and therefore the analogy cannot explain how humans are held accountable under a sovereign God, a God who can directly act on the mind to cause both good and evil. The challenge is directed at Scripture itself, and not only a certain theological tradition. We offer the following points in reply.

First, the attack against verse 21 misses Paul’s point. He does not claim that humans are exactly like clay and pottery in every way, but he is reminding his readers of the relationship between the creature and the Creator. In verse 20, he says that the creature has no right to “talk back,” and in verse 21, he says that the Creator has every right to make whatever he wishes out of the creature. The point does not depend on whether humans are exactly like clay and pottery, but on whether God is the Creator and whether humans are the creatures. Since God is indeed the Creator and humans are indeed the creatures, Paul’s point in verse 18 stands.

Second, the objection falsely assumes that responsibility presupposes freedom, and although Paul does not directly expose it, he achieves the same effect by answering the objection from the perspective of divine rights versus human rights. The objection says, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” Paul answers, “God has the right to do whatever he wants with you, or to make anything out of you, and then still hold you accountable. But you have no right to talk back.” This refutes popular Calvinism, which says, “God has the right to show mercy to whomever he chooses, but he merely passes by the reprobates, who have damned themselves.” Paul’s answer is that the creature has no right to talk back, but that God has the right to make some into objects of mercy and to make others into the objects of wrath. He does not pass by anyone.

Third, the objection has forgotten about God. Outside of the analogy, it is true that humans are more than clay and pottery, but then God is more than a potter!

An analogy is an analogy, and a successful one only needs to make its point. Scripture is perfect, and Paul’s analogy is perfect for its purpose. It illustrates that the divine potter has the right to fashion the human clay into any type of vessel and for any purpose he chooses, and the creature has no right to protest against the Creator.

But an analogy remains an analogy – it is not supposed to represent every aspect of the objects that it illustrates. By pointing this out, the objection seeks to protect human freedom. However, we cannot relax the analogy for one object without doing the same for the other objects in the same analogy; otherwise, this would distort the relationship of these objects. So if man breaks away from the analogy to reveal his superiority over clay and pottery, then God also breaks away from the analogy to reveal his infinite majesty and power.

Contrary to the opponent’s expectation, once we relax the analogy, the situation becomes even worse for him. Rather than preserving human freedom, the full sovereignty of God is exposed, and all the limitations imposed upon the “potter” are now lifted. For the same reason mentioned when we discussed robots and puppets, God has much more control over us than a human potter has over clay and pottery. By breaking the analogy, the objection moves to reclaim freedom for man, but instead it destroys all traces of human freedom and fully uncovers God’s sovereignty, a creating and ruling power infinitely greater than any human potter can exercise over lumps of clay.

As for moral responsibility, we have already addressed the topic. The truth is that moral responsibility presupposes divine sovereignty and judgment, not human freedom, and the more sovereign God is, the more sure the judgment will be. The more control God has over all things, the more moral responsibility is established. Since divine sovereignty is absolute, divine judgment is therefore certain – because God is sovereign, there will be a judgment.

[1] See Vincent Cheung, Systematic Theology, Ultimate Questions, and Commentary on Ephesians.

[2] Peter refers to the body as a “tent” that could be “put aside” (2 Peter 1:13–14; also 2 Corinthians 5:4).

[3] See Vincent Cheung, “Faith to Move Mountains.”

[4] See Vincent Cheung, “Forced to Believe.” A. A. Hodge writes, “Although the absolute origination of any new existence out of nothing is to us confessedly inconceivable, it is not one whit more so than the relation of the infinite foreknowledge, or foreordination, or providential control of God to the free agency of men, nor than many other truths which we are all forced to believe.”

[5] As the following discussion of Romans 9 implies, it is fine to use an analogy to illustrate God’s control over his creation in a relative sense, but no analogy can absolutely represent God’s control over his creation. The error is not in using an analogy to illustrate God’s control, but it is in suggesting that the analogy fully represents God’s power.

[6] Contrary to popular Calvinism, Paul does not say, “God makes the noble vessels out of the common vessels,” or “God makes the noble vessels, and allows the common vessels to make themselves,” or “God makes some of the clay into noble vessels, and passes by the rest preexisting common vessels.” No, Paul says, “God makes the noble vessels and the common vessels out of the same lump of clay.” This offers definite support to active and unconditional reprobation, as well as supralapsarianism. It does not help to regard the “clay” as already sinful, since Paul says that God makes the common vessels out of it. He does not use passive terms like “permit” or “pass by.” Reprobates do not make themselves. It is God who makes them, and he makes them as reprobates.