During the course of nearly every dialogue with my Calvinist brothers in Christ (whom I love but with whom I occasionally disagree), Genesis 50:20 is brought up as a flagship example of the allegedly Biblical doctrine of Providential Concurrence. Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem defines this doctrine as “God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do” (Grudem, 1994, p. 317).
Grudem’s metaphysics are never quite clear, but the phrase “cause them to act” is clear enough. Even though Grudem’s systematic theology gives a certain amount of lip service to the existence of something like a “will”, Grudem is ultimately a determinist.
And that would locate him smack dab in the mainstream of Reformed theology, according to Calvinist theologian and Presuppositional apologist Gordon Haddon Clark. Clark warns us not to assume that the denial of free will is “hyper–Calvinism”. He exposits the Westminster Confession of Faith (the “high watermark” of Protestantism), the Shorter Catechism, and like statements based on the century or so of discussion leading up to them. And his findings? All Reformed statements of faith and proper Reformed theologians are full-blown determinists (Clark, 1961, pp. 28–32).
Any talk of man’s “free agency”, “natural liberty”, of “Compatibalism”, or God never being the “author” of sin, to be found in the mainstream of the Reformed tradition is to be understood entirely deterministically, according to Clark. That is to say that the Reformed doctrine of concurrence holds man’s will is causally determined in every detail by God, though some would say that because it is not determined by physical means, it can be called “free”. In this way God’s providence is said to “establish” (cause and control) man’s will (and is therefore “compatible” with it). Similarly God is said not to be the “author” of sin, in that while He causes others to sin, He somehow never directly sins Himself.
Call it what you will.
This is not to accuse my Calvinist brothers of the “Fatalism” label they are so quick to throw off when called “Determinists”. I’m not accusing them of believing in any force in the universe outside of God. I understand that they believe that it is God Who is doing the determining.
And that’s exactly the problem. It makes God the cause of evil (even if not the “author” of it under the mangled, Reformed understanding of “author”). But being the cause of evil is bad enough, as it undermines the omnibenevolence of God and otherwise runs roughshod over the Biblical passages teaching God’s love and man’s freedom and responsibility.
So the relevant part about my Calvinist brother’s assertion that Gen. 50:20 teaches Providential Concurrence is that it would mean that evil actions are not only “willingly” performed by their subjects, but also wholly, sufficiently, and causally determined directly by God.
Upon investigation I have been pleased to find lexical, grammatical, and contextual reasons to lovingly but firmly disagree.
Here’s the verse in question:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
–Genesis 50:20 (ESV)
My position is that it is more plausible than not that the author of this verse did not intend it to teach Providential Concurrence or to constitute an example of it.
It seems the initial question is what the word “meant” meant to the speaker in the narrative, and to the author who recorded it. Here’s why I don’t think it meant “causally determined”:
1. Ancient Hebrews almost never discussed metaphysics.
Even the thoroughly Calvinist Presbyterian B. B. Warfield reluctantly admits, in the context God’s “irresistible providential government of the world” that “its metaphysics never come to explicit discussion” in the Hebrew scriptures (Warfield, 1909).
2. Perhaps as a consequence of (1), ancient Hebrew almost never addresses metaphysics; it’s nearly always observational and pictorial.
The Tyndale Bible Dictionary explains that “Hebrew… concentrates on observation more than reflection. That is, things are generally observed according to their appearance as phenomena, not analyzed as to their inward being or essence. Effects are observed but not traced through a series of causes… Hebrew is a pictorial language…” (Elwell & Comfort, 2001).
3. The meaning of the underlying Hebrew word חֲשָׁבָ (“Chashab” — Strong’s H2803), is nothing close to “metaphysically cause”.
Rather it’s “to think, account”, “to plan, devise, mean”, “to charge, impute, reckon”, “to esteem, value, regard”, or “to invent.” (Strong, 1996).
4. The use of the underlying Hebrew verb in nearly every other context in the Hebrew scriptures is quite obviously not intended to indicate metaphysical causation.
Usually it’s something like “regard” or “scheme” (for starters, this verb in the same morphological state as it is in Gen. 50:20 can be found in 1 Sam. 18:25, 14:13, Esth. 8:3, 9:24–25, Job 35:2, Ps. 21:12, 14:3, 5, Isa. 33:8, 53:3–4, Jer. 11:19, 18:8, 48:2, 49:20, 30, 50:45, Lam. 2:8, and Amos 6:5).
5. The stem of the underlying Hebrew verb does not generally communicate causation.
This verb is found in the “Qal” form, that is, its unmodified root. While Qal verbs can communicate actions…
6. …there is a stem in Hebrew entirely dedicated to indicating active causation (“Hiphil”).
Therefore the author could have specifically indicated causation if he had wanted to. For example, in Joshua 1:6b the author writes the word for “inherit” (נָחַל, “nachal”) with its Hiphil stem (תַּנְחִיל). Rendered in English, this phrase therefore reads “you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” (ESV).
Note that not even verbs with the Hiphil stem necessarily indicate metaphysical causation, as God is not likely saying that Joshua will be in direct, “Providentially Concurrent”, or “Compatibalist” control of every action and intention of the people in order to lead them into the Promised Land (also cf. Bullinger, 1898, p. 821 for list of idiomatic active verb usages in Biblical Hebrew; I learned of Bullinger via Dave Miller & Kyle Butt, who call on Bullinger’s list for insight into God’s hardening of Pharoah’s heart–the other flagship example offered up in favor of the Calvinistic formulation of divine providence; I learned of the Miller & Butt article via Brandon Ridley).
Even still, the author of Gen. 50:20 didn’t even use the causative morphological device that was available to him; he specifically chose instead a non-causative stem.
7. The “meant” translation of Darby, ASV, AV/KJV, ESV, NASB95, NKJV, RSV and any others is metaphysically ambiguous.
If the translators had thought that this verb meant “cause” in any metaphysical sense, there are plenty of ways they could have indicated so in translation (like, for example, “cause”).
The other translations only worsen the Calvinist’s case:
• “devised” (Young’s Literal Translation)
• “intended” (NET, NIV, TNIV, NLT, NRSV)
• “planned” (God’ Word, NIrV)
• “turned” (New Century Version)
• “used” (The Message)
8. Many commentaries agree with me.
To take just one example, Pashall and Hobbs write that Joseph did not say to his brothers “…that God caused them to think evil against him, for they were responsible for their own thoughts. In his wisdom and power, however, God used their evil purposes to achieve his will.” (1972, p. 52).
On top of the above 8 points, I am still left with the hermeneutical question about whether the speaker in the narrative (Joseph) is intended to by the author of the narrative (Moses) be a taken as metaphysical authority to begin with. Elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures we find our heros and forefathers saying and doing outright bone-headed things. It’s not always clear which portions of the narratives found in scripture are meant to be didactic.
Now, you’re telling me that this is one of your flagship verses? This is among the clearest, strongest evidence for your centrally important doctrine that you can come up with?
I am no Hebrew scholar and really I am no scholar at all (at present). I consider this something of a placeholder for future study. Even still, these seem like important points, and I would need them explained by anyone arguing for the Calvinist reading of Genesis 50:20.
What of the alternatives to the Reformed doctrine of Concurrence? Among the many is the Classical Arminian doctrine of Concurrence or the more philosophically stated “Molinism”, which at present looks far more coherent with the Biblical data to me.