When the Christian encounters the Exodus declaration by God that he is going to “harden Pharaoh’s heart”, unlike any similar context where someone provokes another to a specific frame of mind or disposition, because this involves God, he or she (the Christian-or anyone else going down this path for that matter) often yields to the conclusion that because God is sovereign and all powerful (omnipotent) then he, God, must have arrested control over Pharaoh’s will or volition and did the hardening instead of Pharaoh. I have read, by the way, some rather exhaustive theological papers on this topic. While I find them thorough I do not find them necessary. I believe it is prima facie if we have a proper frame of reference. Hence, there are 2 main fails of this rationalism.
- The Figure of Speech or Metonymy Ignored
- The Improper View of Divine Sovereignty
I. The Figure of Speech or Metonymy
The first fail is the most basic of all which is to ignore the nature of the expression. The grammatical term for how this is being said by God to Moses is called a metonymy. It is a form of one, at least. The easiest examples come from life, our life. Some expressions we use which reflect this are:
He upset me
She makes me mad
Quit agitating your sister
Don’t make the dog bark
While in each case the subject is not taking control of the object, the subject, nevertheless, provokes the object in a manner in which he or she reasonably predicts the other will respond. Your input is placing upon them and around them conditions which, internally for them, will produce certain outcomes. God, fortunately, does not have to predict, he knows.
In the case of Pharaoh, God hardened his heart until it broke, long enough to let the Hebrews go. Sometimes, when we pray for actions by those making decisions it isn’t always the response of God to gently enlighten rather, at times God must crush them with their own stubbornness until they break, unwittingly doing God’s will. And this is precisely what occurred with Pharaoh.
This is not complicated. It is just as you see it and have done yourself on many occasions.
II. The Improper View of Divine Sovereignty
Divine sovereignty is routinely denoted as a matter of control in a number of theological circles. That is to say, springing from many theologians and subsequently the minds of their disciples, is the idea that when we come into contact with divine sovereignty we do so first and foremost as a mechanism of control, particularly divine control or as Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic types like to say, "absolute control”.
The problem with this is that the Word of God, the Bible, does not present such a such a definition. At times, unquestionably, the Scriptures present God controlling events, now and then extensively. As well, it is doubtless that we encounter other related elements of God’s essence such as foreknowledge, omnipotence and omniscience and so on, but none of these are disclosed by Scripture as combining together in a manner which warrants the conclusion that divine sovereignty is defined as God being in control of everything.
Of course the immediate response to the person coming from this approach is to claim, “If something is not under God’s control then it is not under his sovereignty, hence, God is not sovereign!” Well, sure, if divine sovereignty is about control, which is just my point, it isn’t.
Rule, not Control
One of my favorite Bible passages contains a verse which aids believers in developing a proper understanding of the nature of divine sovereignty being a matter of rule and not control which is Romans 8:28 (RSV):
28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Synergy. In this passage it states that God works all things on behalf of the believer (some go further and state that it means only believers in positive growth and not those in rebellion but that is a side issue and not germane here). The Greek word for works, here, is συνεργέω (sunergeó) which is the word from which we get synergy and it means precisely that, two or more things functioning together.
If divine sovereignty means God is in absolute control and if God is in absolute control, then there is no other thing he can or needs to take and work with it for the good of the believer since it is all him. But it isn’t. There is something else.
More importantly, if God is in absolute control then he needs to work nothing since everything has to be from him, if we are going to accept the absolute control theory. If he has to take something and work it for the good of the believer then there is something not under his absolute control or else it would not need to be “worked” or synergized, it would begin and end good. That is, unless you believe God does bad or evil and then synergizes with it in order to do his good in which case I would say you have a touch of madness and theological ineptitude. It might sound enlightened, intellectual and sophisticated if not dramatic and poetic but it is not Biblical.
God permitted Satan to do as Satan would with Job but ruled absolutely in the matter. He set limits on Satan. He did not control Satan but he ruled both Satan and in the matter, itself, using it for the good of Job and his divine will.
If the expression of absolution is going to exist it needs to be with divine ruling, not control. While God has controlled and does directly control some events he is not presented as ever and always in everything doing so, or absolutely, in Scripture. Thus, this absolutism with regard to control and divine sovereignty can only lead to, as we see with Pharaoh, errant conclusions. It is a theological burden in so many ways but worse, one that will negatively impact the believer’s faith-response to God.
However, as the Scriptures teach us, nothing will escape the judgment of God. And if God is in absolute control, the truth is there is no need of judgment since God is its author in being absolutely in control, unless one wishes to play games with words and absolve the one in control of control thus, responsibility, thereby invalidating the meaning and properties of the term absolute control. But we know better.
Instead, God is absolutely ruling. And for the believer he has ruled that no matter the evil, not matter the hardship, no matter the test and no matter the source of "all things", he synergizes all things for the good of the one who loves God and is called according to his purpose.