Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart, or Did Pharaoh?
10/13/2006 - James WhiteYesterday on the DL I mentioned the appearance on Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong's blog of a brief statement on Romans 9. As much as I wanted to respond to it myself, I had to finish a project by last night (does a little after midnight count?). So I asked Colin Smith, who has written for this website before (you can find his articles in our apologetics sections) if he would be willing to put something together in response to Armstrong, and he was very kind to do so. Very fast movement...for a British fellow! So here is Colin Smith's response to Dave Armstrong on Romans 9 and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.
Passages like Exodus 4:21 and Romans 9:17-18 have been a cause of discussion and soul-searching among Christians for centuries due to the uncomfortable image of God they seem to portray. On the one hand, the Bible assures us that God takes no pleasure in wickedness (Psalm 5:4) and from all that Scripture teaches about Gods holiness and hatred of sin, it is inconceivable that He should be made out to be the author of sin. However, in these passages, the Bible presents us with the notion that God actively caused Pharaohs heart to harden when Moses related to him the divine injunction to release the Israelites. This hardening of heart in turn led Pharaoh to disobey God. Disobedience to God is sin, so it would seem to follow that Gods action in hardening Pharaohs heart caused Pharaoh to sin. The Lord is, therefore, apparently portrayed in such passages as putting within a person a desire to commit sin, making Him the author of sin in the persons heart.
There are two common resolutions to this apparent problem. First there is the suggestion that Pharaohs sin was the product of his free will, and God merely saw this development within Pharaohs psyche and permitted it to fulfill His purposes. God did not put the thought into Pharaohs head, and He did not direct Pharaohs intentions toward disobedience; He just took advantage of the carnal stubbornness of the Egyptian ruler to advance His own plan. Advocates of this position consider the language of passages such as the above-cited Exodus 4:21 that indicate God had an active role in the hardening process to be shorthand for God allowed Pharaoh to harden his own heart, and He then used that hardened heart. In a recent blog article, Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong argued that it is necessary to understand the poetic nature of the Hebrew language, allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, and understand such passages in the light of all of what the Bible teaches. In this regard, he cites passages that explicitly state that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32, et al.) which, for him, add that particular nuance that alleviates him from having to defend God against accusations of positively ordaining evil.
Contrary to this, the Reformed view is that God positively ordains all that will come to pass, both good and evil (see, for example, Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6). Therefore, Pharaoh's hardening of heart was ordained of God, and performed by God so that He might receive honor (Exodus 14:4) and multiply the signs He intended to perform in the land (Exodus 7:3). According to this view, the passages referring to Pharaoh hardening his own heart merely reflect from Pharaoh's perspective what the Lord had done within him, just as Peter could on the one hand accuse the people of Israel of crucifying Jesus (Acts 4:10), and also acknowledge that they, along with Pilate and Herod, were merely agents of the Lord's will (Acts 4:27-28).
The former position, most commonly taken by those of either an Arminian or Roman Catholic theological persuasion, most frequently characterizes the Reformed position as denying man's culpability for his sin by relieving him of the guilt afforded him by the actions of his free will. The refusal of the Reformed position to make man's free will responsible for sin, and placing the initiative for the sin on God's will, they claim, not only makes God morally responsible for the sinful actions of free men, but also permits man to distance himself from his crime by saying, essentially, "God made me do it!" If this is the understanding of the Reformed position that most Arminians have, it is little wonder few have time for it.
In response to this, those who hold to the Reformed position claim that, unlike their opponents, they are dealing honestly with the text of Scripture. Instead of trying to insert meaning into passages, they let the passages stand and say what they say. Therefore, if the text says God hardened Pharaohs heart, then God did exactly that. He did not sit back and wait to see how Pharaoh would respond to Him. Indeed, "the kings heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes" (Proverbs 21:1). In philosophical terms, I am referring here to God using men as secondary agents for the fulfillment of His purposes. While Armstrong agrees with the fact that God does use people in this way, he arbitrarily denies that God would do so if sin is involved. Interestingly, he cites the crucifixion as evidence of men used as secondary agents, but seems to overlook the fact that God used them to blaspheme, beat, and ultimately kill His only begotten Son. Does he seriously want to suggest that somehow this was not sin? (See his response to Fred in the Comments).
This is what is truly at the crux of the problem with the Arminian position: a lack of appreciation for the true nature of God's sovereignty. The Bible is replete with statements and stories that support the notion that God is in total and complete control of all things. This concept may not sit well with people, but those who claim to look to the Word of God as the sole and supreme authority on the subject need to come to terms with it. Romans 8:28, a much-beloved passage for many people, clearly states that "we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." The impact of this statement upon one's understanding of the relationship between the will of God and creation should be profound. This passage is part of a section in which Paul is encouraging persecuted Christians. He lifts their eyes beyond the sufferings of the present time to the glory that is to be revealed in them (18), and says that their regenerated hearts ache and groan for the redemption to come, the glorification in heaven, and all that Christ has promised (19-25). Paul then reminds his readers of the wonderful truth that, regardless of whatever might be happening around them, or to them, there is nothing that takes place that God has not caused for the good of His people. This would include not only blessings and encouragements, but also persecutions, beatings, and even death. All things, Paul says, not some things, or even just the good things.
If it is true that God causes all things to occur for the good of His people,that must mean He is able to direct the hearts of even sinful men to fulfill His purposes. He would have to prevent any and all hindrances to His plans, even if this means turning the hearts of men against His own, in order to make sure the good He has designed for His people comes to pass. If there is the slightest possibility that a man acting as a free agent could go his own way, contrary to the purpose of God, then God cannot be said to be causing all things to work together for the ultimate good of those who love Him.
The Arminian/Catholic objection at this point should be obvious: if God turns the hearts of men against His own, does that not make Him the author of sin, just as if He hardened Pharaohs heart?
This begs the question: is man morally neutral? Does man stand before God without prejudice or predisposition, and performs whatever actions God deems necessary for him to do? Or is man naturally inclined toward goodness, and takes moral exception to God forcing him to do that which is repugnant to him? To put it another way, did Pharaoh have no opinion of his own about how to deal with the Israelites, and looked solely to God for direction? Or did Pharaoh really want to release the Israelites and be pleasing to God by his obedience to Gods command, but God thwarted him by hardening his heart and making him act contrary to his will?
The Biblical evidence that can be cited to demonstrate mans moral corruptness is plentiful. Jeremiah 17:9 says that "the heart is more deceitful than all else." Romans 3:23 reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Also, Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians of their former way of life before Christ, that they were dead in transgressions and sins, that they were indulging the desires of the flesh, and were children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Lest it be supposed that this disposition of heart be assigned only to those in the church at Ephesus, Paul is quick to point out that among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh... (2:3), and that God, even when we were dead in our transgressions, "made us alive together with Christ..." (2:5). This, therefore, is a description of the unregenerate heart, apart from the grace of God in Christ. So, when God hardened Pharaohs heart, He was not acting contrary to the natural desire of Pharaoh's heart. God was using Pharaoh's natural predisposition toward sin to cause him to disobey God's command. The sin, therefore, is totally Pharaoh's due to the nature of his heart. Remember, God had many times restrained Pharaoh's evil, and could have, at any point, brought final judgment in death upon him justly. God is absolved from any blame because of the purity of His motive. God used a vessel of wrath (Romans 9:22) that His people may see His glory in a way they would never have otherwise. In hardening Pharaoh's heart, He not only provided the environment where His people could see, without question, His hand at work in their lives, but God also established the Passover, and won a decisive victory against the armies of Pharaoh that, again, enabled His people to see first hand and without doubt the deliverance of the Lord. God did not tempt Pharaoh (James 1:13), since Pharaoh was fully complicit in God's decree to harden his heart such that he could not (and did not) say I am tempted by God.
In passing, I should mention that there are a number of occasions where God acts in such a way that He brings disaster upon His own through the actions of wicked men, and in the end redeems His people and brings justice upon those who acted against them. The story of Joseph is a classic example, where Joseph is clearly portrayed as a man of God who is unjustly dealt with by his brothers, and ill-treated by others, until God brings about a turnaround in his life where he ends up as the number two man over all Egypt. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells his brothers that all that had happened to him, while they had intended them for evil, "God meant it for good, to bring about this present result..." The present result was the saving of many lives during a long period of drought under Joseph's administration, and, of course, the reconciliation of Joseph, his brothers, and his father. It also established the Hebrews in Egypt, leading up to the events described in Exodus. See also God's dealings with Assyria in Isaiah 10 (particularly the statement in 10:6-7).
In closing, I would like to call attention to a couple of things worth noting in Armstrong's response to an atheist in his blogs comments. First, he implies that proper hermeneutical methodology necessitates that we recognize when a passage should be regarded as poetic, and when its literal meaning should be understood. I wholeheartedly agree with this, but find it completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The section of Scripture under discussion is in the book of Exodus. The book of Exodus is an account of the rise of Moses, the oppression of the Hebrews under the Egyptians, and God's deliverance of His people with a view to establishing them in their own land governed by His law. The purpose of Exodus is, therefore, to set forth an historical account. It is not a work of poetic myth like the Bhagavad-Gita. It is clearly to be understood as historical fact, especially given that the events described in Exodus are treated as such by other writers of Scripture (Mark 12:26; John 3:14; Acts 7:20-44; Romans 9:17; 2 Timothy 3:8; Hebrews 11:23-24, et al.).Those passages of Exodus that are supposed to be regarded as poetic are clearly indicated. Exodus 15:1-18 begins "Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song..." which, by any reasonable hermeneutic, must be taken to mean that the following verses are to be read as poetry, until it is clear by the stylistic change that the writer has returned to straight narrative prose. In light of this, to claim that a passage such as Exodus 7:3 is employing poetic language when it is, in fact, simply recording the words that God spoke to Moses, is simply evading the issue.
Finally, I think Mr. Armstrong's response to the atheist demonstrates how much his apologetic is weakened by his refusal to accept the plain reading of Biblical historical narrative. The atheists problem is not, as Armstrong seems to think, a narrow view of Biblical hermeneutics that refuses to recognize the finer nuances of the Hebrew language in plain speech. It is that his view of God is Biblically deficient such that he has no room for the concept of a just and holy God who owes nothing to His creation except the judgment of death for sin, and yet who, in His love and mercy, seeks to save some from that just penalty by redeeming them through the blood of His only Son. Furthermore, this God endeavors to order the whole of creation and the purposes of all men such that ultimate good is achieved for His people, and His name is glorified throughout heaven and earth.
God did not instill sin into Pharaohs heart; it was there by virtue of the Fall. God did not force Pharaoh to do anything contrary to his natural, unregenerate desires. And God did not purpose evil in causing Pharaoh's sin; rather His purpose was, and always is, His glory and the good of His people.