Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The Potter and the Clay

We reached Jeremiah 18 on Sunday at CCC.  Various commentators find the chapter puzzling.  It starts with Jeremiah at the potter's house, observing how he shapes a vessel - and then, crucially, re-shapes it when it goes wrong.  The message conveyed by the image is one of sovereignty.  God is the potter, Israel/Judah is the clay.  God is able to (re-)shape his people just as easily as the potter is able to (re-)shape the clay.  The emphasis here is on ability: the potter can shape the clay, he has the power.  In other passages in Scripture where the potter/clay image occurs (Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 45:9, Romans 9) the weight falls on the idea of right: the potter has the right to shape the clay, and the clay cannot reasonably question the outcome.

This is a high account of God's sovereignty: always free in relation to his creatures; always in the right in relation to his creatures.

What puzzles commentators is that the application in Jeremiah doesn't seem to fit this picture.  To be sure, in verses 7-10 the potter is still the one shaping and re-shaping nations.  But in doing so he is responding to their actions; he is conditioned by their prior response to his word.  If a sinful people show themselves penitent, God will 'relent' of the planned judgement; if a righteous people do good, God will 'relent' of his planned blessing.

How do we read passages like this, which show God responding to his creatures?  Particularly when they come in such close proximity to such clear statements of unqualified sovereignty?

One time-honoured way is to deny one half of the picture.  We can define God's sovereignty in such a way that he is not in fact sovereign; the potter can only do so much, at the end of the day, with the clay he's got.  This is the route taken by classical Arminian and (semi-)Pelagian theology (and I am aware that Arminians don't want to be lumped together with semi-Pelagians, but I can't for the life of me see the difference).  In these models, God is understood as exercising a great deal of power and grace, but with the final say in the outcome resting on human decision.  It's hard to see how this fits with the image: the potter must respect the autonomy and free-will of the clay?

Or we deny the other half, as various strands of (Hyper-)Calvinism have tended to do, and as is (I thnk) implicit in Classical Theism more generally.  God is sovereign.  He only appears to relent in response to human action and decision.  He condescends to appear as a responsive God, when in actual fact he remains absolutely unconditioned by human decision.  The potter makes what he's going to make, and the clay simply has no influence on what happens.  This seems better to preserve some of the use of the potter image (especially in Isaiah and Romans), but ultimately doesn't seem to fit with the use made of the image in Jeremiah.

As is often the case, I think we tie ourselves in knots by starting in the wrong place.  If we start with the Unmoved Mover, the god of Aristotle, the Unconditioned Absolute, a god in the abstract - well then, how can this god possibly 'relent'?  In this model, it seems to me, god pretends to be relational, pretends to be responding to his human creation, but really he's just absolutely still, being all absolute, behind the scenes.  Great.

If on the other hand we start with humanity per se, the Idea of the Human, the human in the abstract - well, the idea of the potter's power over the clay is humiliating.  It can't be accepted without significant qualification.  But the god who is leftover at the end of this process of thought doesn't seem like the potter at all - doesn't seem like a god, to be honest.  Just a god at the margins, a god who revolves around - well, me.  Great.

But if we ditch the abstraction, and read both God and humanity from the particular place where both are revealed - Jesus Christ - then whilst we don't get to jump over all the mystery of divine/human interaction, we do get an understanding of the dynamics involved.  What if the paradigm of potter/clay interaction is in fact the incarnation?  Consider the way the passion narratives are told.  Jesus is dragged around from here to there, and yet very clearly he is in control.  He responds to his people and their rejection of him, and yet this is exactly the eternal plan of his Father.  Is all this in appearance only?

When we start with Jesus, we can see that God is indeed absolute - but he is such as the loving, relational, immanent Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He does indeed respond to his people - but he does so as the sovereign Lord of Heaven and Earth.  We need him to be both.  He has revealed himself to be both.  This is not just a doctrinal knot to untangle; it's the very best news.

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