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Instrumentality
 

The author Reynolds Price once quoted an Eskimo shaman and poet who said, “When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves -- we get a new song." This is perhaps the best description I have ever heard of the phenomenon that writers sometimes refer to as flow. As to where the words come from, the shaman didn’t say. The ancient Greeks credited the muses (there were nine of them altogether). Nowadays we speak vaguely of the unconscious, which Freud first identified – and which, thanks to him, is still mainly regarded as a Victorian chamber of horrors. Yet most writers will gratefully acknowledge the times when the words seem to shoot up of themselves; indeed, there are times when I feel I am little more than a bystander to the process, even though the words are ostensibly all mine.

“Instrumentality” is a theological term used to explain how sacred texts written by fallible humans can nonetheless be regarded as the infallible word of God. In the case of the Old Testament prophets, they were doubtless aware they were instruments for expressing God’s will, since they often preceded their pronouncements with the words, “Thus saith the Lord.” It is less clear that St. Paul had the same sense he was speaking for the ages when he wrote his missives to the churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. Nonetheless, Paul’s words have stood the test of time, even if he sometimes comes across as a notably ornery character in the bargain.

Instrumentality is not limited to the prophets and apostles who spoke on God’s behalf. If God is indeed sovereign, then his will must be done through those who resolve to do his bidding – and even those who imagine they are doing otherwise. Most instructive in this regard is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Romans in return for 30 pieces of silver. One reading of the events described in the New Testament gospels is that the Roman authorities and Jewish elders used Judas to get to that troublesome rabble-rouser from Nazareth. Jesus was then tortured and killed, and his followers went into hiding. The story didn’t end there, of course. By the time the gospels were written some decades after the fact, an entirely new spin had been put on it by Jesus’ followers. Now the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion had unfolded in fulfillment of prophecy, and Judas’ betrayal had been instrumental in bringing about his resurrection from the dead and the redemption of all humanity.

Judas’ role in this drama raises troublesome questions about the nature of free will. According to the gospel narratives, Jesus knew in advance that he would be betrayed and who would betray him. He may have known before Judas did. Judas’ motives remain unclear, beyond the bare fact that he was paid for his misdeed. Several of the gospels mention that Satan “entered into” Judas at a critical point during the Last Supper when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him. But by then the die had already been cast. Was Judas then merely a pawn in this whole enterprise? I suspect if you had asked him at the time, he would have told you he knew exactly what he was doing, even if he did not fully grasp what he had set in motion. From the gospel accounts we know he soon had cause to regret his actions. But that does not mean he felt he had been tricked or coerced into doing something he would not otherwise have done. On the contrary, the fact he subsequently took his own life clearly indicated he had owned up to his deeds.

Thomas Aquinas took a crack at resolving the seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and free will with a concept he called “universal instrumentality.” According to Aquinas, God is the first cause of all that happens, and everything else is a secondary -- or instrumental -- cause. Thus, Judas was a secondary cause of Jesus’ crucifixion, along with the Roman authorities and Jewish elders who wanted him dead. Does this mean God willed Judas to do evil? At no time did Judas do anything that was against his own nature, even though the outcome may have been contrary to his original intention.

Try to picture the will of God, and we are apt to imagine something like Al Hirschfield’s famous cartoon for “My Fair Lady.” It showed a Professor Henry Higgins puppet pulling the strings of a Liza Doolittle puppet, while a bewhiskered gent looking suspiciously like George Bernard Shaw with wings pulls the strings of both from his perch up in the clouds. Where did we get the idea that God is perched up in the clouds? St. Paul told the Athenians that in God “we live and move and have our being,” which suggests that he occupies the ground of our being. Exactly how then does he pull our strings if he is closer to us than our own breathing?

The test of wills between God and humanity is often depicted by another cartoon showing a little angel perched on one shoulder and a devil perched on the other, each hoping to get in the last word with the individual whose head is perched in between. But in practice, there can only one will, which is whatever is happening right now. Call it God’s will or my will, it is nothing more nor less than life which unfolds as it will from one moment to the next.

Reynolds Price, A Palpable God ·
Acts 17:28

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