Thursday, October 06, 2022

What about tests in Scripture?

My friend, Dan, has a post that has remained unrebutted for the past 12 years (link), as far as I know.  Before we come to the arguments he makes, let's look at the Scriptural discussion of trying, testing, and temptation (in the older sense of the word).

1. Nāsâ (נָסָה) (pronounced naw-saw') Strong's H5254

Variously translated as to test, try, attempt, assay, prove, or tempt (though not in the modern sense of tempt).

It's found in a few dozen verses in the Old Testament.  For example, in Genesis 22:1 God tests Abraham.  Likewise, in Psalm 106:14, the people of Israel tested God.  

The Psalms provide examples of Hebrew synonyms of the word.  For example, Psalm 26:2 states: "Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart."  The word nasa is translated "prove" here.  The parallel Hebrew words are Bahan (H974) translated here "examine" and Sarap (H6884) translated "try".  

2. Bāḥan (בָּחַן) (pronounced baw-khan') Strong's H974

Variously translated as examine, prove, tempt (again, not in the modern sense), or try.

It's found in nearly as many verses as nasa in the Old Testament.  Like nasa it can be used of God testing man.  Thus, David says that God tries the heart in 1 Chronicles 29:17.  Similarly, the people of Israel are said to have tried God in Psalm 95:9.

As with nasa, there are parallels of bahan in the Psalms.  For example, Psalm 139:23 "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts."  In this case, "try" (bahan) is parallel to Haqar (H2713) translated "search" here.  The result of the searching and trying was knowing the hearts and thoughts of the person.

Bahan can also refer to testing in a different sense.  For example: Zechariah 13:9 And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried:  they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God.

In this case, the idea is one of purification through heat.  The parallel word translated "refined" here is Sarap.

3. Sārap̄ (צָרַף) (pronounced tsaw-raf') H6884

Used about as often as each of nasa and bahan, sarap is usually translated in connection with the smelting process, but less often in the sense of testing.  Nevertheless, God speaks about trying the people Gideon has recruited in Judges 7:4 to reduce the number of people.  This is not a word that is typically used of men about God.  Rather the Word of God is "tried" (Psalm 18:30) in the sense of being pure (see Proverbs 30:5).  

4. Hāqar (חָקַר) (pronounced khaw-kar') H2713

With a similar usage rate to the others, haqar is often used about inanimate or abstract objects, such as the facts (Deuteronomy 13:14) or the land (Judges 18:2).  It is used of God searching out man, for example in Psalm 44:21.  I did not find it used of man trying to search out God.

5. Peirazo (πειράζω) G3984

The Septuagint translates the temptation of Abraham with a form of the word πειράζω, which is typically translated as "tempt" in the KJV, with the sense of a test or trial.  The word is used about equal times in the LXX and the NT, and can refer to Jesus being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1), or Jesus testing the disciples (John 6:6)

6. Ekpeirazo (ἐκπειράζω) G1598

This term seems to be essentially a strengthened form of πειράζω, and is found a small handful of times in the LXX and NT.

7. Dokimazo (δοκιμάζω) G1384

This term is most often translated as prove, try, approve, or discern.  It's used by the author of Hebrews in quoting from Psalm 95:9-10 (LXX Psalm 94:9-10) at Hebrew 3:9 in parallel to πειράζω.  

There may be words to consider, but these seem to be the biggest ones to think about.  With these in mind, let's consider Dan's argument:

The bible often speaks of God trying or testing us. For example, (Exodus 16:4) Such passages are strong evidence that God has given us the ability to choose between alternatives since the "or not" seems to be up to us. But such passages seem to imply something more than the ability to choose otherwise, they imply that at least in some circumstances we are able to choose good or evil. 

No one with any sense denies that we choose between alternatives.  The question is usually how we choose between alternatives. The use of testing implies some kind of determinism.  If human decisions were like the roll of the dice or the drawing of lots, what would be the value of the test be? Doctors test patients to find the cause of their symptoms. Professors test students to determine their level of knowledge or wisdom.  In general, while it is true that tests assume a range of possible outcomes, the point of tests assumes a causal link between the test and the outcome.  

If you test an indeterminate process, you would expect an indeterminate response.  For example, if you roll a die, you don't think you have a numerically superior die if you get a six, nor a numerically inferior die if you get a one.  If you are going to test dice, you would only be testing them to make sure they appear to produce a truly random outcome.

Similarly, a test of human beings reveals their character, their nature, and the like.  The same is true of God.  When they Israelites tested God, they found out something about God.  It only makes sense that the learned something about God if there is a meaningful connection between God and God's acts.  God reveals Himself in his acts.  We reveal ourselves in ours.  When we have the opportunity to sin and we sin, we reveal the depravity of our heart.  When we have the opportunity to good and we don't do it, we reveal the same.

Dan continued:

God is only able to choose between good options; He cannot sin. Fallen man, without grace, can only choose between sinful options. Same for fallen angels. The blessed in heaven can no longer sin. But when God tests man, we are not limited to only good or only evil; we can choose good or evil.

In some sense, of course, that it is true.  However, that's not the point of a test.  A test can reveal that pure gold is pure, just as a test can reveal that a counterfeit bill is fake.  While both results are possible in some sense, that does not mean that both outcomes are possible in a given situation with a given bar of gold or three-dollar bill.

Dan continues:

The ability to choose otherwise seems sufficient for moral responsibly - you don't need to be able to choose good or evil to be responsible for your choices. On the other hand, more is at stake in divine testing than moral responsibility: the Father is seeking people to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).

This is an interesting take.  Dan seems to be suggesting that the Father's "seeking" in John 4:23 is connected with God testing people.  I would be interested to hear his explanation, as there does not seem to be much contextual basis for it.

As best understood, though, Dan seems to be suggesting that God is looking for people that will worship God spiritually and truthfully.  Thus, God is testing people in order to find such people.  However, such an interpretation again seems to assume a deterministic connection between the people and the test outcome, such that the test says something about the person more generally, and not simply about the result of the test.  As such, it would seem to backfire on Dan's more generally commitment to indeterminism.

Dan continues:

And this helps answer the question of why God didn't create a world in which we only do good, or even the question of why God didn't create a world in which everyone gets saved. God wants a relationship with people who can choose to have a relationship with Him or not.

I don't find this theodicy very compelling for several reasons:

1) It seems clear that God has a perfect intra-Trinitarian relationship, despite the inability of God to do otherwise.

2) God likewise has a great relationship with the elect angels, apparently without such choice.

3) God plans to have a great relationship with the elect in heaven forever, without any further choice.

4) Even on compatibilism, men choose God.  However, that choice is because God first chose them.  To suggest that the "or not" is important to God does not seem supportable.

Dan then lists various "passages speaking of God testing or trying us."

Dan adds the following (Scripture texts abbreviated to the citations): 

One final closing thought - God does not tempt us; He tests us. The Devil tempts us but God is Holy and does not tempt us. (James 1:12-15). When we are tempted, God does not want us to fail; He provides us a way out. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Satan, however, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5:8) So Christ warns us to watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation (Mark 14:38). Yet circumstantially, trials and temptations may have a lot in common. The key difference between trials and temptations is that the Devil wants you to fall, but God wants you to be able to say (Psalm 17:3-4)

There are a range of meanings to tempt or test, to be sure.  Likewise, there can be different purposes for the same tests.  Take Job, for example. God was revealing Job's heart. Arguably, the devil was trying to do the same thing, but with an opposite intent.  God wanted to reveal that Job loved God, but the devil wanted to reveal that Job only had a mercenary connection to God.  The test was the same, even at a high level, but the intent of the test was different.  The devil wanted to accuse Job, but God had a higher purpose in the testing.