Should Adam Have Atoned for Eve?

mountain of the LordReflecting on the nature of sin and desire in his Confessions, St. Augustine speculated that Adam sinned alongside Eve out of the bonds of natural human love. Eve was tempted by the Serpent and fell out of a lack of knowledge, but Adam knowingly chose to go down with her, since he could not bear to be parted with her. Reading Augustine’s account, we’re immediately sympathetic, recognizing the force of our bonds of love, whether married or not. My wife is “flesh of my flesh”, how would I not be drawn in with her?

Which raises an interesting question: what should Adam have done? To choose any created thing over God is idolatry. But what could he have done differently? Cut himself off from her? Let her suffer judgment alone in devotion to God? That also seems problematic for different reasons. Or maybe just difficult.

In any case, L. Michael Morales has a fascinating little excursus on the subject in his new book Who Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus.

But first, a word about the book. Leviticus is an oft-ignored book, shunted to the side in popular devotional reading and preaching largely because it appears to the book of arcane, pointless laws connected to the now-defunct sacrificial system. This is tragic because Leviticus is the heart of the first five books of the Bible and, in many ways, the heart of the story-line of the Bible.

Morales aims to open up the dense, confusing text by placing it in the broader story of the Scripture. Drawing on many of the advances in our study of the Ancient Near East as well as our undersanding of the narrative structure of Genesis, Exodus, and so forth, the sacrificial system of Leviticus stands as the answer to the question, “Who shall ascend to the Mountain of the Lord?” After our fall and expulsion from Eden and the presence of God, who will bring us back into his presence, into the House of the Lord? And how can we do so?

One of the key insights he builds on is the increasingly widespread recognition that there is a link between the Garden of Eden, the Mountain of God at Sinai, and the Tabernacle/Temple. Genesis 1-2, in differing ways, depict the creation of the world and especially the Garden as a cosmic house, the holy mountain where God himself intends to dwell. (I’ve listed 9 reasons the Garden was a Temple here).

In a sense, the two realities are mutually-informing. The Tabernacle and Temple both were to function as a renewed, miniature cosmos, with all kinds of creational imagery built into their structures. Much of the liturgy of the sacrificial system is aimed at restoring the relationship of worship and communion intended by God from the beginning. Honestly, I’m barely scratching the surface of all the various texts and theological problems this sheds light on.

Returning to the problem of Adam and Eve, one of the major takeaways from this recent Eden/Tabernacle connection is seeing the Priestly nature of Adam and the Adam-like nature of the High Priest. Humanity was created to be a priesthood within the Tabernacle of creation. The High Priest stands in the Tabernacle entering into the presence of God as a representative New Adam, of sorts, while the first Adam was an un-fallen high priest.

It is precisely here that Morales makes the suggestion that the text presents us with the possibility that Adam should have acted precisely as the priest he was, making atonement for Eve in his own self-sacrifice (181). While that can seem a bit speculative at first, Morales marshalls a number of arguments along that line, which I’ll briefly touch on.

First, Morales points out the priestly dimension to the reality of Adam and Eve’s “one-flesh” relationship. We have often missed how much of Genesis 2 points the priestly realities (gold, onyx, etc. are mentioned and just so happen to be material for the Tabernacle/Temple). Morales suggests that Adam naming the animals and recognizing that none are suitable helpers, none are ‘flesh of his flesh’, is at the heart of why it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats can take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). This is at the heart of the repetitive nature of the Levitical priesthood which only finds its fulfillment i Christ. But at that point, unfallen Adam is flesh of Eve’s flesh.

Second, the fact of the matter is that throughout the Torah the theme of sacrifice or the attempt to offer self-sacrifice by Adam-like figures is fairly frequent: Noah offering sacrifice after the ark, Abraham and Isaac, Judah’s offer to take the place of his brother Benjamin, or Moses offering himself up after the Golden Calf incident. It’s certainly not out of place in a literary sense, then, and theologically it’s certainly not (182).

Finally, there is the point we’ve already made: Adam is the “archetypal high priest” in the holy of Holies of the Garden of Eden. If not him, then who? Morales goes on to say, “arguably, the original audience would have readily seen Adam’s omission” (182). Indeed, given the fact that the Second Adam came to give himself for his bride (Eph. 5), is too wild to think this could have been an option for the First Adam?

I don’t know that I’m settled on this interpretation. I wonder about issues like Adam’s presence at the time of Eve’s temptation and sin. Or whether he was responsible for driving the Serpent from the Garden even before that. But the suggestion it’s fascinating nonetheless. I know I’ll be mulling it in the future.

In any case, I hope this has whet your appetite to pick up Morales’ book. It’s really a fantastic bit of biblical theology that’s illuminating, not only for the way you read Leviticus, but Genesis, Exodus, and the whole story-line of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Israel? T.F. Torrance and the Hermeneutics of History

incarnation_large“Why Israel?”

There are a number of angles from which we could ask this question. Why would God choose this nation among all the nations? Indeed, why should God choose any nation at all? That’s the question that’s often been termed the “scandal of particularity.” Western thinkers have often been offended that the salvation of the universe brought about by the God of the whole cosmos is given to us through specific, historical acts at a particular time and place. It all seems so narrow.

Push deeper and you’ll see there’s another question: “Why history?” Why should God waste all that time? Why thousands of years of slow interaction with the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of Israel? Why concern himself with the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in Ancient Canaan? Why should salvation come this way? And even more, why should we be concerned with such things? Now that Jesus has come and a universal salvation has come to humanity, why must we be bothered about such things?

T.F. Torrance tackles the subject towards the beginning of his landmark volume Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. (Yes, for those wondering, I’ve finally managed to get around to Torrance). One of the elements that clearly marks his theology of the Incarnation is just how hermeneutical you have to be, in order to grasp it. This is so in at least two ways. First, the Incarnation is a hermeneutical event in that the Word of God comes revealing God to us. Jesus is the exegesis of the Triune God (John 1:17).

Second, and this is where we return to Israel, it’s that we must understand the interpretive Word of God against it’s proper pre-history, the election of Israel (37, 40-41). As Torrance notes, “if you are to understand something you must have the conceptual tools with which to grasp it and shape the knowledge of your mind” (41). But how do you go about acquiring the right conceptual tools to grasp the infinite God? You can’t do it of your own effort, could you? No, God himself would have to provide them to you. And that’s exactly what he has done in the election of Israel to himself as a people .

Torrance essentially argues that the history of Israel–all of its centuries-long struggle with grace, rebellion, resistance, slavery and redemption, exile and judgment, cultus and worship, prophecy and song–all forms the necessary interpretive background for understanding the person and work of Jesus. God’s election, patience, grace, love, and judgment of Israel are (among other things), his way of furnishing his people with the proper conceptual tools for understanding the coming of the Son into the world. This is part of what it means for the Son to come “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4).

Why Israel? Because without Israel, we could not know mighty work of God in Christ. Torrance sums up the point in this magnificent paragraph:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all boundup inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures of the New Testament church, that the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour.

Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God: apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God’ apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we would not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus.

The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work out from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. (43-44)

While a number of answers could be given to the question, “Why Israel?” and “Why History?”, Torrance points us to the very important hermeneutical one: without them we could not have the saving knowledge of God that we needed.

This is just one of the many reasons Marcionism and all those theologies that would belittle or leave behind the Old Testament are so damnably dangerous. Christ comes clothed in the gospel, as Calvin says, and the textiles and prints are drawn from the history of God’s dealings with Israel. When we strip Christ of these glorious garments, we inevitably clothe him in the idolatrous, conceptual patterns of our own making, robbing ourselves of the truth of God come in Christ.

In a sense, Torrance reminds us that understanding takes time. And so God accommodates himself to us by coming in Christ as the culmination of Israel’s very specific history. And this too is grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

Daniel Kirk has moved to the Progressive Channel at Patheos. And that’s great for him. Really, I’m happy. It seems like it will be a good fit for him.

That said, without wanting to pick on him, I had a quibble about his recent post on why he’s a “Progressive Evangelical.” You can read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion that sums it up:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Okay. At first this sounds like an old-school, Red-Letter Jesus approach to things that pits the Red Letters of Christ over and against the Black letters of the average apostles and certainly the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the true Word, who has the authority to interpret, fulfill, and even correct Scripture, moving us along in God’s plans and so forth. I think it’s wrong, but it makes a certain sense.

jesusbuddyjesusExcept there’s a quirk with Kirk’s position. He’s already on record saying that the Jesus of the Gospels got some things wrong. And not insignificant things, either. The meaning and nature of marriage is at the heart of the moral order of the universe.* And yet Kirk says we need to move past Jesus at this point.

In which case, it seems like reading the Bible in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than having Jesus as your authority over the Bible.

It’s not just the Red Letters v. the Black Letters. At this point, it appears we’ve got a Red Letters v. Red Letters situation. Or rather, a Red Letters v. “Spirit of the Red Letters as Read By Progressives At the Beginning of the 21st Century” situation.

Here I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, but which was apparently actually coined by George Tyrell, speaking of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf Von Harnack:

The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.

Conservatives have most certainly been guilty at times of recreating Jesus in their own image. (My buddy Dan Darling has a great little book chronicling a number of the ways we do that, by the way.)  So it’s not that this is only a danger with progressive theology. Far from it.

The problem is that Kirk’s approach virtually guarantees it.

When a conservative runs up against Scriptures that press on their economic preferences, or sexual hang-ups, or what-have-you, they at least have to go through the gymnastics of trying to explain them differently. The Jesus of the text is someone determinate to be wrestled with. His words and deeds must be reckoned with.

But once you decide that even they can be corrected, then what does it actually mean that Jesus is your authority, let alone the Bible which testifies him? Which Jesus is this? How can your admittedly fallible Jesus allow you to correct your fallible Bible? Which bits of Jesus’ teaching and life do you appeal to against the parts you’re suspicious about? I mean, what if it turns out you should be using the exact opposite parts of Jesus’ teachings and work to correct the parts you like, the way someone using the same method on a different continent might?

In other words, “Progressive Evangelicals” using Kirk’s same theological principles in Latin America, Africa, or Asia might correct the Bible in light of Jesus far differently than a White Westerner steeped in identity-politics. And at that point, how do you adjudicate in a way that isn’t just a blatant appeal to cultural prejudice? Or variable human reason? Or different human experiences?

To put it bluntly, the only real Jesus we have intellectual access to is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Kirk’s model functionally ends up coming to something like, “God is still speaking, through people like me, who are inspired by our take on Jesus but not limited by the actual teaching of the actual Jesus.”

For that reason, I’m skeptical about the possibility of a progressive Evangelicalism with “a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible” when both the pages of the Bible and the Jesus you meet there are subject to your judgment.

Again, I say this with no spite or hostility. I really just want us to deeply consider what we’re signing on for when we adopt these positions. Their consequences are deep and far-reaching, and I think in the long-term, they’re inevitably corrosive to the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. Jesus says there is blessing for those who hear his words and keep them (Matthew 7:24). That’s pretty hard to do when you’re deciding which ones actually count.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Eyebrows have been raised about this phrase. Suffice it to say that from Genesis 1-2, onwards, the nature of male and female, marriage, and family are central to the biblical account of anthropology, society, and politics. Marriage is a main (though not sole) metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people (both OT & NT), and caught up in the warp and woof of biblical theology. So, if “heart” of the moral universe is a bit much, it’s certainly central and not merely tangential. For Jesus to get this subject wrong, then, is not a minor point.

Francis Turretin on Early Divine Christology

Francis-TurretinTheology is a historical practice. We’ve been reading the Bible and thinking about it for a long time. While that doesn’t entirely rule out advances, it does mean we shouldn’t be so surprised when we find that some of our modern studies (biblical, systematic, and practical) are at times only catching up or reworking old variations on a theme that’s been played throughout the history of the church. I’ve said something like this before, but I’ve been reminded of it recently with the recent works on Christology (teaching about Christ) in New Testament studies I’ve been digging into lately.

Scholars like Chris Tilling, Richard Bauckham, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Larry Hurtado, and others have bee mounting a case in that earliest Christology we have (in the New Testament documents) is a divine Christology. Unlike so many liberal scholars have thought, it’s not a matter of slow development moving from “low” to “high”, but that Paul, John, and the other apostles were already up in the nosebleed section of Christology, so to speak. They all are moving along a certain trajectory, focusing on the way the New Testament either ascribes worship to Jesus as only God should, has him doing the things only God in the OT did, receives the Name that God alone has, and so forth.

All of this reminded of Francis Turretin’s defense of the deity of the Son against the Socinian heretics in the 17th century in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Third Topic, question 28, paragraph V.:

That the Son is true God, both consubstantial and eternal with the Father, these four things ascribed to him (and belonging to God alone) invincibly prove: (1) the names of God; (2) the attributes of God; (3) the works of God; (4) the worship due to God.

And from there he goes on in precise, compact, scholastic manner to show the various names, works, attributes, and worship that are ascribe to God in the Old Testament being given to the Son in the New.

Now, of course, Turretin is not doing all of the careful work comparing the New Testament texts with parallels in 2nd Temple Judaism, nor are there extensive studies in the Greek (though he does treat a number of text-critical issues). What’s more, certain specific texts, we might want to read differently in light of recent work (like the fact the Son of Man is more of an exalted, divine title, and the Son of God, more of a royal, human, kingly one). The structure and much of the basic argumentation present in modern, New Testament studies is there all the same, though.

So, long before Richard Bauckham suggested we consider the divine identity in terms of the God-world relation, or the narrative history of God’s mighty acts, Turretin argued that the ascription of divine works to Christ (creation, redemption, etc), should be seen as proof of the deity of the Son.  Indeed, some of Turretin’s work on the issue of Christ sharing divine attributes seems to be underplayed in contemporary scene. Do a little digging in contemporary works on the 2nd Temple period and you’re well on your way to opening up a new line of inquiry in Christology.

Among other things, this is one of those reasons I’m grateful for the increasing attention certain biblical scholars and theologians are paying to the reception history and historical theology. We have nothing to lose in drawing on the exegetical and theological insights of our forebears and everything to gain.

Soli Deo Gloria

Spotting Jesus as God in 1 Corinthans 10

divine ChristologyLast year I had the privilege of studying 1 Corinthians with my college students, or, as I like to call it, “The Book of Very Hard Sermons.” Among the most difficult and rich texts to preach from is chapter 10, where Paul is wrapping up a lengthy discussion about whether church members ought to grab a bite to eat with their pagan neighbors at the local temples. While I knew the passage had fascinating and challenging implications for issues like the sacraments (10:1-5, 14-22), temptation (10:6-13), other religions (10:14-22),  and Christian liberty (10:23-32), I hadn’t fully grasped their relevance for the issue of Christology in the New Testament.

Enter Chris Tilling’s fantastic, recent work Paul’s Divine Christology. For those of you who have been reading lately, Christology has come up a bit this year, both in relation to Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ recent Jesus Monotheism and Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity. Both figures have been contributing to the recent discussion initiated by Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others around the way the New Testament authors viewed Christ as central to the “divine identity.” While Fletcher-Louis’ and Hill’s contribution have been quite stimulating, I’m so glad to have found Tilling’s work because he adds a helpful, quite expansive dimension to conversation.

To recap, Hurtado has argued that it’s clear on the basis of the “pattern of devotion”, prayer, worship, etc. witnessed in the New Testament, that Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. Bauckham has argued that Jesus is included in the divine identity in the New Testament because he is depicted as having the relationship to the world (creator, redeemer, etc) that Jewish monotheism only reserved for God. Much of the debate around their thesis then becomes an issue of whether or not you can spot similar devotional patterns of worship, or a fuzziness in monotheistic theology of 2nd Temple Jewish texts, with various intermediaries. Tilling argues that one missing dimension in the discussion is a focus on the way that Paul explicitly depicts the believer’s relationship to Christ in the same fashion that the Old Testament does that between and God.

Tilling points out, as many others have, that the distinctive feature of Jewish monotheism wasn’t primarily a metaphysic, but a covenantal relation. YWHW is Israel’s God and Israel is YHWH’s people. That’s the heart of the 10 Commandments, the covenant as a whole, and the chief confession of the people of God in the OT, the Shema (plus a verse):

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

This “relational monotheism”, the sort of relationship that has love, fidelity, devotion, and jealousy as correlates, is what it means for Israel to worship one God. So, alongside all the key texts that link Christ with statements of pre-existence, deity, creative power, and so forth, Tilling says we’ve missed the heart (or at least a key dimension) to Paul’s very divine Christology if we don’t analyze the believer’s relationship with Christ as part of the evidence.

It’s not for nothing, then, that he begins his case by using 1 Corinthians 8:1-7 to kick off his study. It contains the key verse, 8:6, in which Paul splits up the Shema to include Jesus in the confession of Israel’s God:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)

While other scholars have noted the importance of those verses (and spilled a great deal of ink doing so), Tilling points out that really, the whole section of 1 Corinthians 8-10 is framed in terms of the proper worship, love, and knowledge of God (8:1-3). Paul is challenging the Corinthian believer’s appeal to freedom and knowledge to eat idol meat, to consider the implication it has for their relationship with Christ in ways that are only suited for Israel’s God. What is need is a “relational hermeneutic” (87), to properly see the way Paul’s argument progresses.

Now, I can’t summarize or reproduce his argument here, in full, but I did want to highlight a few exegetical nuggets on along these lines.

First, there’s the rather curious line about the way going to eat Temple meat and wounding your brother’s conscience is a “sin against Christ” (8:12). At first, it seems like the point is that by sinning against your brother, you’re sinning against Christ, because you’re sinning against the body of Christ. But Tilling points out (among a number of other things), that if that’s what Paul meant, he could have said so explicitly as he does elsewhere (1 Corinthians 10:9, 22). Instead, it seems appropriate the read the relationship more directly as an example of Paul treating Christ as God. Much as David confesses that his sin with Bathsheba against Uriah is directly against God (Ps. 51), Paul’s “simple and natural reflex” was to see this sin against a brother as directly against Christ (94).

Jumping ahead to chapter 10, in his warning against idolatry, Paul cites a gnarly string of Old Testament narratives where YHWH judges the Israelites, ‘our ancestors’ in the faith (10:1-5), for various sins such as idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, testing the Lord, etc (10:6-10).  What’s fascinating about these texts where Paul says, “we must not sorely test Christ, as some of them did” (10:9), is that here, “Paul…associates the relation between Israel and YHWH in the Pentateuchal narratives with the relation between the risen Lord and believers in Corinth” (96).

Continuing on, the same relation can be seen in Paul’s warnings about drinking from the cup of Christ and the cup of demons (10:14-22). In these verses, Paul is explicitly identifying  eating meat in the pagan temples with idolatry and urging them to stay away from it (10:14). Why? Because even if there is no real “god” behind it, these meals are still communion meals, acts of “participation.” It’s an act of devotion that in the Old Testament was reserved for the Israelite and YHWH in the feasts and Temple cult. And yet, here we have Paul speaking not of the cup of “God”, but instead warning:

You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:21)

Just as the Israelites were not supposed to provoke God by worshipping other gods, Christians should not “provoke the Lord to jealousy” (10:22), by trying to have it both ways. “Koinonia with respect to Christ…becomes the expression of covenant loyalty, of monotheistic loyalty without idolatry” (100).

Again, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Tilling’s argument (I’m only halfway through the book), but as the kids say, “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” Indeed, once you get a grip on Tilling’s basic argument, it becomes rather intuitive to begin to see it all over the place in Paul. And it seems that’s rather the point. Paul’s divine Christology is not only an affair of key, isolated proof-texts (as helpful as some of those are), but rather form the warp and woof of his whole thought.

Soli Deo Gloria

Classifying Biblical Theodicies (Or, Must There Be Only One?)

lisbonEvil and theodicy are central to the storyline of the Bible. Indeed, they are central to much of the great secular and especially religious literature in history. Theodicy, for those unaware, is the term coined (or simply popularized) by Leibniz referring to the sort of rational justifications or explanations given for the co-existence of evil and God (or the gods). Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor’s massive, edited work Theodicy in the World of the Bible is a collection of essays dedicated to exploring the various sorts of theodicies on offer both in the Ancient Near Eastern texts (ranging from Sumerian, Assyrian text to 2nd Temple Jewish text) surrounding the world of the Bible as well as the biblical materials themselves (both Old and New Testaments). They do so both for historiographical as well as properly theological reasons, calling on specialists to describe, critique, and retrieve the perspectives of the ancients for reflection today.

A Typology of Theodicies

In an attempt to lend order to the various essays and perspectives, in their introduction Laato and De Moor come up with a helpful typology of the kinds of theodicies found in the texts their contributors deal with. After listing various categories, they narrow their options down to the monotheistic, non-dualist options given in the Jewish-Christian theological tradition (p. xxx):

  1. Retribution theology
  2. Educative theodicy
  3. Eschatological theodicy
  4. The mystery of theodicy
  5. Communion theodicy
  6. Human determinism

The names tend to be straightforward, but I’ll briefly give you the gist of each, but know that I’m leaving out references to a number of the texts they use in each section.

Retribution theology as a theodicy explains human suffering in terms of human responsibility and divine punishment for sin. Humans are given free will, which they are legally accountable for (per the widespread covenant theology found both in the ANE and the Biblical record), and as violators, much of the evil suffered is the result of divine retribution. Much of the theodicy given in the OT surrounding the Exile falls under this rubric, as well as the Deuteronomistic literature and vast swathes of the Wisdom texts. Disobedience results in curse, just like Leviticus and Deuteronomy warned (xxx-xxxviii).

Educative theodicy can be found in places like Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ruth, and other types of wisdom literature. In essence, suffering is allowed in the light of the righteous because through it he gains understanding he would not have had otherwise. Naomi learns God’s purposes span farther than she could know as her suffering leads to the birthline of the Davidic king. (xxxix-xlii).

Eschatological theodicy tries to justify God allowing evil by pointing ahead to either the reward of the righteous in the afterlife, or the judgment of the wicked to come. This thread is found in some of the prophetic literature such as Isaiah, Daniel, and so forth. Here, the emphasis showing that much human suffering will shown to not have been in vain. It is a theodicy of comfort, in that regard. (xlii-xlv)

The mystery of theodicy refers to the various traditions which emphasize the fact that we just don’t know what God is up to. Here, humanity’s epistemological limits are compared to the divine’s limitless, unfathomable wisdom. The book of Job and Qoheleth are taken as paradigms here, as well as Maimonedes reading of Job or the theology of 4 Ezra. Lamentations also contains texts that conform to this pattern (xlvi-xlviii).

Communion theodicy emphasizes the fact that in the midst of suffering, the afflicted may draw closer to God in the end. Psalms is a key witness here. But again, so is Job. Here Laato and De Moor also include the tradition of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, where his expiatory, redemptive suffering actually brings the nation into closer to God through reconciliation. For that reason, its hard to classify it under communion alone, because it (along with the later martyr traditions in the Maccabees) blending suffering for sin with restored relationship. Indeed, often the martyr traditions following blend educative and eschatological dimensions as well (xlvii-liv).

Finally, human determinist theodicies appeal to a certain, necessary human sinfulness or with divine determinism. Here Laato and De Moor have less material, and the Biblical material they adduce is hints in Paul and Qoheleth. It seems the biblical material about Israel’s stiff-necked nature and Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy might fit nicely here as well.

Varied Answers for Variegated Experiences

Laato and De Moor’s typology and helpful literature review points up nicely one of my major problems with certain kinds of theodicies that I see offer: too many insist that only one or two of these theodical angles are the proper answer to or explanation of suffering. Actually, it seems that in light of the fact that all of these themes are at play in the Biblical text, it’s probable that we are meant to understand them all playing a partial role in explaining the problem of evil in the Scriptures. For that reason, we should refrain from settling on just one answer, or reducing our explanations to simple, pat answers. We should also slow down from rejecting these answers as part of the Biblical analysis, as some have done, simply because it doesn’t account for a certain experience or text. Taken as a total answer it might not, but as a partial dimension, it could be very helpful.

Its undeniable that sometimes evil befalls us because of evil choices leading to suffering (both for the perpetrator and victim). Beyond that, Scripture attests that evil does often provoke God’s retribution in this life. Of course, discerning that retribution is a dicey business for those without eyes to see (as Elisha had), or lips cleansed by God’s purifying fire (as Isaiah did), so it is wise to refrain from presuming all suffering is the direct result of sin as the disciples did (John 9). From another angle, it may be that we suffer evil because God is delaying retribution and so evil will have its recompense in the next life, and undeserved suffering will be rewarded at that time as well. What’s more, it could very well be that God allows certain instances of suffering in order to teach us, or to draw us nearer to himself. Finally, as I’ve already argued, it could be that some ultimate explanation for particular evils or evil as a whole will only be unveiled at the end of all things. Mystery can coexist with the acknowledgement that there are various dimensions to the problem of evil.

The biblical corpus is multi-faceted as is its theological witness. I don’t mean that it is self-contradictory, but that it preserves a plurality of voices testifying to the various, real, dimensions of human existence in the world that need to be reckoned with and not simply flattened into each other. And that makes sense given that it’s the revelation of God and his works. God himself knows to understand the whole from his eternal, unified, singular perspective, but for finite beings such as ourselves, we need multiple angles, or lenses on the world to make sure we get a more appropriate understanding of the whole.

Let us not, then, flatten or deny that witness in search of cheap, easy answers.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria