Gandalf, Job, and the Indignant Love of God

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 38:1–3)

gandalf-job-and-the-indignant-love-of-god_350_233_90Easily one of the most bracing passages in Scripture, God’s words to Job are exhilarating in their majestically aggressive grandeur. After 36 chapters of divine silence in the face of Job’s comforters and Job’s passionate self-defense—indeed, his prosecution of God’s justice and character—the Holy One opens his mouth and reduces Job to stunned, repentant silence.

At first glance, of course, it’s easy to see these speeches simply as magnificent assertions of the Lord’s raw power over human puniness. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! What were you doing when I was pinning up the stars like twinkle lights, little fella?” It sounds like an old man putting a young buck in his place: “I was working this job before you were in your mama’s womb.”

God seems downright salty here.

You can read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition.

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

a fawn
My college philosophy program was a surprisingly formative time for me theologically. One particularly important concept I picked up in my undergrad class on the Problem of Evil goes by the odd name “CORNEA.” Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” (Yes, he’s an analytic philosopher.) Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil–the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

— “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.”

So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic.

In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:-

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Job, Providence, and Multiple Intentionality

JobIf anybody knows anything about Calvin, it is that he believes God to be the ultimate author of history, good or bad, with all of its twists and turns. Though not obsessed with the doctrine of providence as some might think, he does devote a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to it, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage on Job grabbed my attention when I first read through the Institutes, though, when I was yet early on in developing my Reformedish tendencies.

Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction (cf. Commentary on Genesis 3:1), he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God’s providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.

Calvin backs this up with a battery of scriptural examples and texts, but he opens with the story of Job:

From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments.

-Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1

The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.

This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly, we would try to figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.

Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23,  4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”

I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension cleanly for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, and power or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an “answer”, of course. I have for years gone back and forth between a more deterministic compatibilism, Molinism, and something else I’ve never really had a name for.

What Calvin does in this passage is ensure that whatever your answer, it must be one that reckons with the fact that there are no runaway wills in God’s world; his “permission” is an active one, and he does not stand idly by, wringing his hands in distress, or waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. Again, this is the God of the Gospel who didn’t just stand by and let his Son be crucified by wicked men, but purposed according to his own plan and foreknowledge to save the world through these things.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-blog #12 Westboro Baptist = Ironic Proof We Need a God of Wrath

westboroI generally have avoided discussions of current events on this blog, but Westboro Baptist Church’s most recent antics have provoked me to such indignation that I simply can’t remain silent on this one. Just two days after the atrocity at Sandy Hook, Shirley-Phelps Roper, the spokeswoman for the ridiculous pseudo-church, tweeted that “Westboro will picket Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.” Apparently picketing the funerals of dead soldiers holding up signs saying “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” isn’t enough, so now the families of the slain children and school teachers have to deal with their grotesque, damnable nonsense. 

And when I say damnable, I mean it in the strict theological sense–because this truly is damnable. A lot of people have trouble with the doctrine of divine judgment, the notion that God has wrath, that he can be provoked to hatred and condemnation, precisely because of charlatans like the Phelps family trifling with the word of God. Ironically, the Bible shows us that it’s precisely because of these lying charlatans that we need to hear of God’s righteous condemnation.

See, the Bible says God doesn’t take lies about his character, about his Name, lightly. At the end of the book of Job, after Job’s friends spoke pious, but rash platitudes about him, ascribing Job’s misfortunes to God’s wrath or Job’s sin, God said to them: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) In the midst of the comfort for Job’s sorrows, one of the most important things we need to hear is God’s condemnation of their false judgment–we need to him to reject the testimony of lying witnesses. We need to hear God’s ‘No’ of judgment, his indignation against those who falsely represent him, in order that his ‘Yes’ of comfort to the victims might be clearly articulated. If God’s comfort for the community of Newton is to be recognized, so must his anger against false prophets like Westboro.

Basically, Westboro Baptist furnishes ironic evidence that we need a God of wrath.

Update:  This morning my pastor preached on the grace and forgiveness of God offered to all through Jesus Christ, a reconciliation even for the worst enemies. (Rom 5:8-10) As I considered my own offenses and blasphemies, it reminded me of what I forgot in my anger and haste last night when writing. Despite God’s anger, his just wrath against Job’s friends for their lies about him, he goes on to encourage Job’s friends to offer sacrifices and ask Job to pray for them that he might forgive them. (Job 42:8-9) This is the irony of the Gospel–that properly understood, wrath can comfort, and grace can profoundly disturb.  As much as we ought to hate what they say, rightly condemn and stand in opposition to the false message they preach, the shape of the Gospel is one that leads us to do such things with a heart full of prayer that their hearts might be convicted and repent of their wickedness in order that they might receive the grace and mercy of God, walking in the newness of life.

Soli Deo Gloria