The Secret Things Belong to the Lord (Evil, the Will of God, and the Cross)

GrunewaldWhy should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

(Psalm 115:2-3)

Believers will always have questions about the will of God.

For instance, can God do whatever he wants?

Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”

Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.

And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?

Whatever He Wants? Really?

At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?

In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”

Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.

And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.

Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?

A Non-Arbitrary God

John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).

In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.

A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.

Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.

What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.

As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).

But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation,  240).  God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.

So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.

At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.

Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?

Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?

When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.

Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.

Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.

Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.

Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.

In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.

More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).

The Secret Things Belong To the LORD

And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.

Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”

The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.

The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.

So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.

Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”

Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.

So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?

Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”

It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.

I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.

Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will

All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?

Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.

Now, we must say a few things here.

First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.

Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.

This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).

Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament).  This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.

God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.

At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).

In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

The Horror of Purposeless Evil

Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”

I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.

First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.

Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.

On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.

At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.

Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all.”

Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.

The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross

Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.

This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.

My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20).  But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.

Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.

At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.

Post-Script

Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).

For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.

To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.

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

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Or, Dealing with the Sparsity Objection)

JobThere are many of overlaps between the problem of evil in philosophy and apologetics (how could a good, all-powerful God allow such evil as we see in the world?)  and issues concerning the tensions between divine sovereignty and human effort in our theology of salvation (if God is sovereign over history, then what role does our will play in things?). How you answer the one question inevitably affects the approach you take in the other. And that’s unsurprising when we think about it.

What is God’s salvation other than a practical solution to the problem of evil as it exists in history because of human sin? The Triune God of glory has dealt with and met the evil of the world in the person and work of the Son according to the decree of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Stepping back from the existential dimension, though, and addressing some of the more traditional formulations, there are a couple of different approaches that people take to answering the problem of evil at a philosophical level. These usually end up having a corollary in your theology of salvation.

Libertarianisms, Theodicy, and Salvation

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil is to appeal to God’s gift of human freedom. God can be all-powerful and all-good and yet still allow human evil because he has created us with the great good of free will of the libertarian sort–the ability in every situation to do otherwise than you have done, without ultimate determination from God, the natural order, or even your own character. According this argument, that’s the sort of freedom you need for love and for truly moral actions. But the freedom to choose God, love, and the good also includes the possibility to do the opposite, and that’s what we’ve done. And so, God is good, powerful, and loving, and yet still allows evil because of his own sovereign decision to give us free will.

Now, if you take this route, most of the time you’ll end up affirming some sort of Arminianism or Wesleyan synergism in salvation, where this sort of free will is necessary also for salvation. A classic Arminian will readily grant the reality of human depravity and sin, the need for God’s prevenient grace (a grace that precedes and prepares) that spiritually awakens you, so to speak, in order for you to even respond to God and trust in his mercy and Jesus’ work on the cross. Contrary to some slurs, they are not Pelagians. But the freedom God awakens you to is the freedom to do otherwise–freedom of the libertarian sort that can still reject God’s loving invitation through the Spirit. The free-will defense or theodicy usually goes against any kind of theological determinism inconsistent with Arminian or Wesleyan views.

Calvinism, Theodicy, and Salvation

Typically, Calvinists and Reformed types don’t affirm that sort of libertarian freedom. Some are trying to work it out, with some very interesting approaches, but by and large, they will view freedom in a different light that is compatibilist–positing no ultimate dichotomy between God’s foreordination or human freedom. This is usually taken to be necessary for a more “robust” view of God’s regeneration and calling of us out of the bondage of the will in sin.

On this view, when God awakens your heart from its sin-dead slumber, it is not only a prevenient act of grace but an efficacious act. It not only enables you to maybe choose life, but transforms and reforms your will–not by over-riding it, but by healing and restoring it–so that you gladly, lovingly, and willingly choose it. This view of freedom views God’s choice, not as a threat to our freedom, but the only possibility of exercising true freedom–the freedom to love what we were made for. It’s not coercive, imposed from the outside, but awakening and transforming from within.

Of course, all of this is very condensed. But the key thing to see is that this view is not likely going to push you to lean on the libertarian free-will theodicy or defense. No, in fact, it’s more likely going to appeal in a very different direction to considerations regarding our knowledge of God’s purposes–epistemological concerns.

In a nutshell, most philosophers have agreed that if he had a good enough reason to, it is possible for an all-powerful and all-wise God to allow the evil in the world to exist. This is the assumption the free-will defense draws on–freewill, love, and moral choice is a good enough reason for the risk of free will.  Well, on that same assumption, some Calvinist philosophers like Stephen Wykstra and Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that there is a massive gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of an infinite God. Their point is this: if the infinitely wise God who created all things had a good enough reason for allowing all this evil, how are you so certain you would understand it?

Or, to put it another way, in order to know there isn’t a good enough reason, you’d have to know all that an infinite God would know in order to rule out the possibility. But you couldn’t possibly do that given your limited, finite knowledge of, well, everything. The scale between your understanding and God’s isn’t even that of a child to an adult, but more on the scale of an ant and a human. In other words, saying, “If I can’t see a good enough reason for evil there must not be one” doesn’t answer the question. Just because you “can’t see” a good enough reason, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

If that’s the case, then, while we don’t necessarily have an “answer” to the problem of evil like libertarian free will, it’s not a defeater for our belief in God. Given our belief in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope in God’s good purposes in the middle of evil even if we don’t know what those are. A God good enough to live, die, and rise for sinners is trustworthy enough.

Another Problem of Evil?

love freedom and evilBelieve it or not, all of that is just set up for what I really wanted to get to: dealing with an objection to a more Calvinistic view of God’s efficacious liberation of our will to respond to him. To do that, I’m going to quote from Thaddeus Williams’ fascinating work Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? Now, the title of the work is a bit misleading. Williams believes love requires freedom of the will, but not of the libertarian sort. His book is an exploration of the cluster of philosophical, biblical, and theological questions surrounding love, freedom, and the problem of evil.

Towards the end of the book he takes up what he calls the “sparsity objection” to the compatibilistic view of God’s liberation of the human will I outlined above–the one Williams calls “the Heart Reforming view.” Williams quotes philosopher Jerry Walls putting the objection this way:

Arguably, the most damaging strike against compatibilism is its utter inability to explain why God has not predestined everyone to freely choose him if freedom is really compatible with determinism. In our estimation, this is the mortal blow to the compatibilist. If this question cannot be answered convincingly, then compatibilists can hardly expect their position to be taken seriously by those who firmly believe in a profoundly loving and richly relational God.

That’s a tough objection. If libertarianism isn’t necessary for love and God can liberate our wills without violating them, why doesn’t God liberate more people’s wills? Why not liberate everyone’s will and purge the evil from the world immediately? Why are God’s chosen so relatively sparse? Williams gives at least four responses, but the one that’s relevant is one that draws on the insights about the limits of human knowledge:

The insight of Plantinga…applies when approaching the Sparsity Objection. The difference is that it is no longer the atheologian arguing against God’s existence, but the libertarian theologian arguing against the existence of one particular view of God, namely, a God with the ability to bring about Heart Reformation. If we seek to justify disbelief in the existence of a Heart Reforming God on the basis of the Sparsity Objection, then we find ourselves, oddly enough, in the same plight as the atheologian. We commit ourselves to a problematic premise….:

P2: It is impossible, improbable, or less probable than some libertarian account that a God with Heart Reforming ability possesses morally sufficient reasons behind withholding a more widespread exercise of that ability.

The fatal flaw of P2 is the same as that of P1, namely, how difficult the premise is to establish given the cognitive gap between God and us. Alston argues that the atheologian’s induction from “I can see no” to “There is no” is unjustified. Alston’s point holds true for the libertarian theologian who attempts to reach the conclusion “There is no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem]” from the premise “I can see no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem].” The induction rests on a failure to appreciate the Creator-creature cognitive gap. –pp. 167-168

In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously. And, of course, all of this matters only if Scripture points us to the idea that God’s liberation of the human will works this way. And that is a question I simply don’t have the time to address in this already longish post, which is why I would commend Williams’ work to you, as he spends quite a bit of time addressing that question. Still, in my reading and study, time and again I have come back the fundamental importance of this insight: God is the perfect Creator and we are but fallen-though-being-redeemed-creatures.

I suppose all of this boils down to an invitation to hear the wisdom of Job:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

Hey, So I’m Going on The Radio Today–in Pittsburgh

word fmI wrote a little post on the problem of evil yesterday that gathered some attention. John Hall and Cathy Emmons from 101.5 Word-FM in Pittsburgh have graciously asked me to take part in a little phone interview on the radio with them on that subject this afternoon. I’ll be chatting with them at 4:40 pm Eastern and 1:40 pm Pacific time. You can tune in to listen live online at their website HERE.

It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m excited, but I’d love it if you’d take a minute to pray for me today as well. Thanks reading (and maybe listening).

Soli Deo Gloria

Short, Admittedly Snarky Follow-Up on Process, Relational theologies and Evil

notesHere’s a little, admittedly snarky, follow-up summary point coming off of my last piece on the problem with process and ‘relational/open’ theologies and the problem of evil. It comes from one of my favorite books, a non-technical, non-specialist, super-brilliant, quirky piece of pop theology:

But if God is the creator God and He was somehow unaware of what He was starting, unaware that the Holocaust was going to happen, shocked when He first heard of Hitler’s plans, and embarrassed that He couldn’t stop him, then He still remains the first cause of all evil. He began a chain of events beyond His control.

“But it wasn’t on purpose (wring hands here). How was He supposed to know how fast everything would go to hell? He expected people to act more like Strawberry Shortcake.”

Don’t think this would get Him an acquittal. He might not like the world-accident He began, but He should have known better. If anyone could be expected to know better it’s God. Had He been drinking? I’d go with an insanity plea.

God was the first to cry. Is this comforting? He’s the first to get bad news. If only He were just a little quicker. Or maybe, “You know, He’s really sorry. When He invented fire He didn’t realize that it could burn skin. I hope you remember everything He’s said about being forgiving. Apply it now.”

-N.D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, pg. 71-72

The point is that even the God who doesn’t know stuff and can’t do much about it, either voluntarily or due to some incapacity, is still responsible. Sacrificing God’s power and sovereignty doesn’t get him off the hook–it just tells us there was no point and weakens our hope for redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria