Thoughts on Theodicy

One of the most famous reasons to reject the existence of God is the existence of evil. Either evil or God can exist, not both. The dilemma relies on the supposition that these three propositions cannot all be true at once

  1. God is all good.
  2. God is all powerful.
  3. Evil exists.

In modern atheist rhetoric, the whole thing is stated as though not a single Christian, Jewish, Muslim, otherwise religious person has ever noticed the potential logical hang up with believing these three things. Thus a non-Christian or atheist of some sort will point out that a good God would stop evil, a powerful God can, but evil happens therefore either proposition 1 or 2 isn’t true…therefore in a non-sequitur of immense proportions, “if God is not all powerful or all good by my definition, then God does not exist.”

Now, many solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed and of them some are logically sound solutions. This is very important because the rhetoric works like that:

  1. If I can make you feel confused about the problem of evil, then you are irrationally believing in God.
  2. I stated the problem of evil, therefore you are confused,(or even if you’re not), therefore God does not exist. (I know it does not follow, just thinking of discussions at dinner parties.)

The more sophisticated version is here:

  1. Believing in God does not comport with reality if the problem of evil creates a contradiction.
  2. The problem of evil does entail a contradiction.
  3. The law of non-contradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true.
  4. Therefore one of your beliefs (God is powerful, God is good, and evil exist) is false.

Here’s the thing. As long as there is, as far as I know, one logical solution to the problem of evil (even if you do not think that solution is true), then it loses its force as an argument.

The argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil does not require the discovery of a 100% true solution to be rendered null. It simply requires a demonstration that the propositions are not necessarily contradictory. This is why we still use Newtonian physics despite the existence of other models that apparently create a contradiction. There is not, that I am aware of, a definitively true, solution to the relationship between classical physics, quantum mechanics, and physics approaching the speed of light. But a plausible account is what allows the propositions of those systems to be held until a truer solution is produced.

With respect to the theistic problem of evil, Vox Day, a video game programmer and fiction author, has written a brief but poignant response to the classical problem of evil:

As for the idea that an all-powerful and all-loving God should wish to stop and be able to stop evil, to say nothing of the idea that the existence of evil therefore disproves the existence of such a god, well, that doesn’t even rise to the level of midwittery [this word, which I know I heard growing up, is a Voxism on the internet].

 

One has to have a truly average mind and remain ignorant of basic Biblical knowledge to find either of those concepts even remotely convincing.

 

Imagine the Sisyphean hell that is the existence of a video game character, literally created to die over and over and over again. Does the misery of his existence prove that the video game developer does not exist? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any limits upon him that the video game character can observe? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any particular enmity for the character? Not at all.

 

Now, it does prove that the developer is not all-loving. But then, the Christian God is not all-loving. He plays favorites. He loves some and He is very specific about others for whom He harbors not only antipathy, but outright hatred. It is fine to attack the idea of an all-loving god, but it is a mistake to assume any such attack is even remotely relevant to the Christian religion.

Vox’s points evade the objection to God’s existence on the grounds of analogy. If a video game programmer makes a game whose characters have awful experiences, the programmer still exists. On that score, our objections to God’s existence on the grounds of our experiences in life don’t square with the logical arguments nor the testimonial evidence that God/gods exist(s).

He also notes that God, in Scripture, plays favorites. There is a sense in which that is true. I would say that Scripture does tend toward the notion that God is love and thus all-loving. But God being all loving does not mean, as is mistakenly supposed, that God is equally nice to all. His point still stands, even if one of his premises needs fine tuning. It’s more accurate, I suppose, to say that God is love in the same way that God is good. God is the height of goodness in a sense that is infinitely superior and also infinitely other than our own.

Aside from Vox’s objection, it is also the case that many people who suffer the most god-forsaken experiences and torments, like Jesus on the cross and still end up believing in God and God’s love. So the argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil fails on evidence of the experience of many religious persons. Of course, one could respond that they’re experiencing severe cognitive dissonance.

As mentioned above, there are several other solutions to the problem. Many of them are falsifiable, many are compatible with one another, and some contradict others, but they take any logical bite out of the objection to God’s existence because of evil):

  1. God created evil on purpose (Calvin, Augustine, Edwards, Jung, etc).
  2. Evil is an aberration within creation. (Open theism, classical theism, Anabaptist thought)
  3. A creation with the possibility of evil is a necessary precursor to a creation without evil (Irenaeus, Dallas Willard, Plantinga, and Swinburne)
  4. Evil is non-existent, it is simply a good thing going against its nature by means of deformity or free will. It is a designation for such things as deviate from God. It is not an actual subsisting thing (if no wills existed besides God’s, none of creation could be evil no matter how desolate, because existence is good).  (Aquinas, Eastern Orthodox thought)
  5. Creation entails difference from God, thus the possibility of evil, precisely because creation is not God.
  6. God is not all good.
  7. God is not all powerful.
  8. God is all powerful and all good, but those do not mean what you think they mean.
  9. God finds the problem of evil abhorrent too, hence the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the promised new creation. God is solving it in creation and space-time history.

On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought. 

Mike Bird, Evangelical Theology, and the Sermon on the Mount

There are a lot of things Christians “need to know.” For some it’s predestination, for others, the age of the earth, or the order of end times events. In reality, the core of theology is simpler than that.Mike Bird in his, Evangelical Theology reminds us of the test for Christian theology:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5– 7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) are good test cases for any theological system.

Contra some Reformed theologians, Jesus is not teaching people the law so they can see how they don’t measure up, wail for their sinful hearts, and realize their need for the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness. Contra some dispensational theologians, Jesus is not teaching what kind of law the Jews will keep in a post-rapture millennium. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto for the kingdom. It is the ethical vision for God’s people if they are to live out the covenantal righteousness that comes from experiencing the kingdom’s saving power. This is what the new Israel of the new age is supposed to look like. Not the elitist micropiety of Pharisaic leaders who claim their tradition represents the true measure of righteousness, nor the compromised Jewishness of the Herodians who dress up Hellenistic values in a Jewish garb. The sermon is about new law for the new age.

Bird, Michael F.; Bird, Michael F.. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Kindle Locations 8394-8401). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

 

Christian theology must accommodate the teachings of Jesus rather than circumvent them. If it cannot, it is not Christian.

Why I am no longer a Calvinist

I used to be a Calvinist. I’ve since slowly drifted away from that point of view.

A few years ago I wrote about why.

Below I’ve simplified/clarified those reasons.

I know how complicated these debates get, and we see through a glass darkly. Our understanding of time, determinism, human will and consciousness, moral goodness, the Bible, and our own limits are but a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of other constraints upon our knowledge of God.

Below, I’m defining Calvinism as “belief in the five points of Calvinism as articulated in the canons of the Synod of Dordcht.”

  1. Limited Atonement

    While the Bible clearly teaches that God’s salvation is only acquired by some, it also says he is the savior of all humanity (1 Timothy 4:10). It also says the same in 1 John 2:1-2. Jesus (not just his death) is the atonement for all humanity. I think the implicit logic in both passages is that the believer can be confident of God’s salvation to those who believe precisely because it is God’s intent for all humanity. This leads to the psychological issue.

  2. Psychological Problem of Calvinism

    In Calvinistic teaching the chief cause of salvation is unconditional election. What this ultimately implies is that your perseverance until the end is determined by God’s unchangeable decrees of history. Therefore, you don’t know if you’re saved or deceived about your salvation while ultimately being destined to apostasize. It’s a serious epistemological problem which makes for an even more serious motivational one. In this viewpoint, assurance of salvation is, as far as I can tell, a chimera and only incidentally correct. If assurance of salvation is instead knowable based on what 1 John 2:3, Matthew 7:14-27, and  Romans 8:28 say (conscious allegiance to Christ), then you may be saved with or without assurance of salvation but any deception is self-deception, not a feature of the wheels of history.

  3. Romans 9-11

    Romans 9, does say why God rejected Esau, also says why God rejected the religious leadership in Jerusalem: Romans 9:30-33. I think this section of Scripture is about the death of Christ (see Romans 11:11-15) and the subsequent difficulty of sharing the gospel in Israel, especially Jerusalem. It is not, I submit, Paul’s total philosophy of every person’s salvation history. Israel’s rejection of Jesus and of Paul’s gospel about Jesus have resulted in riches for all the nations of the earth and will result in salvation for Israel as well. The big proof that Paul is not teaching that God picks some for salvation without regard for their life history can be found in Romans 11:17-24. Paul makes clear that those whose hearts were hardened can repent and those who were shown mercy can reject that mercy.

  4. The Calvinist Notion of Sovereignty is Incoherent

    In most Calvinist preaching I’ve heard, God’s sovereignty is not about his authority as the king of the universe or even the king of his people. Rather, the word signifies his algorithmic oversight of every discrete event in the cosmos. In the Bible, God’s kingship is a metaphor about the relationship between God and his people that implied a two-way street of care, protection, and legal enforcement on the one hand and loyalty, admiration, and obedience on the other. In Calvinist rhetoric and theology, sovereignty is precisely the opposite. It’s a doctrine of one-way causal management. It is in no way political or reciprocal.

  5. The Bible Doesn’t Seem Designed To Explain God’s Exact Relationship to Time

    The New Testament tells us that the Old Testament is inspired to prepare the world for Christ, to train us in righteousness, to rebuke the lawless, and to be fulfilled by Christ. It isn’t clear to me that we need to know how God relates to time to be righteous or understand the gospel. What is clear to me is that many people who hardly give the issues of Calvinism a second thought, whether they belong to Calvinist churches or not, live righteously. So this issues, while perhaps open to human scrutiny are not necessary for Christian discipleship or personal development.

  6. The Warnings of Apostasy

    While this is a bit controversial, if somebody can reject the gospel after having believed it genuinely, then a wrench is thrown in the gears of the idea that grace is irresistible, and that divine election guarantees perseverance of the saints. Teaching the Bible over the years has lead me to have to let passages like those below have their full force as warnings to the effect that the gospel promises are only for the faithful. That faith may be weak, even the size of a mustard seed. But it must persist for somebody expect God’s salvation. God can show mercy to whomever he wants, of course, but he promises to show mercy to the faithful. Which means that the apostasy passages are warnings to believers lest they die faithless and in their sins. Paul said that he needed spiritual disciplines lest he abandon his faith (1 Corinthians 9:27) and that believing gentiles could reject the gospel (Romans 11:21-24). Jesus told parables to the effect that those who believe the gospel should be careful how they hear it, lest circumstances lead them to reject the gospel (Matthew 13:3-9). And Peter warned that false teachers who used to believe will be worse off than those who had never believed (2 Peter 2:1 and 2 Peter 2:18-22). This isn’t the same as saying that one can “lose their salvation” by sinning. Instead, it’s saying that through intentional definitive rejection or habitual disuse, one can reject one’s faith in Christ. If this is true, and I think it is, then Calvinism, as I held it, is not.

 

Anyway, there’s that.

 

Trinity Sunday: Wesley on the Trinity

Today I taught a brief Sunday school lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity. It got me to thinking about this sermon by Wesley: On The Trinity. Here are some selections and my annotations:

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.[1]

Wesley acknowledges that one may make many errors with regard to religious ideas and still be a Christian. But in this very paragraph, he does go on to say that one must still believe some version of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian. The bold passage of Scripture above is a problematic textual problem, Wesley deals with this later on in the sermon, but for out purposes, it will suffice to say that the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity Wesley will later explicate are contained in Scripture.

I do not mean that it is of importance to believe this or that explication of these words. I know not that any well-judging man would attempt to explain them at all. One of the best tracts which that great man, Dean Swift, ever wrote, was his Sermon upon the Trinity. Herein he shows, that all who endeavoured to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons, hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.”[2]

I agree with the essence of this. That the Bible teaches the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is a case easily made depending on what one means. But the cases for some theoretical framework of the doctrine are problematic and confusing at best.

I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, “Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.” These are the words which merciful John Calvin cites as wrote by Servetus in a letter to himself. I would insist only on the direct words, unexplained, just as they lie in the text: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”[3]

Wesley pulls no punches here in his criticism of Calvin burning Servetus. I agree with Wesley’s willingness to use the words Trinity and Person in expressing his understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m unwilling to insist that others grasp those concepts of assent to that terminology to call themselves or to be called Christians.

“[A]s strange as it may seem, in requiring you to believe, “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one;” you are not required to believe any mystery. Nay, that great and good man, Dr. Peter Browne, some time Bishop of Cork, has proved at large that the Bible does not require you to believe any mystery at all. The Bible barely requires you to believe such facts; not the manner of them. Now the mystery does not lie in the fact, but altogether in the manner.
For instance: “God said, Let there be light: And there was light.” I believe it: I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
Again: “The Word was made flesh.” I believe this fact also. There is no mystery in it; but as to the manner how he was made flesh, wherein the mystery lies, I know nothing about it; I believe nothing about it: It is no more the object of my faith, than it is of my understanding.[4]

Again, the Bible never says to believe anything about the manner in which Trinity exists, but only that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine, distinct, and one. In other words, the point is not, in any manner of speaking, to get us to figure out the manner of God’s existence in this respect, but to reveal enough of God as to inspire us to live for Christ and worship rightly.

Not that every Christian believer adverts to this; perhaps, at first, not one in twenty: But if you ask any of them a few questions, you will easily find it is implied in what he believes.[5]

Not every Christian, especially new Christians, explicitly will hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, but you can ask them questions long enough to discover that they implicitly accept the doctrine. Earlier and then later in the sermon (not quoted above) Wesley observes that some through invincible ignorance or involuntary rejection (through misunderstanding of Scripture, the doctrine, or personal confusion) who reject the basic tenets of the Trinity will still be saved. This seems reasonable. In my mind, it’s an open question as to whether or not the basic tenets of the gospel imply the Trinity so clearly that any Christian implicitly believes the doctrine. I will say that anybody who believes in God implicitly believes in the Triune God as the only God (if the doctrine of the Trinity is true). But do all who believe the gospel even know that the Holy Spirit is anything other than their own emotions due to poor instruction or that God is uncreated? I mean, the “who made God” question of the atheists confused so many genuine Christians who just had no knowledge, might many true Christians have such little knowledge of Scripture as to have no set of beliefs which imply the Trinity? I would say, “Yes.” That seems to be obvious. But that doesn’t make the doctrine less true, less essential (in terms of definitive of historic Christian orthodoxy), or less helpful for those who understand it.

References

[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200, “Here are the arguments Wesley marshals in favor of this often excluded passage from 1 John:  “(1.) That though it is wanting in many copies, yet it is found in more; and those copies of the greatest authority:—(2.) That it is cited by a whole gain of ancient writers, from the time of St. John to that of Constantine. This argument is conclusive: For they could not have cited it, had it not then been in the sacred canon:—(3.) That we can easily account for its being, after that time, wanting in many copies, when we remember that Constantine’s successor was a zealous Arian, who used every means to promote his bad cause, to spread Arianism throughout the empire; in particular the erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands.””

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200.

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200–201.

[4] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 204.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 205.

Hedonism, Love, and Goodness

The things that shape who we are and how we think are pluriform and sometimes mysterious. This is especially so in the age of the internet stuff that may disappear forever after you read it. Every once in away, the Internet sends it back to you.

Around 2008-2009, I was quite depressed. And while I was still known for being a social butterfly at work and school, and many people even called me for advice (I remember distinctly two women with doctorates in psychology contacting me for relationship advice), I was languishing. There are probably three main reasons for this:

  1. Many of my friends had moved away, gotten married, or achieved opportunities I had never managed.
  2. I worked between 3-5 part time jobs to pay for grad school at any moment and so I got very little exercise or sun light. My academic nature and lack of sleep made it easy to substitute books for exercise. I also couldn’t afford a gym membership anywhere except a giant mega-gym that operated like a night club and prohibited squats, chalk, and grunting.
  3. I was lovelorn. During this time period, I fell in love, really hard, with two women. And because of that I felt like I had lost every ounce of the charm that had helped me make friends and ask girls on dates effortlessly before that. It was like I developed a speech impediment or a sudden physical handicap when I communicated with either of these women.

Essentially, because of certain failures of courage, mindset management, and personal care I found myself ignored by women right during the stage of my life in which I had, apparently, subconsciously decided to get married.*

Now, during this time, I had gotten really into reading Hans Balthasar, and I read his book Love Alone is Credible.

I searched online for any commentary on the book and found a quote on a blog [utterly devoid of theological interest in the academic sense], lost to the sands of time, “Never compromise on love. It’s the only thing that isn’t bullshit.” I’ve since found the blog through a retweet of the quote with a link to the 2008 post. It’s a great quote (the other material from the post varies in quality), and while the author clearly means erotic love, the point still stands. But, as any depressed person would do, I read other another post from the blog. The other post I read was about the author’s personal philosophy. That was relevant, since I was a seminary student working at a corporate coffee shop and therefore talking to atheistic armchair philosophers all the time. The author advocated a godless hedonism:

 

Imagine you had incontrovertible proof that there was no afterlife. No supernatural entities. No heaven or hell. No otherworld. No reincarnation. No forevermore.

No second chances.

Imagine there was no moral accounting after death of your actions on earth. No supreme being to judge your soul’s worth on the scale of divine justice. No reward or punishment. No appeal to omniscient authority in matters of good and evil.

There was only the endless black void at the moment death. The infinite silence. A complete surrender of your consciousness as the last pinprick of light extinguishes. All your thoughts, your feelings, your sensation, your memories… you… wiped away clean to merge with the great nothing.

How would you live? Given this proof of the finality of death, and of the expectation of nothing once dead, what is your personal philosophy?  

His answer to the thought experiment is this:

My answer to the philosophical question I posed above is hedonism. It is the only rational conclusion one can draw faced with the premises I presented. When there is no second life or higher power to appease; when our lives are machines — complex misunderstood machines cunningly designed to conceal the gears and pulleys behind a facade of self-delusional sublimation, but machines nonetheless — grinding and belching the choking gritty smoke of status-whoring displays in service to our microscopic puppetmasters… well, there can be only one reasonable response to it all. It makes no sense to behave any other way unless you never questioned the lies.

My own answer to the thought experiment is that if I try to imagine the world without meaning he described (advocated?), I come up blank. Why? If love isn’t bullshit, then there is meaning beyond the chemical soup and system of mechanical pulleys and levers he imagines us to be.

Indeed, if love bears the marks of a single aspect of live that isn’t bullshit, isn’t a lie, and is worth pursuing, then the matter of meaningless matter must be questioned. Is life actually meaningless or is this feeling of melancholy a salve for my own conscience? Perhaps the lie is that we’re just machines of no consequence in a heartless universe. If love isn’t bullshit, it’s implied that love is true and if there is truth, then perhaps beauty and goodness are real, too. This is an important implication, for if truth, goodness, and beauty are real, then it is perhaps the case that pleasures beyond the reach of mere pleasure seeking exist. Pleasure is a good, but what happens when the intellect attains to contemplation of goods beyond the mere stimulation of dopamine and serotonin? And what of beauty? Love entails beauty. If there is transcendent beauty, enjoying it may require that we move beyond the mere act of feeling pleasure in the moment.

Ultimately, if it’s true that love really isn’t bullshit, then the meaningless universe is opened to the possibility that there is meaning in the universe rather than artificially imposed upon it by our illusory consciousness (if you’re conscious of your consciousness being illusory, what is what of what?).

Love isn’t bullshit, but on the evidence of that, it appears that neither is the cosmos.

*Note: After I went through a fairly rigorous period of trying to improve myself, I did end up getting married and love, indeed, is not bullshit.

A Reconsideration of God’s Impassibility

When I was in seminary, I abandoned the doctrine of divine impassibility. For readers who do not know, divine impassibility is the doctrine that God is not affected by creation. It sounds weird at first because in the Bible, God answers prayer, gets involved with Israel, and shows wrath against sin.

The reason this doctrine was so important to the early church is that they had the idea that if God changes from one state to another, then God is no longer the source of all being(s). Why? Because God is becoming something else (changing) and therefore not the source of all being. If God is not the source of all being because God is pure ‘being’, then he isn’t divine.

I had decided that any doctrine which claims that God cannot suffer paints a monstrous truth about God: that God is uninterested in the well-being of his creatures. The problem is that I had misunderstood what the early church meant by this idea. I had thought that since the ancient Greeks saw God as impassible, the early Christian converts from Gentile nations just adopted the idea from Greek philosophy without realizing that it cannot be found in the Old Testament. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the idea might be a necessary corollary to some other Christian truth.

A couple of years ago, I spent several months revisiting the ancient arguments for God’s existence based upon the nature of cause and effect, gradations of goodness in human experience, the existence of consciousness, and the nature of logic and mathematics. All of these arguments entail a God upon whom all things aside from God depend for existence. This means that God must be ‘being itself’, thus God is never in any ultimate sense, becoming anything. God is not, by definition, going from one state to another. Of course, this realization forced me to think much more carefully about how I interpreted certain Old Testament passages about God’s emotions. C.S. Lewis mentions this difficulty in Letter to Malcolm, when he observes that the Old Testament authors take no pains to protect any sort of doctrine of divine impassibility from the notion of a stormily emotional Jehovah (51-52).

There is a sense in which what I am saying does not really matter. One can be a Christian without bothering to figure any of this out. Paul’s standard for Christian conversion is rather meager  by many confessional standards (or robust since it requires obedience to Jesus): confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10).

But if you go on thinking about the nature of emotions, particularly in their physical manifestation in human beings, they require a physical/chemical reaction to the environment. God has no environment, if anything, God is the environment in which all space-time has its being. Thus either the Biblical revelation about God’s interaction with creation is wrong or it is given by way of analogy.

The Bible, since it is God’s revelation to the church, requires us to deny the first part of the disjunctive premise, thus God’s revelation appears to be given in Scripture, in some measure, by analogy. But there are certain events in Scripture that are considered ultimate as revelations of God’s nature. For instance, Paul understands the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a revelation of the fact that God is loving toward weak and ungodly sinners and enemies (Romans 5:1-11).

Here is a rough outline of the premises and conclusion of an argument for God’s impassibility:

  1. The world made up of things which change.
  2. Things which change, by definition, depend upon causes to change.
  3. God is the cause of the whole world, and therefore not the world.
  4. God depends upon nothing for God’s being.
  5. God is unchanging or impassible.

This may seem opaque. That’s okay, I’m trying to avoid too much philosophical language. But the big idea (God’s unchangeability) can be summarized this way:

  1. God is unchanging, Scripture teaches this (Malachi 3:6, James 1:27) in moments of explicit teaching. Reason dictates that it is so as well.
  2. God is love. Scripture teaches this as well (Romans 5:5-11, 1 John 4:8-16).
  3. Love is a positive perfection of God, God need not change to be loving and caring.
  4. Wrath, sadness, anger, etc are privations of mercy, bliss, and harmony. God suffers no privation, therefore these words in Scripture are analogies about God’s works in creation that correspond to human experience.
  5. Thus, God is, regardless of the state of the creation, unalterably loving.

God’s Love and God’s Impassibility

David Bentley Hart argued in his essay, No Shadow of Turning that God’s impassibility is precisely the guarantee that God’s love is God’s being. Love is not a state from which God could capriciously move or worse, be influenced to move from. As compelling as the idea of a God who suffers with creation can be, it seems that a stronger hope and certainly a more scriptural and reasonable one is that the terrors of creation do not alter God at all, but rather await their sure defeat in space time by God’s own indestructible love and power.

The Incarnation and God’s Impassibility

It it indeed the case as a part of God’s work when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Son of God suffered as a man. Paul Gavriluk argues in chapter two of his book The Suffering of the Impassible God,

…by calling the Christian God impassible the Fathers sought to distance God the creator from the gods of mythology. In this debate the major goal was to rule out popular pagan modes of imaging the divine realm as unworthy of the Christian God. Second, the Fathers viewed impassibility as compatible with select emotionally coloured characteristics, e.g., love, mercy, and compassion.

Many Christians see the revelation of God in Christ as a revelation that God could suffer and change. But in more ancient times this revelation showed what God was like all along despite the piecemeal and partial (Hebrews 1:1-2) revelation which was given in the Old Testament. The revelation of God in Christ is that God is love rather than capricious like the pagan gods or the forces of nature.

God is unchangeably loving. The Trinity, remains the same even as my own religious state of mind wavers, my character changes (for better or worse), the creation groans, and the gospel is preached well or poorly. God the Father, who sends the Son for our salvation, and who upon the enthronement of his Son sends us the Holy Spirit ever remains love and loving. God is goodness. Thus, though the church and humanity are commanded to imitate God’s love (and indeed my nature would flourish should I choose to do so as I am created in his image), his interest in the final salvation of humanity neither waxes nor wanes depending upon this or that congregation’s spiritual temperature (Peterson, Long Obedence, 44).

Notes:

My Translation of Romans 5:1-11

For Christ, while we were weak, at the appropriate time, died on behalf of the ungodly. You see, with difficulty somebody would die on behalf of a righteous man, indeed, on behalf of a good man somebody might even dare to die. Now God demonstrates his own love for us this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore (more so really), having been declared righteous in the present by his blood, will we be saved by him from the wrath. For if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (more so, having already been reconciled), we will be saved by his life. Now, not only this, but we are boasting all the while in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.

Aquinas on God’s Joy

Again. Joy and delight are a kind of repose of the will in the object of its willing. Now God is supremely at rest in Himself, Who is the principal object of His will, as finding all sufficiency in Himself. Therefore by His will He rejoices and delights supremely in Himself. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 190.

Aquinas on God’s Love

For it belongs properly to the nature of love that the lover wills the good of the beloved. Now God wills His own and others’ good, as stated above. Accordingly then God loves both Himself and other things.
Again. True love requires one to will another’s good as one’s own. For a thing whose good one wills merely as conducive to another’s good, is loved accidentally: thus he who wills wine to be preserved that he may drink it, or who loves a man that he may be useful or pleasing to him, loves the wine or the man accidentally, but himself properly speaking. Now God loves each thing’s good as its own, since He wills each thing to be in as much as it is good in itself: although He directs one to the profit of another. God therefore truly loves both Himself and other things.
Moreover. Since everything naturally wills or desires its own good in its own way, if the nature of love is that the lover will or desire the good of the beloved, it follows that the lover is referred to the beloved as to a thing that is in a way one with him. Wherefore it appears that the proper notion of love consists in the affection of one tending to another as one with himself in some way: for which reason Dionysius describes love as a unitive force. Hence the greater the thing that makes the lover one with the beloved, the more intense is the love: for we love those more who are united to us by the origin of birth, or by frequent companionship, than those who are merely united to us by the bond of human nature. Again, the more the cause of union is deeply seated in the lover, the stronger the love: wherefore sometimes a love that is caused by a passion becomes more intense than a love arising from natural origin or from some habit, although it is more liable to be transitory. Now the cause of all things being united to God, namely His goodness, which all things reflect, is exceeding great and deeply seated in God, since Himself is His own goodness.2 Wherefore in God not only is there true love, but also most perfect and most abiding love. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 191–192.

Interesting Insight from Charles Finney on Justification

In the lecture on justification in his Lectures on Systematic Theology Charles Finney uses the distinction between legislative, judicial, and executive functions of government to consider the doctrine of justification:

Justification is the pronouncing of one just. It may be done in words, or, practically, by treatment. Justification must be, in some sense, a governmental act; and it is of importance to a right understanding of gospel justification, to inquire whether it be an act of the judicial, the executive, or the legislative department of government; that is, whether gospel justification consists in a strictly judicial or forensic proceeding, or whether it consists in pardon, or setting aside the execution of an incurred penalty, and is therefore properly either an executive or a legislative act. We shall see that the settling of this question is of great importance in theology; and as we view this subject, so, if consistent, we must view many important and highly practical questions in theology.

Now, I’d never even considered that such a distinction in the roles of government might apply conceptually to the kingdom of God. But it seems to make some sense. For instance, while obeying the law gives life, the Bible also teaches that nobody will be justified by works of the law (for all sinned according to Romans 3:23). It also teaches that justification comes by faith, by grace, through Christ, and strangely enough, to those who are obedient to the law (Romans 2:13).

But with the exception of Romans 2:13, the meaning of which is contested, most other passages about justification (being declared righteous by God or the resumption of a properly ordered relationship with God) treat it as a rather personal reality (through grace, by faith, in Christ, etc). It’s not about whether or not somebody has done as much good as they can, because no matter how much good is done, guilt is still guilt. In Finney’s taxonomy, the judicial office of government is purely that of determining whether or not the law has been broken by this or that person. So for him, as far as the law goes, there can be no justification for anybody who has done anything wrong, ever (Romans 3:20 seems to say exactly this). But as far as appeal to the law-giver (legislator) or the branch of government responsible for action (executive) justification, pardon, and reconciliation are possible. So sinners cannot, by any means, appeal to the law for forgiveness (though the Law of Moses offers conditions of pardon, these do not come through the system of elders/judges). But sinners can appeal directly to the law-giver and king of God’s kingdom for forgiveness: a gracious and kind God.

But I’ve never seen this taxonomy God’s role in justification in a Bible commentary and I’d never noticed it from reading Scripture. This doesn’t mean that Finney is wrong, but it’s just gone unnoticed for a while, now.

Any thoughts?

 

Theology Thursday: Karl Barth and Christian mindset.

Several years ago, I read a few volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. During that period of my life I wasn’t sleeping much and I probably read too quickly. Anyhow, I’m trying to just read 10 pages a day now. I’ll eventually finish, or maybe I won’t. Reading the Bible and doing what Jesus says is better, but Barth is useful for preachers because he helps build the habit of comparing the church’s preaching back to Jesus. In other words, he reminds pastors to go back to Jesus and stay on task.

And without further ado:

The criterion of past, future and therefore present Christian utterance is thus the being of the Church, namely, Jesus Christ, God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man. Does Christian utterance derive from Him? Does it lead to Him? Is it conformable to Him? None of these questions can be put apart, but each is to be put independently and with all possible force. Hence theology as biblical theology is the question of the basis, as practical theology the question of the goal and as dogmatic theology the question of the content of the distinctive utterance of the Church.
Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 4–5.

Barth’s main point here is that the standard for theology is “the being of the Church.” People could easily read that and think, “What the heck?” But he explains himself: Jesus is the being of the church. Thus, the standard for theology is (not immediately) “is it true?” This is because one might have a definition of truth that is false or silly! Instead the standard is, “Is it comformable to, based on, and directed toward Jesus Christ?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think truth matters for theology. But Barth is making the point that if by “truth” somebody means, “that which is laboratory tested, that which makes me feel good, that which conforms to my worldview” then this question will do no good for theology (but I would add: yet).

Why does this matter? Well, last week I wrote about having Christian mindset. I think that Barth’s writings can help us in this matter. The following questions can help us return to Scripture not merely to be right and not merely to learn right decisions but to learn the right approach to ideas and decisions:

  1. Is my mindset conformable to Jesus Christ
  2. Is my mindset based on Jesus Christ?
  3. Is my mindset directed toward him?

These questions can lead one to a rather ruthless form of repentance from all sorts of idolatries, cowardices, and hardnesses of the heart. So, once again, while speculative theology and practical theology have their place in the Christian life and while the Bible certainly has its place in those things, do not forget to read it in order to have the wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Speculative Theology and Universal Creatorship

I had lunch with a friend yesterday to talk to him about, among other things, a video game he is programming. He mentioned this thought experiment that came to him in the process:

Every hypothetical universe that would allegedly be as good or better than this one has a creator, even completely random ones created by rolling dice to determine constraints (for role playing games and so-on). Even hypothetical universes imagined for the sake of thinking about multi-verse theory are imagined. Thus, anybody who finds the argument from suffering compelling, but accepts various writers, thinkers, and other hypothetical universe constructors to be good or real is inconsistent.

Imaginary is not meant to mean unreal, but simply conceived in the mind. One might object, “but in our universe, real, conscious beings suffer.” That’s fine, it’s a thought experiment, but if there is a creator behind the entire cosmos, one must imagine that any involvement in the life of humans on earth would have to be a statistical anomaly (we’re zero percent of the universe). This is a crass anthropomorphism, but the Bible is full of them, so deal with it.* An omniscient being (if we imagine for the sake of argument that this being is like us…which God isn’t really) who is managing the cosmos would find any individual event incredibly insignificant.

Also, he noted that this isn’t meant to be a proof of any sort, but a thought experiment to determine whether or not a world created in which suffering is conceivable or even necessary is necessarily created by an evil being.

Anyway, it’s an interesting experiment. My mind has gone several directions with it over the past 24 hours.

Your thoughts?

*The Bible acknowledges that it uses anthropomorphisms (Deuteronomy 1:31 and Numbers 23:19) in order to help people repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. Even calling forgiveness, ‘forgiveness’ implies an anthropomorphism because God isn’t literally a banker who tallies up our moral debts.