The above question was recently posed to me by a friend and it made me stop and think for a bit. Is there something inherent in Kingdom Theology that accounts for the problem of evil (i.e. theodicy)? And if so, what is it? It was – and is – a very good question.
(For those unfamiliar with the term ‘theodicy,’ I’ve included a brief overview at the bottom of this post)
If we are talking about generic kingdom of God theology (i.e. inaugurated eschatology), then I would have to say that there isn’t any one theodicy inherit to that theological system. This is because inaugurated eschatology is primary focused on answering the question of when the end-time promises of God will be fulfilled (i.e. is God’s rule and reign here today? Is it delayed? When is it coming, etc.?).
The definition of Kingdom Theology promoted by myself and others within the Vineyard worldwide movement (e.g. John Wimber, Derek Morphew, Don Williams, Bill Jackson, etc.) is one of ‘enacted inaugurated eschatology.’ This is a theological worldview that starts with the life and ministry of historical Jesus before building out other theological concepts. Meaning that everything is seen through a lens of the here and not yet of the ages. Being ‘enacted’, it is a worldview that requiring one to live out the inaugurated eschatology of the kingdom in every area of life rather than intellectual belief.
Under this definition of Kingdom Theology, I would say that there is a cosmic conflict (or warfare) theodicy presupposition that sees the age to come breaking into this evil age through Jesus’ defeat of sin, evil and death at the cross. As such, the followers of Jesus living in-between the ages are engaged in a war between God and Satan with suffering happening as a result of sin, death, and evil.
With that said, it is possible to layer theodicies on top of one another. For example, one could say that the cosmic conflict seen throughout the ages is part of God’s perfect plan or is exacerbated by free will. Greg Boyd, one of the top openness of God (i.e. Open Theism) proponents, combines the cosmic conflict with the openness of the future to the point they seem inseparable. The Vineyard being the Vineyard, you can find folks within the movement who hold to any of these theodicies along with a few others.
On a personal level, I combine the cosmic conflict theodicy with the consent and participation (i.e. God consents to free will and natural laws while staying personally involved in the world), suffering of God (i.e. Jesus suffers and weeps with us), and faith and trust (i.e. it’s a mystery so just trust Jesus) theodicies.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘theodicy’, here is a quick primer of some of the more famous answers to the problem of evil. Note that are lots of others theodicies and a TON of philosophical presuppositions behind the question of evil that I cannot get into here. Some of these overlap each other with folks (like myself) holding to a new of different theodicies at the same time.
Perfect Plan – Suffering and evil is all part of God’s perfect plan though he is not directly causing any of it. This theodicy is largely held by Calvinist which places a huge emphasis on the complete sovereignty of God (i.e. every action in the world was determined by God before the beginning of the world). However some branches of Arminianism will hold to this theodicy as they see suffering as part as a bigger, larger plan that only God can see.
Free Will – This view sees suffering as the result of the free will of humanity though God is still in control of the future. Largely held by Arminian believers who places an emphasis on the free choices of humanity.
Cosmic Conflict – There is a war happening in the cosmic realm that affects the physical world in which we live. Also called the “Warfare Theodicy”, this view sees suffering and evil as the result of the battle between Satan and God. As in, bad things happen because of Satan and his demons actively seeking to hurt people.
Soul Making – Suffering is seen as a way to grow one’s soul. As in, God allows suffering so that humanity overcome obstacles and improve our souls (e.g. endurance, courage, compassion, etc.). Some version will include the purging of sin from our lives within this theodicy.
Openness of God – The future is open with God allowing things to develop according to the actions of created beings. Since the future is open, suffering and evil is the result of free agents interacting with the world. Open Theists would be the primary proponents of this view.
Consent and Participation – God consents to free will and natural laws while staying personally involved in the world. I don’t know if “consent and participation” is the scholarly term for this view…but it is the one I’m using. =) The core of this theodicy comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church which has a different view of the fall, original sin, free will and divine omnipotence.
Suffering of God – The view that God suffers and weeps with us rather than standing above pain and suffering.
Faith and Trust – Suffering in the world is a mystery with no real answer so we are just to trust Jesus. I see the book of Job as a backdrop to this view in that at the very end of the book, God tells Job to trust in him and not to all the other theodicies proposed by his friends. (Granted, the book of Job can also be used to support other theodicies like the cosmic conflict view).
Theology for theology sake is worthless. The reason we ponder the mysteries of the cosmos is so that we can live life better. Nowhere is this concept more applicable that when dealing with the great Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma.
To some, this dilemma is so huge and so crazy that they will walk away from it with their fingers in their ears. However I would say that we need to think about this issue for it affects how we act when sh*t happens in our lives. Pastors especially need to ponder this issue as they will be called upon by others in the middle of some sh*tty events and how they answer this question will color their interactions.
Over the last few weeks, I have talked about some alternatives to the typical Arminianism/Calvinism option given to folks. Namely I brief discussed Open Theism and the Eastern Orthodox’s consent and participation view of God’s rule. Today I’m going to try to think through how these views would color one’s interactions with folks who are in the middle of pain and suffering. In doing this, I fully note that I will most likely misrepresent one or more of these groups….and for that I will apologize in advance and ask for your help via the comment section below.
There are five major points within Calvinism that dictate how they view the world. These five points (also known as TULIP) are listed below:
Perseverance of the Saints
Because of Calvinism’s position of Total Depravity (i.e. original sin; everyone is born a sinner), Irresistible Grace and Unconditional Election, Calvinist have the hardest position to defend when it comes to the problem of evil. Since God is in charge of everything (either directly or allowing it), the sh*t that happens to people is all part of God’s plan.
Therefore when a two-year old child is murdered, a Calvinist has to hold on to the belief that God caused/allowed it to happen for some reason (typically to teach someone something or because of some unknown ‘good’ reason which we human can never know). As a pastor and a Jesus follower, I think this mentality is harmful and does not draw people to Jesus. (yeah, I’m fairly biased against this viewpoint…) 😛
Arminianism, why held by a large portion of the Protestant church, isn’t always understood or acknowledged due to the vocal criticism of influential Calvinists. Roger Olson, a leading Arminian theologian, once described Arminianism has holding onto the following items (all words are his, I just split his sentence into bullet points):
Total depravity (in the sense of helplessness to save himself or contribute meritoriously to his salvation such that a sinner is totally dependent on prevenient grace for even the first movement of the will toward God)
Conditional election and predestination based on foreknowledge
Grace is always resistible
Affirms that God is in no way and by no means the author of sin and evil but affirms that these are only permitted by God’s consequent will.
The outworking of this view holds that that humanity can resist God’s grace and choose their own actions, which will sometimes lead to negative consequences for themselves and others. Arminianism also holds that while God has foreknowledge of the future without actually dictating and controlling the future. (Granted there are some Arminianism who hold a stronger view of God control things similar to their Calvinist cousin.)
Typically an Arminianist would say that God has two wills: antecedent and consequent. God’s antecedent will states that he wants everyone to be saved while his consequent will acknowledges that only those who believe will be saved (i.e. “God reluctantly permits sin and enables it” – to quote Olson).
This means that the sh*t that happens isn’t the divine will of God acting upon this world. Rather it is the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world with free agents (i.e. humanity). In the case of a two-year old being murdered, an Arminianism would comfort the parents with the knowledge that the death of their child was not in God’s plan. It was something contrary to the antecedent will of God that happened because of the sin, death, and evil in the world.
This view of Sovereignty of God is similar to Arminianism (in fact, Roger Olson considers it as a variation of Arminianism) in that highlights the free moral agents of humanity. As in, humans are free to make choices that may or may not be within line with God’s plan. The major difference between Open Theism and classic Arminianism is that Open Theism pushes the free will boundaries of humanity to the limits without going into Pelagianism (i.e. humanity still need God to rescue them from evil due to original sin).
In other words, an Open Theist would say that humanity has complete control over the future with God working within creation and with humanity to guide the overall direction of history towards his overarching conclusion. Because of this, the timeline of God’s plans can, and are, subject to change according to the actions of humanity. This is not to say that God’s plans and/or promises will fail to happen, rather it is the timing of those plans/promises that can be changed. Just like the people of Israel delayed God’s plan for them to go enter into the Promise Land by 40 years, so can we delay God’s plans/promises.
Accordingly, an Open Theist would respond to a young child’s murder similar to that of an Arminianism in that they would both hold that the death of the child was not something sanctioned by God. Rather it was the consequences of sin, death, and evil being played out in a world. Jesus, rather than saying away from this pain, is there in the middle of the pain, holding the family tight and walking with them through pain. At its root, Open Theism is a warfare worldview that sees the world through a lens of a spiritual battle between God and sin/death/evil/satan. This, I might add, doesn’t mean that Calvinism and Arminianism doesn’t contain a warfare mentality. Rather this is to say that Open Theism places this warfare view at the forefront of their worldview along with the free will of humanity.
The Eastern Orthodox’s view of the Sovereignty of God is one of God’s consent and participation (as mentioned last time). This means that God consent (i.e. gives up his authority to rule) to natural law (gravity, weather patterns, etc.) and human freedom. However rather than walking away and letting things go, God also participates within creation to rescue us (i.e. Jesus).
In addition, Eastern Orthodox rejects the total depravity of humanity embraced by the other views. This may sound like a heresy to some of you as total depravity is something that has been drilled into Western Christianity to the point that it is taken for granted. However if you study church history, you will find that the concept of total depravity didn’t come into the church until St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD).
The background of the concept being St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagius on whether or not humanity could save themselves without God’s help. St. Augustine held that all of humanity was sinful with each of us being condemned for Adam’s sin. This sin was passed down throughout the ages through the human seed – a view that helped get sex labeled as sinful rather than beautiful (i.e. sin was passed generationally through the father’s semen to their children). Because of the total depravity of humanity, we need God to rescue us. Pelagius, on the other hand, held that we were born good and could rescued ourselves. While the church at large (Western and Eastern) rejected Pelagius view of sin and salvation, the Western half (i.e. Roman Catholic and then Protestantism) adopt St. Augustine’s view of original sin and total depravity while the Eastern half of the church, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches, did not.
Instead the Eastern Orthodox Churches adopted the view that humanity is, and was, created in the image of God and is by nature pure and innocent. Sin, however, has entered into the world through Adam and Eve as a sickness that effects every generation. Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it this way in his book The Orthodox Way:
“Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical ‘taint’ of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse. This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberated acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider. No man is an island. We are ‘members one of another’ (Eph. 4:24), and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members of the human race. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”
I mention all this because when it comes dealing with the sh*t of this crazy, messed up world, it really helps to know that we, humanity, are made the image of God. This means that when God grants us the freedom to reject or accept him, we aren’t automatically going to reject him. Rather there is a part of us, no matter how buried or small, that desires to be close to our Creator King. Humanity was created to be in a loving relationship with God and being outside of that relationship is an unnatural state not a natural state.
Practically this means that a pastor or Jesus follower can comfort the parents of a murdered toddler with the understanding that not only is Jesus there within the pain, but that this child who died was loved and embraced by the Creator King. Yes, sh*t happened due to the war that ranges around us. Yet the pain wasn’t from the hand of God nor was it his will that allowed/created the pain. Rather Jesus loves the child and was/is with them/us – in pain and death.
“We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection. When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story…”
“God does not intervene to save Jesus, but neither does God abandon Jesus. Jesus’ life ends with an open question to God, “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God answers to the crucified Jesus by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him. The resurrection signifies that God is present in the suffering of Jesus and of every human person. If we speak of Jesus’ real abandonment by God at Calvary, this could lead to the mistaken impression that suffering human beings are also forsaken by God. Instead, we must speak of God as silently present to Jesus at this terrifying moment, just as God is silently present to all those who suffer. This silent presence of God to Jesus becomes manifest in the Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus confirms and completes all that Jesus was about in His life. The bottom line of the Christian faith is that God will be victorious over evil and suffering, as exhibited and effected in the death and resurrection of Jesus.”(emphasis added)
Throughout this post, I have sought to highlight how one’s view on the Sovereignty of God affects how one interacts with pain and suffering. I know that I most likely left out bits and pieces of this view or that. Yet my goal wasn’t to detailed out everything; rather I was trying to give you all a taste of what each view looked like. At the end of the day there are great Jesus followers who hold to all these views and I would gladly worship the Living King with them!
However I must also admit that when it comes down to pastoring and dealing with people in the trenches, I would rather deal with someone who hold to an Eastern Orthodox, Open Theism or Arminianism view of the Sovereignty of God. Calvinism, as I understand it, just doesn’t lend itself very well to compassion and mercy… so yeah, sorry my 5-point friends. :/
I would also say that on a personal level, I am leaning more and more towards the Eastern Orthodox view of consent and participation (as if that was’t obvious!). There is just something there that I love. Something that fits well with the mystery of the here and not yet that I see throughout the Scripture. Good stuff worth pondering. 😀
As noted before (most recently here and here) I have been thinking a lot about the Sovereignty of God/Free Will dilemma and the different worldviews that grow out of our understanding of this mystery. Today I want to explore what Sovereignty of God would look like if seen through Jesus.
Or to rephrase the topic, what kind of king is Jesus and how would he rule?
Before we start, I must admit to a strong presumption that colors everything I see. Namely I believe that Jesus is the most clear picture we have of the Creator King. To see Jesus is to see the Creator (John 14:9). Or has St. Paul wrote, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
Practically this means that when I seek to know what God the Creator is like, I will look to Jesus as revealed through the four Gospels rather than looking toward the Old Testament or the letters of the New Testament. I know that this method of theology is frown upon by some people…but at this point in my life, this is where I fall. 🙂
Returning to the topic at hand, let us chat a bit about how Jesus would rule. To do this, let us create two lists with words that we would associate with how we would think Jesus would rule and how we would think we humans would rule.
While we could add more words to each list, I think the pattern has been established. Namely the way in which we humans try to rule is vastly different than the way in which Jesus would rule. Knowing this we can now shift our thinking to the way in which we see the Sovereignty of God as typically promoted by evangelical church in the USA. (Sovereignty, by the way, is just another way of saying Kingdom – as in, how one would rule?)
Sovereignty of God(i.e. the typical view of how God rules within the world)
Control – God is in control of everything; nothing happens within the universe that he doesn’t allow
Coercion – Coercion is the practice of persuading someone to do something by user force and/or threats. Under the typical view of the Sovereignty of God, we see a God who threatens humanity with eternal damnation if they don’t follow his rules. Furthermore, humanity and creation doesn’t really have a choice in the matter as God controls every detail of life, including whether or not someone choices to obey or not.
Intervention – Under this view, supernatural events (i.e. healings, miracles, etc.) are typically seen as interventions by God within the world to make sure things continue to go the way he wants it wants it to.
Sovereignty of Jesus (i.e. the rule of the Creator seen through the person of Jesus)
Consent – To consent to something means giving permission for something to happen. It is the opposite of having control, for rather than trying to micro-manage everything one gives away one’s power and authority to others. This attribute can be further broken down into two sub-groups:
Natural Law – Gravity, weather patterns, atoms, plant life, etc… The typical Sovereignty of God view states that since God has complete control over everything, then the weather patterns we are see are directed by God as is the movement of the smallest ant or bacteria. Under the Consent view, the Creator has granted power and authority to the forces of nature to act according to set parameters. For example, gravity always pulls smaller items of mass towards those of greater mass (i.e. things fall downward). Rain, as Jesus said, falls on the just and the injustice (Matthew 5:45) and towers will fall, sometimes killing people and sometimes not (Luke 13:1-5).
Human Freedom (Free Will) – To have love, one must be willing to face rejection. A view of God who has absolute control does not allows for true love, which is one of that view’s greatest weakness. The Sovereignty of Jesus is a rule that consents to give away the power of choices to humanity and creation. The ant can make a decision about where to go just like a human can choice to love Jesus or not. The four Gospels shows this consent beautifully when you see Jesus gave up control over his mission to 12 guys who, at times, truly screwed up. Yet rather jumping in and taking back control, Jesus work with them and taught them a better way to live.
Participation – This is one of the most powerful attribute of a kingdom ruled by Jesus. We know from multiple sources that Jesus was the Creator God who entered into this world as a human. This shows us a ruler who didn’t just set up the universe and then walk away. Rather, we have a Creator who enters into this crazy, screwed up world to show us the way forward. He didn’t give up on us and take back control over every detailed (a fear based action, btw). Rather he joined himself to us in an act of love.
Mediation – Mediation by definition is the act of stepping into a dispute in order to resolve it. Jesus is like this. There are times when he steps in mediate the actions of humanity and the laws of nature. This is what miracles are – mediations by the grace of God in which he in, through, and around the laws of nature and the consent of humanity to resolve the issue at hand.
If I’m completely honest with myself, I can see the draw of having a God who is in complete control over the good and bad things of this crazy world. I can also see the benefits of having a God who controls and coerce me into doing what I do – not to mention having a God who will step in and fix things when the details get a bit off. Under this view, I – Josh Hopping – really don’t have much to do outside of living. If something goes great, awesome! I’m glad God was there. If things go haywire, great! It’s not my fault so talk to God.
I know that this may be a bit critical of the typical Sovereignty of God worldview…yet I believe it captures the essence of that view. Yes, the control and coercion bits can be dampened down a bit with Scripture verses talking about humanity’s choices and actions. This is what Arminianism tries to do in reaction to Calvinism. There is also a neo-Calvinism movement within the USA that tries to dampen things down a bit while staying true to the five-points. However, I would argue that all these sub-movements are nothing more than, to use a common phrase, lipstick on a pig. They try to make the best of a bad foundation rather than solving the underlining issue.
I fully recognize that embracing a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is scary. Living in a world in which bad things happen for no reason – where we have an enemy who is trying to destroy us (i.e. satan and the forces of evil) can be daunting. It can mess your mind and make you wonder how anything could ever happen….
This is why we have the Scriptures and why we have Jesus. The Scriptures give us a story into which we can join; a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. A story of the Creator participating in and among his creation where he does NOT leave his children alone. Rather he binds himself to humanity with promises that he will and has kept. We don’t have to be scared because we know the end of the story even though we may not know all the details.
Jesus. We can never forget or have enough focus on Jesus. He is the reason we can keep walking. He is the Creator God who enter into our world so that we would know that we serve a Creator King who understands the pain, heartache and troubles of this screwed up world. Jesus is our High Priest to whom we can go when times are hard – when our children is in pain, when our life is out of control, when evil seems to have won – and he will receive us with mercy, grace and love (Hebrew 4:14-16).
Jesus, a consenting, participating and mediating Creator who loves and understands each of us individually. Powerful stuff.
[box]For those who are curious, a lot of the material in this post was pulled from my class notes with Dr. Brad Jersak at St Stephen’s University. His book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, also explores this topic a bit. From what I can tell, the view of a consenting, participating and mediating Creator is the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church who did not embrace the view of St. Augustine like the Western church did. (St. Augustine laid the foundation for the controlling, coercing, and intervening view of God that has dominated Christianity within Europe.) [/box]
Calvinism versus Arminianism is one of the biggest debates within the Protestant world with gallons of ink and blood being spilled over the past five-hundred years. While I tend to be on the Arminianism side of that debate, I have also come to the conclusion that the debate itself has outlived its usefulness and should be put to rest. In my last post, I summarized a bit of the Eastern Orthodox approach to the issue as seen through the writings of Brad Jersak. Today I would like to talk about open theism as seen through Greg Boyd’s book “Is God To Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering.”
Greg Boyd is a Mennonite pastor at the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN and a leading proponent of the Christus Victor view of the atonement. He is also a major proponent of open theism which challenges Calvinism and variations of Arminianism. While I know Greg has other books about open theism, I decided to read his “Is God to Blame?” for two reasons. First and foremost was the fact that I found the book on sale for a dollar and, well, who can pass up a deal like that?! 🙂 Secondly, this book deals with the application of open theism rather than just focusing on the theoretical. Being an applied theologian, I quite like books that seek to put into practice the theories proposed by theological studies. As Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” 🙂
As the title suggests, the focus of Greg’s book “Is God to Blame?” is providing an alternative to the problem of suffering normally proposed by theologians and pastors. Namely, a lot of well-meaning folks in the world today hold to a view of God which states that he knows and controls every little thing in the universe. This “blueprint” view of God states that God, as the sovereign King of Kings, knows, controls and/or predestines what I’m going to type before I type it. This is a God who is not only concerned with spiritual salvation, but with every action done by each person on earth throughout history – not to mention all the animals, plants, weather, etc. Accordingly, everything that happens in life – including hurtful actions such as rape, war, murder, etc. – happens for a reason with God either allowing or controlling the events.
Traditionally this view of the sovereignty of God has held by proponents of Calvinism. However there are also Arminian theologians and pastors who agree with this blueprint worldview – the main difference between the two groups being on the extent of freedom granted by God to humanity (i.e. a little bit or none). Some Arminians, I must note, hold to a view that God foreknows the future, but does not orchestrate the future. Accordingly, these folks would not fall into the blueprint worldview challenged by Greg’s book.
In lieu of the blueprint worldview, Greg proposes a view in which God grants freedom to humanity to make choices and act contrary to that which God would prefer. After all, how could there be love if the lover has no choice but to love? Love is only love if the lover has a choice to walk away but doesn’t choose do to so.
While people will typically agree that love requires a choice, they also get nervous about a world in which everything is possible. Deep inside we want to know that someone or something has control as we want to believe that everything that happens has a reason. If things just happened with no reason, then life would be meaningless with no hope of redemption. (this is one of the problems with atheism, but that’s a different topic). In order to keep things in order, we must create a God who has everything under control.
I say “create a God” because the Scriptures allow for another view of God that falls outside the blueprint world. Namely the Scriptures allows for a God who intimately involved with his creation on a personal level and allows his creation to change his mind. Just look at God’s interactions with Abraham and Moses. Both of these forefathers of the faith wrestled with God and challenged his actions. Rather than telling them to shut up, God encouraged the debate and even agreed to change his plans.
Now before you quote Malachi 3:6 at me (i.e. “For I the Lord do not change…”) and burn me at the stake, allow me to explain. God himself doesn’t change – nor does he give up on his promises. He is always the same God today, yesterday and tomorrow. However just because he is the same God, it doesn’t mean that his actions within history can’t change. After all, he was the one who broke into history and changed everything (i.e. Jesus).
In his book, Greg explores the concept of how we came to see God as a God who never changes (i.e. the view has its roots in Greek philosophy). And then sets forth a view of God who is like a great chess player who knows every possible move on the board and can foresee what his proponent is going to do. And, just like in a chess game, the moves which God makes are in direct reaction to the moves that we humans, as free agents, make. Only God, being infinitely smarter than us, can take into account every possible variable in all of creation – the movement of a butterfly in that country, a human choice here, the solar actions of a star over there, etc. – before making a move.
In other words, God’s overall desire and goal will come to pass. We humans may derail or slow down the process, but it will happen. The forces of evil, something Greg does talk about as well, may also try to stop God’s plans – and perhaps may even slow them down – but in the end God will win. Period.
This view of God has the potential to change how we view our lives and comfort people who are struggling. Rather than blaming God for the crap of the world, we can recognize that there is an evil being out there trying to destroy humanity and that we humans all have the choice on whether or not we are going to follow good or evil. We also don’t go around telling people whose young son was murder or raped or stolen that everything happens for a reason. Rather we cry with them. We mourn with them.
We know that God himself entered into the pain of this world and suffered with us. He didn’t stay away, hidden safely away in his castle in the sky. Rather he came into our broken, crappy world so that we would have a savior/friend/God who knew what it is like. And we also know that God will win with pain, evil, sin and death being destroyed.
Some people might not like this view of life. And that’s ok. For me, though, I think there is something of value in Greg’s view of open theism. It fits well with my view take on the atonement and the Kingdom of God as well as with my typical pastoral approach to life. Don’t get me wrong, I still have questions about open theism. At the moment, if you pushed it, I would have to say that I typically see God as being outside of time which allows for him to foresee what is going to happen without having to control every detail. Open theism, as I understand it, still places God within time rather than outside of time – which is a major issue to me since I see time as being something created… but that is another post for another time. 😀
In conclusion, I would definitely recommend reading Greg Boyd’s book “Is God To Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering.” At 197 pages, it isn’t that long – but, do be warned, it is a heavy read as it is dealing with a complex issue. As the title says, it is a book that goes “beyond pat answers” into the deep waters of the mystery of life.
This, I might add, is a VERY rare thing for me as I typically only read a book once. And those books which I do re-read, I usually re-read them after a few years. So to say that I read Brad Jersak’s book “A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel” twice within three months is saying a lot.
Granted if I’m being completed honest, I must admit that it was the prospect of meeting Brad in person that prompted me to re-read the book. Brad was scheduled to be my one of my professors at St. Stephen’s University this past October and I wanted to be able to ask him some questions about his book. And yes, the books was required reading by Brad along with N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.” (You HAVE to love classes that require you to read the books you would read on your on! No more self-justifications of the cost – instead it is all wrapped up in the “education” bucket of the budget!!) 😀
Before talking about the book itself, it is helpful to know a bit more about Dr. Brad Jersak. As mentioned already, Brad is an adjunct faculty member at St. Stephen’s University in Canada. He also teaches New Testament and Patristics classes at Westminster Theological Centre in the United Kingdom in addition to serving as the senior editor of Plain Truth Ministries. His faith journey includes growing up within the Baptist General Conference before becoming a church planter/pastor within the Conference of Mennonites in BC, Canada. After years hanging out with the Mennonites, Brad shifted gears and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church where he has been chrismated and ordained as a Reader in the Orthodox Church (OCA) for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney (Canada).
Brad’s Eastern Orthodox connections are very important as his book “A More Christlike God” is packed full of concepts gleaned from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. The book was also, as I found out talking to him this past October, was reviewed and approved by several Eastern Orthodox theologians. The book also received endorsements from a surprising wide range of Protestant and Roman Catholic Church authors, ministers, and priests including Father Richard Rohr, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren, William Paul Young, Frank Schaeffer, and Brian Zahnd.
The primary focus of the book is fairly simple – mainly that the best picture we have of God is Jesus and, as such, we should allow Jesus to influence the way in which we see God and read the Bible. While this premise sounds simple, the sad reality is that a lot of us have based our view of God on things other than Jesus. Whereas St. Paul says that Jesus is the “the image of the invisible God” [Co 1:15], we tend to split the Triune God up into three parts with a different image for each part. We have the punishing judge Father God, the nice Son (Jesus) and the crazy unknown Spirit…or we have the deadbeat dad God or perhaps the genie in the bottle God who we can influence through doing or praying the right things.
Writing from an Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, Brad challenges these different misconceptions of God while offering a picture of a loving God based upon the person of Jesus. This focus on the cruciform God (i.e. God on the cross) effectually challenges the a lot of the common theological concepts we in the Protestant world take for granted. For example, whereas the Protestant world is focused on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate of sovereignty of God and human participation, Brad offers a uniquely Eastern Orthodox viewpoint in which God consents to freedom but also engages in participation within creation.
Reading – and later talking to Brad – about this alternative to the dualism of the Protestant world was a breath of fresh air for me. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the Calvinism/Arminianism debate had outlived its usefulness and was no longer helpful. However I was having troubles coming up with a theological alternative that I could fully embrace. And why I’m fine with living in the mystery of not knowing, I knew that my position as a pastor/teacher would require a deeper understanding of the issue so that I could help others walk the path. While I was able to find an alternative in the writings of Greg Boyd (i.e. open theism), I was having a hard time finding anything on the topic from the Eastern Orthodox side of the family (a group with which I have had a longtime love affair). The book “A More Christlike God” filled that vacuum for me – and taught me that I had in fact already been exposed to the Eastern Orthodox view on the matter, I just didn’t recognize the argument as it was buried under implicit language typical of those from the East. 😕
Connected with the sovereignty of God and human participation topic are the issues of the atonement (i.e. what happened on the cross?) and the wrath of God. While anyone of these topics could have been a book within itself, Brad seamlessly weaves all three issues into his book while keeping the focus on Jesus and the cruciform God. I especially liked his selection on the atonement as breaks down the weakness with the penal substitutionary atonement view of most Protestants while highlighting the value of the victory of God over satan, evil, sin and death. But then again I’ve been a proponent of the Christus Victor atonement view for quite some time. 🙂
The part of the book that I have the hardest time with is when Brad seeks to un-wrath God in the both the Old and New Testament. For those who have read the Scriptures know that there are some parts of the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) that are extremely hard to understand. Why and how could a God who claims to be love (1 John 4:8) command the total genocide of various people groups? It doesn’t make sense… which is why one of the first heresies in the church was the view that the God of the OT is different than Jesus and the God of the NT. However the early church mothers and fathers were quite clear that the God of the OT is the same God of the NT – and this God is seen the most clear in the person of Jesus. Brad puts it this way in his book:
“[T]he Bible itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents – gives us over – to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. The cruciform God will not and cannot, by love’s nature, coerce us to obey. God grants us the dignity (and discomfort) of ‘finding our own bottom’ (to use 12-step recovery terminology), the end of which is willing surrender to the arms of grace. In the Bible, the shorthand for this process is ‘wrath.’” [page 185]
I must admit I’m still pondering about the full ramification of this definition of wrath as the concept has some very powerful consequences in how we read the Scriptures, see God and live life. Yet I think it is an issue we need to think about as we live in an age of war, fear and revenge. Regardless of the consequences, the one thing I do know is that if we are going to error in how we see God, let us let us error on the side of Jesus and love.
“I [Jesus] say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” –Luke 6:27-31
Mention the word “Arminianism” and you are likely to get an ear full from folks who think it’s a heresy of the first order – that or you will hear about how they are somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism.
I myself used to describe myself as a Calminanism (i.e. a cross between Calvinism and Arminianism) based upon a class on Romans I took during my undergrad years. Yet, the more I learn about theology the more that I realize that
a) There is a silent partner, Pelagianism, in the debate which changes the entire framework – as in instead of being an extreme, Arminianism itself is actually trying to take the middle ground between Calvinism and Pelagianism.
b) The entire debate is centered around a 1500’s modern worldview that I think is dying out – as in, I don’t folks are asking the questions that this debate is trying to answer… instead folks are more concerned about getting out there and living like Jesus than trying to chart out all the mysteries of the faith.
With all that said, I do think it is important that people understand what Arminianism actually teaches as opposed to what it’s opponents are saying. To that end, I would like to point you all to a series of posts by Dr. Roger Olson called “Arminianism FAQ (Everything You Always Wanted to Know…).”
Below are some of the questions he addresses in the first two posts (1 and 2):
Why identify a theology with a man’s name? Why not just be “Christians?”
Why is there now a rising interest in Arminianism? Why have blogs and books about “man-made theology?”
Isn’t there a “middle ground” between Calvinism and Arminianism?
Does Arminianism include belief in absolute free will? If so, how could God have inspired the authors of Scripture?
Hopefully you all will give these posts a read as it is good to know that the type “Arminianism” actually means. And yes, even if you are a die-hard Calvinist, give these a read as you need to know what your fellow Jesus follower means by the term.
One of the big debates among Protestants for the last four or five hundred years deals with the character of God. Is He a God who rescue individual humans by His will alone regardless of what the people do or think? Or is He an all-loving God who gives humans both the choice to follow Him and the grace to act upon such a choice?
In theological terms, those two views of God are called Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism, named after John Calvin, follows the concept of the first question listed above why Arminianism, named after Jacobus Arminius, follows the concept of last question. Both views came into prominence in Europe during the 1500’s while the views themselves date back further. Calvinism draws off of the teaching of St. Augustine in the fifth century while a lot of Arminianism back to the first century and Church Fathers.
It should be stated that neither viewpoint fully answers all the theological questions in a satisfactory manner. There are holes, weak-points, and unknowns in both theological systems as well as every other theological system ever developed. The fact is that God is so amazing and huge that we, as created creatures, can never fully understand His ways (Isaiah 55:8). We can think about He and talk about Him as He Himself told us to “come and reason” with Him (Isaiah 1:18), but in the end all we can do is throw ourselves at His feet and cry “Father, Father, here I am.”
Sadly enough there is a growing number of evangelicals in the USA who are pushing Calvinism as the ONLY correct theological viewpoint out there. They have bad mouthed Arminianism, Open Theism and anybody who does not agree with their viewpoint. I myself have personal come under the gun a few times from folks like this who tried to persuade bagger me into believing the things they did.
When this happened, I typically fell back on a viewpoint taught to me by an old college professor. This viewpoint, typically called “Calminanism”, confirmed both Calvinism and Arminianism without fully making a decision. However the more I study and learn about the issue, the more I realize that this professor, while trying to be helpful, really didn’t help his students.
The reason I say that is because the idea of blending Calvinism and Arminianism lends itself to a very shallow and stereotypically view on the concepts behind Calvinism and Arminianism. For example, if I were to ask you all to define Calvinism and Arminianism, most if not all of you would say that Calvinism is about the sovereignty of God (i.e. God is in control and choose who goes to heaven) while Arminianism is about free will (i.e. humans can choose to follow God or not). A “Calminanism” view would then be the view that confirms both the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity.
Interesting enough, as I have recently discovered, this “sovereignty-of-God-and-the-free-will-Calminanism” view of theological is actually the view thing that Arminianism teachings. Yes, you heard that correctly. Arminianism confirms the sovereignty of God, teaching that no one comes to the Father except those called by Him, while also confirming the fire will of humans to reject the call of Jesus to follow Him. It IS the middle path!!