Sunday, May 06, 2012

Birth defects

The first point immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my child. God is not the author of evil. God does not terminate sweet lives with a pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolisms are a result of the bent nature of this world. As Ann kept repeating, "God is not the problem; he is the solution."
One primary reason I am not a Calvinist is that I do not believe in God's detailed control of all events. Why? First, because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God. Second, because the biblical portrait shows that God is pure light and holy love. In him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love. And third, the words, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away," from the lips of Job (1:21), are not good theology. According to Job 1, it was not God but the Devil who took away Job's children, health, and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of the source of his calamity and God's actual will for his life. God's will for him was for good and not for harm.
The beginning of "good grief" starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in him. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the Fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that God tempts no one, that God's will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.
The phrase, "It's all God's will," is cold comfort.


i) In this post I’m not going to pounce on Witherington. He’s suffered an irreparable and desolating loss. So I’d never initiate an argument with him over what he wrote. I make allowance for his state of mind.

ii) That said, I’m quoting his statement because, if you don’t cite a specific example from a respected spokesman, you’re often accused of burning a straw man.  Quoting him documents the fact that I’m not caricaturing contemporary Arminianism. Roger Olson has made many similar claims. I'm simply using Witherington's statement to illustrate a position that seems to be gaining ground in contemporary Arminian circles. 

iii) I’m not going to comment on his prooftexts. That’s an argument for another day.

iv) Instead, I’d like to ask a question:

What do Arminians tell kids with serious birth defects?

I have in mind birth defects like spina bifida, Autism, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, blindness, deafness, phenylketonuria, hypothyroidism, adrenoleukodystrophy, Rett syndrome, Ebstein’s anomaly, pulmonary stenosis, muscular dystrophy.

Suppose a Calvinist has two kids: one in perfect health, but the other has a serious birth defect. The Calvinist can tell them that God made them both. God had a good reason for giving one child a serious birth defect. Your life is meaningful. Even your genetic condition is meaningful. It’s ultimately for the best.

God could make a different you, but it wouldn’t be a better you. You are good the way you are, right now.

God was able to make you healthy, but even a birth defect can be a source of good, a kind of good that wouldn’t exist if God hadn’t made you this way.

If you die in Jesus, God will heal you, but having gone through this ordeal makes you a better person than if you didn’t have to cope with this ordeal. And it can be a blessing to those around you.

Whether God cures you in this life or the next, you are just what God meant you to be at this point in his plan for your life. You’re not a cosmic accident. You’re not a mistake.

But an Arminian parent, who shares the viewpoint of Olson and Witherington, can’t tell his child that God made him that way. He can’t tell him that God made him that way for a wise and worthwhile purpose.

If a child suffers from a serious birth defect, that’s the result of the Fall, or autonomous natural laws.

God made your healthy brother the way he is, but God didn’t make you the way you are. You’re the defective product of a defective process.

If God is only the source of the “good” stuff, while the “bad” stuff (i.e. natural evil) comes from something or someone other than God (sin, evolution, the fall, a stochastic process), then you didn’t come from God the way your brother did. At most, only a part of you–the "good" part–came from God–unlike your brother. You’re not as good as your brother. God didn’t do as much with you. The rest of you may even be Satanic.

Both Calvinism and Arminianism trace birth defects to the fall, but for Arminianism, that’s as far back as it goes. And nowadays, some Arminians deny the fall of Adam. They chalk it up to evolution. Or the laws of nature.

10 comments:

  1. I can't even comprehend the cognitive dissonance required to think that God's allowing this to happen preserves his merciful, compassionate nature, and allows him to be better than Ben in that regard.

    If Ben had had the ability to prevent his daughter's death, would he have stood by and done nothing? Would he have considered that the most merciful and compassionate thing to do? If not, how is his idea of God better than he is?

    I really feel bad for Ben. I have a daughter. But if she died, I can't imagine even wanting to feel that God was not responsible. How could it be better that God just stood by and allowed it to happen, rather than causing it for a reason that I know will ultimately work for good?

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  2. Steve: "The Calvinist can tell them that God made them both. God had a good reason for giving one child a serious birth defect. Your life is meaningful. Even your genetic condition is meaningful. It’s ultimately for the best."

    Tennant: "I can't imagine even wanting to feel that God was not responsible. How could it be better that God just stood by and allowed it to happen, rather than causing it for a reason that I know will ultimately work for good?"

    The question is, 'Whose good'? The problem with the consolation Calvinism is able to provide is that there are no assurances that the child's disabled condition is ultimately good for the child. It may be for the best in terms of the grand tapestry God is weaving out of world history and may redound to God's glory, while the individual threads in the tapestry are made to bear dark colors indeed. The child's disability will work out for the child's ultimate benefit in case that child is elect, but otherwise the good that comes out of the disability has other recipients entirely, and the child suffers so God's predetermined history works out.

    Yes, I suppose this does make the child's life meaningful in a sense, but it is not a meaning that the child can necessarily take comfort in. On Calvinism the lives of the reprobate do have meaning and their eternal damnation is 'all for the best', but not their own best, certainly.

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  3. God doesn't tell us everything we might like to know, ours is to trust Him by faith, humbly submitting to the wise providential out workings of the lives He has given to us, and in the midst of every circumstance ask, "how can I be holy here?"

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  4. JD WALTERS SAID:

    “The question is, 'Whose good'? The problem with the consolation Calvinism is able to provide is that there are no assurances that the child's disabled condition is ultimately good for the child.”

    i) You’re attacking a position I didn’t take. I already qualified my position in the original post when I said “If you die in Jesus, God will heal you, but having gone through this ordeal makes you a better person than if you didn’t have to cope with this ordeal.”

    So instead of responding to my actual post, you’re using this as a pretext to pop the pull-tab on your canned objection to Calvinism.

    ii) You also say this is a “problem for Calvinism,” but the alleged problem would be the same problem for Molinism, Arminianism, Lutheranism, Thomism, open theism, and annihilationism–not to mention Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, atheism, &c.

    iii) The only theoretical exception would be universalism. Of course, universalism is like a schoolyard bully you beats you up everyday for your lunch money, but assures you that, appearances notwithstanding, he’s really your best friend. Or an assassin who keeps shooting at you, but when he runs out of bullets, and you have a chance to shoot him, assures you that he’s learned his lesson. If you just put the gun down, he’ll walk away and leave you alone. Trust him. He’s a changed man. Uh-huh.

    iv) Your objection is especially odd given your current infatuation with open theism. For open theism can offer no assurance that a birth defect is ultimately for the good of each and every child so afflicted.

    v) On the other hand, as I discuss, Calvinism has compensatory values in relation to genetic defects which freewill theism can’t offer. Freewill theism shares the same alleged problem without the offset.

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  5. JD Walters,

    On Calvinism, from the child's perspective it's up to him whether the birth defect works for his good.

    Consider these remarks by Spurgeon:

    “Some say, ‘It is unfair for God to choose some and leave others’. Now I will ask you one question: Is there any of you here who wishes to be holy, who wishes to be born again, to leave off sin and walk in holiness? ‘Yes, there is,’ says someone. ‘I do!’ Then God has elected you.

    But another says, ‘No, I don’t want to be holy; I don’t want to give up my lusts and my vices.’ Why should you grumble, then, that God has not elected you? For if you were elected, you would not like it according to your own confession.”

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  6. "You’re attacking a position I didn’t take. I already qualified my position in the original post..."

    I know that you made that qualification, in fact that's what I'm stressing. The fact that you have to make that qualification is what I'm objecting to.

    "You also say this is a “problem for Calvinism,” but the alleged problem would be the same problem for Molinism, Arminianism, Lutheranism, Thomism, open theism, and annihilationism–not to mention Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, atheism, &c."

    Sticking for now with Calvinism vs. Arminianism, it is true that under either scheme things only work out for the redeemed. But for me, at least, it makes all the difference how exactly that population is filled.

    "Your objection is especially odd given your current infatuation with open theism. For open theism can offer no assurance that a birth defect is ultimately for the good of each and every child so afflicted."

    Open theism would not say that the birth defect itself is ultimately for the good of the child, but rather that God's prior decision to create a world with some measure of independence, populated with creatures having free-will, is ultimately for the good of each creature.

    God does bring great good out of evil under Arminianism and open theism, He just doesn't plan the evil ahead of time in order to bring about that good. That's how great God is on these views. He doesn't have to predetermine everything in order to bring about a magnificent outcome.

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  7. Henry,

    Once again the qualification is all important: "from the child's perspective". In reality whether the birth defect works out for his good had already been decided from all eternity.

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  8. Ben said:
    ---
    And third, the words, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away," from the lips of Job (1:21), are not good theology. According to Job 1, it was not God but the Devil who took away Job's children, health, and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of the source of his calamity and God's actual will for his life. God's will for him was for good and not for harm.
    ---

    Except immediately after Job 1:21, in verse 22, we read: "In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong."

    And God Himself says: "He [Job]still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason" (Job 2:3).

    God has no trouble in the book of Job taking ownership of what happened to Job.

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