Monday, July 01, 2013

Olson's Arminian theodicy

I'm going to comment on this post:

My point so far is simply that innocent suffering, the suffering of small children, for example, is a serious challenge to Christian faith in an all good and all powerful God, the God of Scripture.

i) How is that a challenge to faith in the God of Scripture? Doesn't Scripture acknowledge the suffering of children? Aren't there Scriptural cases in which God directly or indirectly causes children to suffer? It's not as if Scripture fosters the expectation that children are exempt from suffering. That God will always shield children from suffering. There's no inconsistency between the God of Scripture and suffering children. So how is the latter a challenge to faith in the former? 

ii) Also, throughout his presentation, Olson assumes a standard of right and wrong. But absent the goodness of God, where does that standard come from? 

The great German Lutheran theologian and preacher Helmut Thielicke came to America once after World War 2. He was one of the few leading pastors of Germany who did not support Hitler and survived anyway. He pastored a large church in Hamburg throughout the war including the devastating bombings in its later months. He wrote many books of theology and his sermons fill many volumes. When he was asked by an American during his visit to this country what one thing he thought Americans needed more than anything else he said “a theology of suffering.” Like many people around the world he thought America has been largely immune to the ravages of war, pestilence, famine, epidemic, earthquake. Because of that, he believed, Americans are ill equipped to respond to innocent suffering. I have to agree with Thielicke.

So Americans didn't experience the Civil War. Americans who were drafted to fight in foreign wars didn't experience the ravages of war. Likewise, Americans don't experience natural disasters or epidemics. What was Olson thinking?

Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. 

Is tradition a criterion? Since tradition can be wrong, don't we need a criterion to judge tradition? Likewise, don't we need a criterion to judge experience? Even reason needs criteria. 

Some suffering, however, seems to be absolutely gratuitous—serving no good purpose. 

If that's the case, then I don't see that Olson has a salvageable position. Once you concede the existence of "absolutely gratuitous" suffering, then cobbling together some partial theodicies won't fix the problem. Why would God permit a preventable evil that has no fringe benefits or redeeming value? 

Many question that until I mention the suffering of a child being murdered by a sexual predator or a soldier or concentration camp guard. Then, suddenly, most people intuitively agree that some suffering is gratuitous. 

I don't find that intuitively obvious. Most lives impact many other lives in a multitude of ways, for better or worse. By the same token, premature death has both good and bad consequences down the line. 

Another preliminary matter has to do with the Bible and suffering. What does the Bible say about the subject? Why can’t we just turn to the Bible for our answer? Doesn’t the Bible contain all the answers? The Book of Job is the only sustained discussion of suffering in the Bible. It offers no theodicy. In fact, it rejects the theodicies of Job’s “friends.” All it tells us is that not all suffering is deserved. The book was apparently written with that one purpose in mind—to reject the common belief that suffering is always the result of sin in the suffering person’s life.

The Book of Job offers a theodicy for Job's ordeal. And that would be a theodicy for comparable cases. 

Never addressed directly, however, is the problem of totally innocent suffering—the suffering of innocents. 

"Innocence" is a relative concept in Scripture. We are all sinners. We may suffer unjustly at the hands of other sinners. And there's no systematic correlation between our sins and what we suffer. But we're not innocent in relation to a holy God. 

Nor does the Bible provide a clear, comprehensive, rationally satisfying theodicy—“This is why all suffering is justified in God’s world.” Rather, as many Bible scholars point out, the Bible’s alternative to theodicy is eschatology—the promise that someday all innocent suffering will end. “Every tear will be wiped away” and the creation will be liberated from its “bondage to decay.”

Seems to me that Scripture does outline a theodicy. For instance:

1 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him (Jn 9:1-3). 
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn 11:1-4). 
 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all (Rom 11:32). 
 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal 3:22).

Divine determinism is that form of speculative theology, common in some Protestant circles, that claims that God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything without exception including all events of suffering including innocent suffering—for his own glory. One of the most influential contemporary pastors who promotes this view to thousands of so-called “young, restless, Reformed” Christians is Baptist pastor and author John Piper whose books sell by the millions. According to him, and his precursors such as Puritan theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards, God foreordains and renders certain even the agonizing death of an infant. God thus becomes sheer power without goodness in any sense of “goodness” meaningful to us.

2) God does not foreordain or cause innocent suffering; it does not glorify him. To believe that is to detract from God’s goodness and love.

He sets (2) in contrast to "divine determinism," but is that a tenable contrast? 

i) Since the Arminian God could prevent the "agonizing death of an infant," but refrains from so doing, the Arminian God makes the baby die an agonizing death by refusing to intervene. His inaction makes that happen. That's the differential factor. Whether or not he intervenes is what makes the difference. How is that distinguishable from God "causing" the infant to die an agonizing death?

ii) Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that that's distinguishable from divine causation, how is that distinguishable from divine determinism? If, absent divine intervention, the infant is bound to die an agonizing death, then God's inaction makes it certain to happen. How is that different from "determining" the outcome? Indeed, since the Arminian God has both foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge, how is that different from predetermining the outcome? 

Another speculative answer, one that does not sacrifice God’s goodness or power, distinguishes between two wills of God—God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will.” It appeals to God’s self-limitation to explain why there is evil and innocent suffering in God’s world without sacrificing God’s goodness or power. A contemporary example of this in Christian theology is pastor and author Gregory Boyd who wrote Is God to Blame? But he stands in a long tradition of Christian thought called Arminian theology (after Jacob Arminius who died in 1610). According to Boyd and Arminians, God has to limit his power to allow for human free will. Human rejection of God has pushed God away so that the world is under a self-chosen curse. Evil powers, whether personal or structural or both, rule the world. God depends on us, for now anyway, to alleviate suffering. That there be no innocent suffering was God’s antecedent will—antecedent to human rebellion against God by means of misuse of free will. That there be innocent suffering in this fallen world is part of God’s consequent will—consequent to human rebellion.

So the Arminian solution to the problem of evil is that God consequently wills the death of innocents rather than antecedently wills their death? How is that distinction morally relevant? 

Advocates of this view, however, argue that God respects free will and cannot intervene every time someone is about to misuse free will to cause innocent suffering or else free will would be a mirage, an illusion, not real. 

If the police foil a terrorist plot to kill thousands of innocents, does that turn freewill into a mirage? 

And God cannot intervene to stop every instance of innocent suffering from illness or calamity because that would be to make this world something other than it is—a “veil of soul making” in which there must be risk and danger in order for people to recognize their need for God. C. S. Lewis, an advocate of this view, said that suffering is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to its need of him.”

One problem with a soul-making theodicy is that suffering causes some pious believers to lose their faith. They become so bitter and disillusioned that they commit apostasy. So it's counterproductive.

That was revolutionary because traditional theology said God cannot suffer. God is, Christian tradition says, impassible—incapable of suffering…Tradition says God is incapable of suffering, impassible, because to suffer is to change and God is perfect.

That's not what impassibility means. Impassibility means God cannot be affected by the world. 

Bushnell, Bonhoeffer and other orthodox Christian thinkers who have adopted the idea of a suffering God in modernity see God’s suffering as voluntary in the sense that God could have avoided suffering by not creating the world or by preventing sin and its consequences. Once God created and permitted human defection from fellowship with him into sin God had no choice but to suffer because God is love.

This assumes that suffering is inevitable, which–in turn–assumes that sin and evil are inevitable. But if human agents have libertarian freedom, then in what sense are sin and evil inevitable?  

But how does God’s suffering with the suffering help them? It helps his reputation, but how does it help those who suffer? God’s suffering presence with gives comfort and hope. Comfort in knowing that one is not alone in suffering.

Isn't that rather like the vindictive attitude of the sniper or the sociopath who wants to makes others miserable because he is miserable? "If I can't be happy, no one else deserves to be happy!"

I see this pastoral approach of emphasizing God’s suffering with and for those who suffer as compatible with the speculative view of Arminianism—the distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. In other words, if we are going to say pastorally, as I think we must, that God is present with those who suffer, suffering with them and for them, because God is love, then we must say that this is due to a voluntary self-limitation of God in relation to creation itself. Innocent suffering is a side effect of creature’s misuse of free will. It is part of the human condition under the curse of defection from God. We have pushed God out of the center of our world and our lives onto the cross. God goes voluntarily to the cross—not only of Calvary but of the world of suffering. God is present whenever and wherever innocents suffer because he is love and cannot but suffer with them. This still leaves some questions unanswered. But I believe it relieves much of the stress of believing in an all good, all powerful God in face of innocent suffering in God’s world. God is not a distant, unaffected deity “watching from a distance,” but a God intimately involved in suffering with those who suffer and for them.

That's like saying an ER physician should be in pain if the patient is in pain.

2) God does not foreordain or cause innocent suffering; it does not glorify him. To believe that is to detract from God’s goodness and love.
5) When we suffer we should realize that God may have something good to bring out of it if we hand it over to him and seek his will for that. 

If God brings good out of evil, did he not intend to bring good out of evil? Was that not his plan all along? 

1 comment:

  1. FYI, God or Godless? by John Loftus and Randal Rauser is free for kindle today. Rauser and Olson have similar theologies.