Tag Archives: Providence

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Read 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Hannah’s song provides the theological introduction and orientation to the books of Samuel as a whole, just as David’s song provides a similar perspective as the work ends (2 Samuel 22). These bookends suggest the work of the final editors of this collection. Scholars suggest that the provenance of the psalm is from a later period, especially given the references to the king and the Lord’s anointed in verse ten which do not quite fit the pre-monarchical period. Perhaps it was included here because of the contrast of the barren and fruitful women in verse five which links the psalm to the story so far. It is not impossible, however, that the psalm originated with Hannah. Miriam in Exodus 15 and Deborah in Judges 5 are also portrayed as women psalmists who celebrate and reflect theologically on God’s works in song.

Whatever its origin, “the fact remains,” says Evans, “that the privilege of providing the main theological introduction to the whole account of the history of the Israelite monarchy is given to Hannah. That fact is probably not irrelevant” (30). Hannah did not abdicate her responsibility for theological reflection, and did not leave it up to the experts (i.e. Eli)—which perhaps was just as well. The story which follows includes many tales of the human quest for power, often with immense brutality, intrigues, and murder. The psalm insists that God is the only true sovereign, one who elects and disposes, who chooses and rejects, who upends and overturns human standards and expectations, and who will ultimately subject all human activity to judgement. Hannah’s song, coming from one who although somewhat wealthy, was poor and powerless in other ways, resonates with hope that God’s judgement will prevail, and that human arrogance and abuse of power will be brought to an end.

The psalm begins with her own exaltation and rejoicing, but quickly shifts to a meditation on the character and works of the God who has heard and answered her prayer. God alone is holy; there is none beside him (v.2). This is a full-throated rejection of religious syncretism in an environment where Israel continued to worship not only Yahweh but put their trust in the fertility gods as well. Yet only Yahweh is a rock providing security and salvation. He is the creator who set the world on its pillars (v.8; note the ancient cosmology), and he continues to rule his world with sovereign authority.

The major part of the psalm is a warning to the powerful and arrogant (v.3a): God will defend his “faithful ones” and “cut off” the wicked (v.9), he will “judge the ends of the world” (v.10). Human power will not prevail against the sovereign authority of Yahweh. The salvation that Yahweh brings is portrayed in images of historical rather than eschatological reversal. Thus, the weapons of the mighty are broken while the feeble are strengthened; the sated go hungry as the hungry are filled; the barren give birth while the mother of many is left forlorn. The agent of these reversals is the Lord. Historical developments are not accidental but subject to his providential control.

Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The idea that Yahweh kills and makes alive is frightening, predicating a sovereignty to Yahweh we wish to deny. Yet it is precisely this activity that is highlighted in the following narrative which speaks of Yahweh’s intent to kill Eli’s sons in divine judgement for their wickedness (vv. 25, 34). The question of divine violence is one we shall encounter again in this study of Samuel. Here, the psalmist operates with a sense of comprehensive divine sovereignty.

Nor is the exercise of this sovereignty arbitrary. It is the high and mighty, the rich and powerful who are brought low and made poor, while it is the poor and humble, feeble and barren who are exalted and made rich. These acts of divine reversal reveal the way of Yahweh, and his divine care for those on the underside of human power and greed. As such, the song provides the framework by which the rest of the ensuing narrative (and its characters) must be understood.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 1

As the book of 1 Samuel opens, Israel is a loose collection of tribes sometimes bitterly divided as portrayed in the book of Judges, and oppressed by the Philistines. The book charts the development of Israel from this segmentary tribal society to a centralised, monarchical state. As with the Judges, a central question of this book concerns who will represent Israel in its military struggle, who will maintain the law, who will judge Israel? “First Samuel is about the development, under God’s providence, of a tribal brotherhood into a state. It is a work of political theology” (Murphy, 2-3). Thus the story of Hannah, and of Samuel’s birth must be understood not simply in terms of the psychological aspects of Hannah’s situation and action, but primarily in terms of the divine sovereignty that leads Israel. Hannah is not simply a powerless woman whose prayer is an expression of personal catharsis, which in this case results in blessing—although all this may be true (see Evans, 26-27). Rather, as Murphy also insists,

What Hannah wants and achieves is not psychological closure but open converse with the one God. The heart of the drama in this episode is interior, within the heart that Hannah opens to God the life-giver. … In this encounter, Hannah is given the social role for which she asks from God (8).

Hannah is caught up into what God is up to, and her desire for a son, into his purpose for Israel.

Shiloh at this time is not a capital city—for Israel is not yet a centralised entity—but it has become an important religious and political centre within Israel’s life. As such, Eli, introduced as sitting on a chair (a throne?) in the temple doorway, represents both political and clerical authority, “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies” (Murphy, 12). Over against this institutional and hierarchical power is the silent heart-cry of a powerless woman whose prayer has the character of “making a deal” with God.

Prayer remains a mystery, even to those well-practised in the art. It would be wrong to take this passage as a pattern for prayer in the expectation that one could manipulate God and so gain what one desires. Prayer cannot be reduced to “making a deal with God.” Hannah’s prayer is novel; she is not following a liturgical formula or pattern of prayer. It is presented as a vow that she makes to God, a vow that she takes with utmost seriousness. Her prayer is answered and she gets her heart’s desire—but only to give it up again in an act of self-sacrifice that perhaps is not only reminiscent of Abraham offering Isaac, but greater: at least Abraham got to take his son home. Hannah’s act of handing little Samuel over to Eli’s care at Shiloh almost beggars belief. Her prayer is indeed heartfelt, powerful and effective—but also costly in the deepest and most personal sense. Her act is witness that we are not owners of our children however much we desire and love them, and in fact, we might learn from Hannah that an essential aspect of our parenting is learning how to entrust the lives and destinies of our children into the care of the sovereign God from whom they have come.

Prayer, then, has the character of encounter with God in which we truly pour out our hearts to God, but also find ourselves engaged in and drawn into the mystery of his providential dealings not only with ourselves, but with the broader circumstances of our people and nation. In prayer we find that not only are we actors but acted upon; we must learn to speak of prayer using the passive voice. Here, in the genuine freedom in which we pray, we are grasped by a grace greater than ourselves, co-opted into activity broader than our own lives, and made participants in what God is doing in ways that call for costly self-giving that will mark our lives forever. Prayer, then, is not for the faint-hearted or those seeking to make a (selfish) deal with God. And even as I write these words, I find I am challenged concerning why it is prayer is so superficial and sporadic in my life: do I really want to encounter this God who demands my all? Do I really dare to pray if this is what prayer is and does?

I will give Murphy the final word:

In this episode, which introduces the overall theme of Regum [i.e. the four books of Samuel and Kings], the author goes to lengths to show the priority of the personal over the political, by contrasting Hannah’s interior cries for help and Eli’s narrow-sighted public gaze. The insistence of church fathers like Clement, Origen, and Chrysostom on inward faith is rooted as much in the Old Covenant as in the New. Literally and physically, as well as spiritually, this inward root was the womb of Samuel. … Hannah is a pioneer, leading the religious spirit of her times into new territory. In the new political culture that has begun to appear by the end of the book, not only prayer but the action of God occurs silently and in a hidden manner. … A novel conception of divine guidance appears, and one that fits a political theology. From henceforth, God’s action in history is largely, though not solely, presented as providential, working in cooperation with nature and human freedom, rather than in the overt supernatural, interruptions of nature that we call the miraculous. … The Spirit is staking his ground in the privacy of the hearts of men and women (15-16).

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

The Blood of His Cross (2) – Leon Morris

Leon MorrisIn his classic exposition The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955; third edition 1965) Leon Morris dedicates a chapter to examining the phrase ‘the blood.’ In the chapter, Morris is responding to a particular view, viz. the idea that when Scripture speaks of an offering of blood, the term refers to the offering of life—life given and life released. He refutes this view showing that references to blood in relevant Old and New Testament texts speak not of life but death, and often a violent death. This contention holds true in contexts of sacrifice, and by extension, of Jesus’ death and Jesus’ blood: the ‘blood’ means his death.

Morris begins by examining every reference to ‘blood’ in both testaments, and categorising them. The word dām is used 362 times in the Old Testament and these are grouped in the following categories: death with violence of some kind (203x), connecting life with blood (7x), eating meat with blood (17x), sacrificial blood (103x), and other uses (32x).

From these figures it is clear that the commonest use of dām is to denote death by violence, and, in particular, that this use is found about twice as often as that to denote the blood of sacrifice. … As far as it goes, the statistical evidence indicates that the association most likely to be conjured up when the Hebrews heard the word ‘blood’ was that of violent death (pp. 113-114).

Even in Leviticus 17:11 where the connection between blood and life is at its most explicit, the meaning of the verse is of life given up in death. “It is the ‘life of the flesh’ that is said to be in the blood, and it is precisely this life which ceases to exist when the blood is poured out” (117). “Blood shed stands, therefore, not for the release of life from the burden of the flesh, but for the bringing to an end of life in the flesh. It is a witness to physical death, not an evidence of spiritual survival” (118, citing A. M. Stibbs). Morris concludes his examination of the Old Testament witness to blood as follows:

We conclude, then, that the evidence afforded by the use of the term dām in the Old Testament indicates that it signifies life violently taken rather than the continued presence of life available for some new function, in short, death rather than life, and that this is supported by the references to atonement (121).

The Greek term αἷμα is found ninety-eight times in the New Testament, of which about thirty-five refer to the blood of Christ. Like the word ‘cross,’ blood is used as a metonymy for the death of Christ ‘in its salvation meaning’ (126). This meaning includes the ideas of Christ’s blood as a ransom-price, a means of purging, or the element to ratify a solemn covenant (127).

Apostolic PreachingThe blood of Jesus, therefore, refers to the death of Christ by which we are reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20), having been justified ‘by his blood’ and so saved from wrath through his death (Romans 5:9-10). We have been made close to God through his blood (Ephesians 2:13), for his blood has secured an eternal redemption for us (Hebrews 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18-19), and has purified our hearts, granting us confident entry into the very holiest of places, the divine presence itself (Hebrews 9:14; 10:19).

If it is the case as Hebrews 9:22 states, that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, was Jesus’ death necessary? Did God require the death of the Son in order to extend forgiveness? Why can God not simply forgive without suffering, violence, atonement and death? Does God require payment before he will forgive? That Jesus died is evident, as is the violence of his death. But is God responsible for this violence? Did God require this violence before he could forgive sins? Is God’s forgiveness predicated on violence in such a way that it legitimises violence as a necessary or at least inevitable feature of inter-personal relations and reconciliation? Did God purpose the violence of the cross or more simply foreknow that violence? Is God implicated in Jesus’ death as a God who is thus inherently and so also, eternally violent?

Acts 2:23 addresses but does not resolve this matter: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…” Peter repeats his charge against the Jewish leaders in Acts chapters 3, 4 and 5:

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life … And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled (vv. 13-15, 17-18; cf. 4:10, 24-28; 5:28-30).

Peter lays the blame for Jesus’ violent death at the feet of the Jewish leaders, and also insists that this activity was in accordance with the divine purpose revealed in Psalm 2. Although this is a classic example of the tension between divine providence and human responsibility, it may be best to understand Jesus’ violent death as the activity of the human participants in the drama, and see in Peter’s citation of Psalm 2, divine awareness of a broader pattern of human action coming to expression in this case specifically. As such, God has not acted violently as much as given himself into the hands of a violent humanity which consistently rejects the call and claim of God.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea – Part 2

Doors of the SeaDivine Victory

Hart begins the second chapter with a meditation on nature, which in the West, at least, has been disenchanted. To some extent the church is responsible for this state of affairs since nature no longer can be deified. But the Enlightenment also has played a role, desacrilising nature, making it simply a “thing,” or a fact. For modern theists or deists, creation is that of an absent God; for atheists it is not creation at all, but an entirely natural system of cause and effect. For both camps, the idea of impersonal causation is central. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality.”(52) But Hart rejects this view, seeing instead creation as imbued in every particle of its being with the glory, love and beauty of God.

“God is love,” says 1 John 4:16, “and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him.” Christian metaphysical tradition, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, asserts that God is not only good but goodness itself, not only true or beautiful but infinite truth and beauty: that all the transcendental perfections are one in him who is the source and end of all things, the infinite wellspring of all being. Thus everything that comes from God must be good and true and beautiful. As he is the sole source of being—as he is being itself in its transcendent plenitude, beyond all finite being—everything that is, insofar as it is, is entirely worthy of love. And it is this love and goodness of God that the Christian is bidden to find in the entirety of the created order. (54-55)

Yet there is also duality in creation, an alternate kingdom, vision and experience, and both sides of this duality are real. The created sphere has been gifted a genuine though contingent autonomy which humanity has used in opposition to God, and thereby has given itself and the physical order into the hand of another master. Hart is unapologetic in his appeal to the New Testament as the foundation of this somewhat mythological worldview (61-66). Yet before, alongside, within, and beyond this broken history into which we have fallen is a “contrary history” that pervades and will finally overwhelm this world of our fallenness. (68)

The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days. (60-61)

God’s glory is a kind of parallel world hidden and yet present, accompanying this world but not born from its ructions and sufferings. Rather, God has come into this world of death for the purpose of conquest and victory. This is the gospel: “An ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won.” (66)

Evil itself has no ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It is a privatio boni, a privation of the good. Hart asserts it is a child of the will, a

Turning of the hearts and minds of rational creatures away from the light of God back toward the nothingness from which all things are called. … a kind of ontological wasting disease. Born of nothingness, seated in the rational will that unites material and spiritual creation, it breeds a contagion of nothingness throughout the created order. Death works its ruin in all things, all minds are darkened, all desires are invaded by selfishness, weakness, rapacity, and the libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—and thus tend away from the beauty of God indwelling his creatures and toward the deformity of nonbeing. (73)

Evil has not come from God nor is it used by God for the fulfilment of his purposes. “It has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (73) Divine providence, therefore, is not divine causation, the reduction of God to one almighty act of willing that fails to distinguish between what God wills and what God permits. Hart makes much of this distinction, arguing that God permits that which God does not will, that the integrity of the world and its limited sphere of freedom might be maintained. Providence, therefore, is not a universal teleology. Rather, providence maintains the integrity of the world and also saves the world by judging its evil. To reduce providence to an abstract omnicausality is to render God indistinguishable from the world, sin and the devil (90-91).

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. … God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. (86-87)

Conclusion

Ultimately, then, the origin of suffering and evil is a mystery grounded in created freedom, and in “another time” inaccessible to us (102). It is a surd within the created order and utterly alien to the being, purposes and will of God. Thus Hart’s theological vision is one of the infinite beauty and infinite goodness of God, a beauty and goodness so all encompassing, it is utterly impossible that God could do evil or even make use of evil in the pursuit of his will. It is on account of this vision of God that Hart rejects all attempts at theodicy which endeavour to make sense of evil or find a place or purpose for it in the overarching purposes of God. Evil remains evil, so we are permitted to hate it with a perfect hatred.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (98-99)

No! God is utterly good and goodness itself. His work in Christ is a work of judgement and victory, and his eschatological revelation will be the same. God will not bring every event in history into “one great synthesis but will judge much of history false and damnable … and will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.” (104) He will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new.

Facebook Theology – Answering Rachel

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Discuss the DevilSome time ago I came across this post on Facebook:

Hello Friends who are ‘spiritiual leaders’ of some sort.
I’m really struggling with the idea of free will. Which makes me question God’s goodness. Does God know the future? If yes, how do we have free will? If He already knows what we’re going to decide why did He create us all knowing some would go to hell and why did He create Lucifer if He knew He would rebel?
Would really appreciate your answers,
Confused Rach  (March 28, 2012)

I decided to respond as best I could in that kind of forum as follows:

Hi Rachel, well, you’ve picked a big one. Philosophers and theologians have been arguing over that question for millennia! So it probably means you are not going to get an open-and-shut answer that ties up all the loose ends. Sorry!

But here are my thoughts and how I approach it:

  1. God wants a world where people are free – to some extent at least – to live, to love, to choose, to respond, etc. To have that kind of world, there must also be the possibility of some people saying No to God and Yes to evil. Did God know that would happen? Yes. Did God want it to happen? No. But God obviously determined that to have a creation was more important than not having one!
  2. There is no such thing as a totally ‘free will’ – sin has so corrupted us, that we are ‘slaves to sin’ (John 8:32-36; Romans 6); a slave is not free. Once sin came in, we all lost our freedom. Further, our will is also ‘weak’ through genetic inheritance, habit, training, models we have had, addiction, etc. Thus the idea that we are ‘free’ is not accurate. Sure, we can make choices, but often those choices are constrained by forces bigger than us. Only in Jesus have we any hope of being ‘free’ and even then, not totally until he comes again.
  3. God does not will the evil that is in the world or in us. We do it, as a misuse of our ‘freedom.’ But God has responded to evil – this is the gospel. First, God has taken evil into himself in order to ultimately overcome it. He came to the cross and took the full weight and impact of sin and death INTO himself in Jesus. He swallowed the whole bitter pill. He drank the cup to the dregs. That is what we will remember on Good Friday. Then on Easter he rose, conquering the whole fallen mess of sin and death and opened up a door into a new world of life, hope and wholeness. So two things: One, God knows what it is to suffer because God has suffered in Jesus, and so understands our sufferings. Second, God has promised resurrection, a new heavens and a new earth in which all sin, evil and suffering is done away with. This is the hope of the gospel. God has acted decisively to lift us out of this mess by taking evil upon himself.
  4. We live in the in-between time: between Christ’s resurrection and the final end when all our hopes will be realised. In this time, suffering is real, existent and awful. We and all others will be touched by it. So we can only live in hope of the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth. But, that hope is also a call: to be witnesses of this hope and to show the same compassion to others that God shows by doing what we can to alleviate suffering. We join God in his mission to redeem a broken world wracked by suffering.
  5. In this time God’s got you covered. God surrounds us on every side. It is as though we have a certain area in which we are free to move. We can go here, or there, or here or there; we can do this or that or this or that. God gives us “space” to live and choose and make decisions. If he wants us to be or do something specific, he can make that known to us. Otherwise, live and choose and make decisions to the best of your ability and to the best of your knowledge of his will. And then trust him. Entrust your way to him. God’s got us covered, and even if we make a poor choice, he can help us.
  6. There are still huge questions such as WHY God chose to do it this way, why God allows unmitigated evil to continue, why “natural” evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, deformities, etc) occurs, the question of hell and judgement, etc. But, God has acted and on the grounds of this act we can have hope and thus also courage, faith and love.

The reality of life in a fallen world is that we will suffer; nothing is surer. And when we do, it is even more important to cling tightly to Jesus and the hope we have in him, and also to be part of his people so that we don’t suffer alone.

Sorry for the long essay-type response. If you have read this far you deserve a medal. But I hope that it is helpful in some way. Good on you for wrestling with the hard questions of the faith. That’s the way mature faith grows.

Bless you,
Michael.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 21:31

War HorseProverbs 21:31
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.

Should this verse be read in terms of an overarching divine providence in which every outcome is understood in terms of divine will and causality? Or might it be read as a piece of common sense wisdom which has observed that no matter how thorough the preparations made, one cannot always anticipate the results of one’s decisions and actions?

In favour of the first interpretation are some contextual features. The immediately preceding verse reads, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). God’s purposes stand even when human wisdom is ranged against him. So, too, the first verse of the chapter contains a strong affirmation of God’s overarching determination of human events: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Who is greater than the king? Yet even he is subject to the overriding power and wisdom of God who turns his heart this way or that. Ranging further afield, a text like Proverbs 16:1-4, 9 shows that the kind of theological vision held by those who wrote the Proverbs:

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. … The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

There is an inescapable sense of divine determinism in these verses, yet it is softened somewhat by the devotional appeal of verse 3 (“commit your work to the Lord”). Roland Murphy’s comment is insightful:

It is a well-established fact that in the Old Testament view YHWH is the agent or cause of all that happens, even in the mysterious area of human activity. But it is equally clear that human beings cannot evade responsibility for their actions. They cannot, as it were, blame the divine activity. The entire thrust of the prophets, the condemnation of the people collectively and individually, rules this out. The Bible does not speak of free will, but that idea is presupposed. … But the interesting fact is that Israel never really struggled with the problem of human freedom and divine determination. This was an issue for later theologians, both Jewish and Christian, and it still remains without an adequate “explanation.” Both sides of the question are affirmed equally in the Bible, almost without awareness of the problem (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 125).

Murphy is certainly correct to note that this discussion continues even to the present day. Providence remains mysterious in the full sense of the term, an impenetrable conundrum that has defied our best attempts at resolution. The great temptation is the attempt to resolve it in either one direction or the other. The first is to assign divine causation simplistically to all that occurs, often with a glib “God is in control” response. I should note that those caught in the midst of grief or suffering sometimes or even often do find comfort in the thought of God being in control even in the midst of their hurt; even in the midst of their suffering they are not out of God’s hands, as it were. The problem with the glib response is that it implicates God also in the evil which occurs. If God is the ultimate “cause” of all that happens, he is responsible also for the wicked actions of thieves, rapers and murderers; such a position is untenable.

Equally problematic from a biblical point of view is the attempt to resolve the conundrum in the opposite direction by writing God out of the picture entirely and assigning responsibility for all that happens to human freedom, or worse, to fate or chance. Not only does this dispense—often in a peremptory manner—with numerous passages of Scripture, but it cuts the world adrift from God, the creation from its creator. Further, it undermines the assurance of the believer in the reality of God’s presence and purpose as a faithful creator, while at the same time loading her with the crushing weight of being ultimately responsible for her life.

While the ancient Israelites may not have pondered the relation between divine determinism and human responsibility, in our day and context the question is unavoidable. The power of Proverbs 21:31 lies in holding both sides of the conundrum together without an attempt at resolution, but placing the whole matter within a context of devotion and responsibility. How, then, might we approach this verse with all its difficult implications?

  1. Recognise that Proverbs is proverbial wisdom, general expressions of truth distilled from the observation and experience of life in the everyday world, all cast within a religious worldview. As such, the proverbs are not absolute truths revealed from heaven that apply in each and every circumstance regardless of context.
  2. Note also the difficulties of moving from an ancient text to the modern world. It is often the case that contemporary believers must discern the theological and religious significance of a biblical text while rejecting the form in which that message is conveyed. For example, the ancient Hebrews believed in a geo-centric universe; modern astronomy has shown that view to be incorrect. Modern readers of Scripture must have a sophisticated enough hermeneutic to disentangle the message of the Bible from the ancient form in which it is given. This is easier said than done as modern theology testifies. Nevertheless, the question must be put: are modern readers in a scientific age required to follow the ancient Israelites in believing that YHWH is the divine cause of all that happens?
  3. It is clear that verses 29-30 condition verse 31: one cannot foolishly or arrogantly set oneself against the Lord and anticipate success; rather one must consider their ways. Further, Proverbs 24:6 suggests that “by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counsellors there is victory.” By addressing the same topic, the two verses mutually condition each other. One must plan, prepare, and take counsel, and in so doing one will more likely succeed in their endeavour. But one cannot guarantee that this will be the outcome. As Robert Burns observed, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…”
  4. Finally, Proverbs 16:3 quoted above, indicates the overall orientation of Proverbs: “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established.” All life occurs within the overarching providence, presence and direction of God and proper human response consists in the fear of the Lord and the acknowledgement of his sovereign rule and will.

In the end, Proverbs regards providence as a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved. The horse is prepared for the day of battle: preparations have been made, forethought, planning, the taking of counsel, the gathering and marshalling of resources; all these and more have occurred. Yet, having done all we can to prepare ourselves, our success or failure, victory or defeat is not within our hands, but in God’s. Therefore, we also must pray, trust, listen, and live humbly, obediently, righteously and wisely in the fear of the Lord.

Years ago I read somewhere in John Haggai’s Lead On: “Work as though the results are entirely up to you; pray as though they are entirely up to God.” This advice, of course, does not even begin to plumb the mysteries of providence, but perhaps the practical nature of the advice is not entirely foreign to the counsel of Proverbs.

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 1

open_theism_tshirt

McCormack begins his essay with a brief overview of the relation of God to the world as understood in classical and process theism. Classical theism understands God as a transcendent being complete and perfect in himself and standing over against the world, thus maintaining a very robust Creator-creature distinction. Process theism, by contrast, envisages continuity between the being of God and the being of the world, so that God is deeply affected by everything that happens in the world. God is not simply responsive to the world, but “the being of God grows, develops, changes, evolves through the history of his interactions with the world.”[1] Yet McCormack suggests that which is common to these two views is more important than their differences:

In spite of these rather significant differences, what classical theism and process theism have in common is far more important. What they have in common, in the first place, is the belief that the “order of knowing” runs in the opposite direction to the “order of being.” That is to say, though the being of God is above and prior to the being of all else that exists (and therefore first in the “order of being”), our knowledge of God proceeds from a prior knowledge of some aspect or aspects of creaturely reality (and therefore the knowledge of God follows knowledge of the self or the world in the “order of knowing”). … Thus epistemology controls and determines divine ontology. … Both [classical and process theism] are exercises in metaphysics because both take up a starting point “from below” in some creaturely reality or magnitude and proceed through a process of inferential reasoning to establish the nature of divine reality. And this means…that both claim to know what God is before a consideration of Christology.[2]

Having laid this foundation McCormack goes on to define open theism as a “highly aggressive, missionary movement in theology which seeks to convert the evangelical churches to what it alleges to be a more “biblical” understanding of God.” Open theism has to do with God’s interaction with the world, and has a primary concern to protect human libertarian freedom, and derivatively, provide an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil. God exists in a reciprocal and open relation to the world and is responsive to human activity. The biblical grounding for this view is twofold. First, the open theists operate with a hermeneutic based on 1 John 4:16: “The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality.”[3]

What is happening here is that a definition of a term devised originally for speaking of love on the plane of human relations is being applied in a rather straightforward fashion to the being of God—without any sense that an illegitimate anthropopathizing of God might be taking place. … the Johannine axiom—and the meaning assigned to it—provides the open theists with (1) a criterion of selectivity for identifying passages in the Old Testament which are supportive of their claims and (2) a hermeneutical key for ordering these passages to other, more problematic passages.[4]

Second, McCormack notes that the open theists’ biblical case is largely build on passages in the Old Testament, and that “virtually the whole of the open theistic understanding of God has been fully elaborated on the basis of the Old Testament before the incarnation comes into view.”[5] He observes that both open theists and classical theists tend to harmonise the various texts of the Old Testament with respect to this issue, reading texts problematic to their view in light of other supposedly “more central” texts. McCormack’s own hermeneutical approach is of interest. He wants to allow Old Testament tensions to stand because (a) Scripture is not the work of a single author but a record of revelation received, and so somewhat ambiguous, especially in the Old Testament, which (b) requires interpretation in the light of Jesus Christ in whom alone God’s ultimate intentions are made known.[6] But the open theists’ treatment of the New Testament is largely predicated on a reading of Jesus’ interactions with others and his death on the cross as illustrative of the nature and being of God. McCormack is concerned, once more, that the open theists have applied their “metaphysic of love” so that Jesus is introduced only to validate a conception of God that has been worked out without reference to him.[7]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 187.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 187-188, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, citing Richard Rice in Pinnock, C., The Openness of God, 16.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, 193.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 191, original emphasis.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 195.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 197.

A New Book on Divine Providence

Divine Providence and Human AgencyAlex Jensen from Murdoch University was one of my supervisors for my doctoral studies and I owe him a great debt of gratitude for his friendship, support and expertise. I am pleased, therefore, to bring his new  book to your attention: Divine Providence and Human Agency: Trinity, Creation and Freedom published by Ashgate.

Alex’ concern in this book is to explore the nature of what I call a “strong doctrine of divine providence” in a context in which human freedom is fully affirmed. He insists that the sovereignty of God with respect to history must be fully affirmed lest we lose the basis for Christian hope. But so too must the modern human self-understanding as free agent within certain limitations. He seeks to understand and ultimately transcend this apparent contradiction by appeal to the the holy Trinity. This looks like a significant contribution to an important topic, and I look forward to reading it.

Alex sent me a copy of his conclusion to the book; here is an excerpt:

“We can summarise the argument of this book by saying that God acts in creation through God’s one eternal act of willing, by which God creates being, time, space, the world, its history, and all events taking place within it. This one divine act of willing is enacted in time and space by the logos and the Holy Spirit. At the same time, God grants God’s creatures genuine freedom and agency. These two things must not be separated, even if they are superficially paradoxical, because they are necessary in order to safeguard the specifically Christian experience of salvation through the saving presence of the risen Christ in the church. …

“All attempts to resolve the paradox by dissolving it into one or the other position are inadequate, as they either deny that God is indeed the creator and Lord of all things, who saves humankind by grace through faith, or that humans are free agents and act with responsibility. Both must be held together, even if this poses a challenge to modern human reason. …

“As a result, our understanding of divine eternity as well as of divine agency in the world must be developed from a consistently trinitarian starting point. So God’s one act of willing, by which God creates, preserves and providentially governs the world is threefold: timelessly eternal by the Father, put into action immanently by the Word and completed immanently by the Spirit. … Or, from a different perspective, the Word moves forward the divine act of willing in the world, while the Spirit elicits the human response to this. Most importantly, the Spirit gives faith that the Word became flesh, dwelled among us and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in all this revealed the Father. It is therefore not sufficient, from a Christian point of view, to begin the discussion of divine eternity from a unitarian starting point, and then to bolt the Trinity onto this one God, as we observed in authors such as Richard Swinburne, Keith Ward, Paul Helm and Nancey Murphy, to name but a few.”