alastair.adversaria » Hart, Hauerwas, God and Suffering

Hart, Hauerwas, God and Suffering

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?I have just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. I found it a very accessible (for Hart!) treatment of some of the theological questions raised by disasters such as the Asian tsunami, although others might be put off by Hart’s rather florid style.

In one of the more cogent arguments that I have read for the position, Hart argues that we cannot make sense of evil. We cannot see such events merely as acts of divine justice and explain misfortune in terms of culpability. Evil does not exist for the service of any greater good. Evil does not exist in order to reveal divine attributes that would otherwise be hidden. Nor can evil be explicated within some great overarching and universal teleological scheme. Hart rejects any attempt to identify ‘a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum’ (29). He argues that ‘providence … is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind.’ Providence must always be distinguished from a universal teleology. We must deny that (in themselves) death, suffering and evil ‘have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all’ (61).

For Hart, sin must be seen as privation, as a sort of wasting disease. God’s will ‘is the creative power that makes all things to be and the consummate happiness to which all things are called’ (98), but God’s will can never be identified with all that takes place. In the end, Hart claims, nothing is lost: ‘the coherence of the universe is preserved by God acting to save what he has made — what is real, what has substance — not by providing a divine rationale for every dimension of every event in which his creatures are involved, no matter how much those events might reflect that ultimate privation, evil.’

There is much in this book that is worth reading. Hart’s defence of divine impassibility, for example, is brief but gets straight to the point. However, the latter part of the book, which is a critique of the position of Calvin and any others who fail to distinguish divine permission from the divine will, is particularly important. Hart does caricature Calvinism badly in some areas, failing to recognize some of the important distinctions that Reformed theologians have drawn (I have yet to meet the Calvinist who believes that God is ‘the immediate cause of all evil in the world’ [94]). Nevertheless, he still succeeds in landing some telling blows and I would recommend that people read this book, even if they do not end up entirely agreeing with it (Stanley Hauerwas’ God, Medicine, and Suffering, which I read a few months ago, also has some helpful things to say on this subject).

Over the last few years I have found myself moving away from common Reformed understanding of evil and the sovereignty of God. I fear the tendency to normalize the brokenness of this present order by presenting it as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. I do not believe that my suffering is inherently meaningful. Death, suffering and evil are parasitic and destructive. God may use evil as an occasion for the working of grace and may bring about His good will in spite of the wicked actions of man and the power of Sin and Death, but He does not will the rule of Sin and Death and the wicked actions of man; He merely permits them. I believe that there is an important distinction to be maintained here.

In large part this movement came as a result of a return to the Scripture to re-examine the doctrine of election in the light of God’s Word. I was persuaded that the decree of election lies at the very heart of all that takes place in God’s creation. However, this decree of election is not the election of a certain number of particular individuals, but the election of the totus Christus. This was always what the Father willed to do in history.

This was the primary insight from which a number of further insights followed. I began to appreciate that it was always God’s purpose to send His Son and form a new humanity in Him, even prior to the Fall. Once I recognized this, it became obvious that the doctrine of election does not directly entail any doctrine of reprobation. Discussions of supralapsarianism (which is the position that my view approximates to) and infralapsarianism are no longer central, because no necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall is presupposed.

If my position is correct, God’s purpose and the destiny of the world is fixed in the person of Christ, rather than in a hidden decree concerning the eternal destiny of each individual. This removes the sense of necessity from history and restores its contingency. It also began to make clear the manner in which God’s purpose in Christ stands opposed to much that takes place in history. The fact that God’s purpose in Christ is accomplished by means of a victory over history (as the realm of Death, Sin and evil) was thrown into sharp relief. Once the necessity of sin and the Fall (along with that of my day-to-day actions) were totally removed in my understanding it became increasingly obvious that God’s purpose was achieved in spite of sin and evil, rather than by means of them.

My position also made clear that election is God’s will for the entire human race, rather than for a select few. The human race was created in order to be consummated in Christ. There is no nature/grace dichotomy. The Fall was a falling away from the purpose that God had for the human race. The Fall was not a necessary outworking of God’s eternal decree, but an obstacle — an interruption — that had to be overcome if the decree was to be outworked. Within the Church we experience God’s purpose for humanity (rather than merely for a select few) brought to fulfilment. We are called to be those who implement Christ’s victory over Sin and Death in fulfilment of the Father’s eternal purpose, acting as agents of the Spirit by whom others are brought to share in the freedom in which we have come to share.

There are, of course, many questions left to answer, most of which I am without adequate answers to. Whilst all that I have written above might give another impression, I believe that no event takes place without God being in some sense ‘behind’ it. However, I would go to far greater pains than most Reformed theologians to distinguish the manner in which God is behind the event of the Fall and the manner in which God is behind the event of conversion, for instance. One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.

If one accepts the position that I have outlined above, one’s attitude to events of suffering, evil, sin and death will probably be far closer to that of Hart and Hauerwas than it will be to the significant majority of Reformed theologians, for whom the doctrine of election (particularly in its necessary relation to the Fall) serves to normalize sin in some sense. God’s purpose is certainly worked out in spite of and in the midst of suffering and evil, but suffering and evil are quite clearly distinguished from anything that can be identified as God’s will.

When evil and suffering take place there is always the danger that we will respond by attempts at redescription — arguing that this is all really an outworking of God’s hidden will — rather than by proclaiming resurrection, Christ’s victory over the powers and all that subjects this present creation to Death, Sin and decay. If we try to justify God by means of redescription, all that we end up doing is legitimating the status quo. When one has normalized the brokenness of our present age, one will only be left with a terribly stunted eschatology.

I have come to believe that God wants us to feel the tension between His will and the way things are in the world. Arguing that bad events are merely inscrutable manifestations of God’s will eases the deep and painful tension that we should be feeling between the way things are and the way that things were designed to be. However, it achieves this easing of tension at great expense. As we turn a blind eye to raw reality and try to explain it away we end up treating God as one who is not big enough to be confronted with things as they really are. The God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not need to be protected from our cries of pain, suffering and despair. We also end up further alienating ourselves in our suffering and other sufferers. No voice is given to the anguish and meaningless of suffering within the Church. Whilst contracting the language of the Church by refusing to voice to the sufferer might make us feel more cosy, it leaves the sufferer out in the cold.

As Stanley Hauerwas observes, this is one of the reasons why the laments in the psalms are so important. They resist the option of redescription. By our laments we bring our sorrow, rage and despair at the deceptions, injustices, hollow comforts and cruelties of our world to the ears of Him who is the final reference point of all of life.

The purpose of lament is that of calling God to act in our world. What makes Christian suffering different from the suffering of others is our transforming of our suffering into agonizing prayer and lament by the power of the Spirit. It is only within the life of the Church that the cries of anguish of a creation in bondage to futility can be articulated as promises of new creation. In Romans 8, Paul describes the groaning of creation in terms of the cries of a mother in birth pangs. It is through the Spirit’s work in the Church that we are assured that these birth pangs will be followed by the safe delivery of a new creation and a deliverance of the old creation and ourselves from our present state of bondage.

Our confidence must flow from the knowledge that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. This does not mean that evil is really an illusion after all and that everything takes place exactly as God wishes it to. Rather, this verse teaches us that, even in the face of radical evil and agonizing suffering, God’s purpose is still at work and will finally triumph. No suffering or evil can thwart God’s purpose to deliver His creation into the formation of a new humanity in His Son. In fact, God even uses the weight of suffering and evil against them. Things that Satan designs for evil, God can use to accomplish good.

I have yet to be persuaded that Reformed theology ultimately founders on these points. Most Reformed theologians would be able to ‘Amen!’ the majority of what I have said. However, I am persuaded that there are some problems that are quite deeply rooted in the tradition that need to be dealt with here.

I would appreciate any thoughts that you might have.

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It seems to me that perhaps the best theologian to follow on this one is Augustine. He held to a view of providence any monergist/”no-risk” (ala Helm’s definition, anyway) thinker could hold, but denied there was any efficient (and therefore intelligible, I think) cause of evil. Perhaps too paradoxical for some, but it strikes me as the most consistent with Scripture’s way of speaking, and definitely consistent with the best of what Hart wants to say and what Calvinists want to say without falling prey to either the problems of libertarian free will (ala Molinists) or the necessity of evil (ala some Calvinists, fatalists, etc.).

Some random thoughts…

That sort of approach is far better, IMHO. The thing that troubles me is the fact that many Reformed ways of speaking about God’s sovereignty seem to be so alienated from the language of Scripture. They seem to leave no room for the idea of challenges to God’s rule in the world that are not orchestrated by God in such a direct way as to make them appear completely illusory in the final analysis.

I do not believe in the ‘risk-taker’ God that someone like Wright speaks about, but frankly I feel that Wright may be closer to Scripture on this one than many Reformed people are. At least Wright’s position allows him to do some sort of justice to the biblical teaching about how contrary Sin, Death and evil are to God’s purpose. Whilst I believe that there are tensions to be maintained that Wright fails to adequately maintain, I do not believe that these tensions lead to the sorts of positions that many Reformed people hold, which seem to me to be riven by internal contradictions.

In my opinion, one of the most important things that we need to do is to focus on the idea of God’s purpose as being the formation of the totus Christus, rather than identifying it with the will to save a particular number of ‘elect’ individuals or anything like that. I believe in God’s universal sovereignty (in the ‘no-risk’ sense) and that God works out His purpose throughout all events in history, even the ones that run contrary to His purpose. However, I do not believe in universal teleology, which seems to be a position advocated by many Reformed people. Just because God works out His purpose through and in spite of evil events doesn’t mean that He willed those events to take place. The distinction between will and permission is important.

I find it helpful to draw some sort of distinction between different kinds of sovereignty. Let me use a very limited analogy. There is the sovereignty of the author of a novel and the sovereignty of a character within the world of the novel. God is the ‘author’ of history and also an actor within history. The biblical focus is on God as an actor within history (primarily as the ‘hands’ of God — the Son and the Spirit — act within and upon history). The purpose and will of God is the purpose and will of God as an actor within history. However, as the author of history God permits things within history that are genuinely contrary to His will.

The mistake that many Calvinists seem to make is that of forgetting the distinction between God as ‘actor’ and God as ‘author’ (working within the framework of the above analogy). If we conflate the two we end up with God willing evil events in some sense (even if they are willed for good ends). This is the position that I deem to be intolerable. I really do not think that it is helpful to say that everything that takes place takes place according to God’s will without making God appear capricious and portray Him like a tyrant. Certainly we must admit that no event takes place apart from God’s permission or will, that no event takes place without God being the ‘author’ (in the sense that I have used the word above, not in the more general sense), but the equivocal manner in which Calvinists use the language of God’s ‘will’ really leads to problems. It makes it hard to say that certain events were not according to God’s will, which seems to me to be a real issue for concern.

All of these problems are particularly seen in the Reformed doctrine of double predestination and in the related idea of a necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall, both of which positions I strongly believe need to be rejected. Whilst many admit the ‘asymmetry’ of double predestination, I do not think that this is anywhere near enough. The ‘asymmetry’ between election and reprobation is so complete as to make their pairing positively dangerous.

“One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.”

My first thought was: that certainly brings back the tension in our life, the expectancy of a New Creation that the bible is speaking of and that we so often seem to be lacking. It may be caused by muting the tension created by God being challenged.

I also had to think about Klaas Schilder’s treatment of the pass-over, who in his treatment acknowledges the fact of different wills being at work at the same time, stressing Gods governing will and victory in that event.

Finally, what did you think of Gerrit Glas’s treatment about evil at the conference in Hoeven?

Yes, Schilder’s treatment (as I remember it) is helpful. I would have to look at my notes from the conference to give thoughts on Gerrit Glas’ treatment of the subject. I was very tired and didn’t follow his lecture as well as I could have done. Perhaps we can discuss this in person in a few days’ time. :)

[...] Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo. [...]

[...] theology, however, has all too often held a theodicy that explains away the problem of evil as everything is placed within a universal teleology. The brokenness of the creation marred by sin ceases to be a problem to be wrestled through and [...]



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It seems to me that perhaps the best theologian to follow on this one is Augustine. He held to a view of providence any monergist/”no-risk” (ala Helm’s definition, anyway) thinker could hold, but denied there was any efficient (and therefore intelligible, I think) cause of evil. Perhaps too paradoxical for some, but it strikes me as the most consistent with Scripture’s way of speaking, and definitely consistent with the best of what Hart wants to say and what Calvinists want to say without falling prey to either the problems of libertarian free will (ala Molinists) or the necessity of evil (ala some Calvinists, fatalists, etc.).

Some random thoughts…

That sort of approach is far better, IMHO. The thing that troubles me is the fact that many Reformed ways of speaking about God’s sovereignty seem to be so alienated from the language of Scripture. They seem to leave no room for the idea of challenges to God’s rule in the world that are not orchestrated by God in such a direct way as to make them appear completely illusory in the final analysis.

I do not believe in the ‘risk-taker’ God that someone like Wright speaks about, but frankly I feel that Wright may be closer to Scripture on this one than many Reformed people are. At least Wright’s position allows him to do some sort of justice to the biblical teaching about how contrary Sin, Death and evil are to God’s purpose. Whilst I believe that there are tensions to be maintained that Wright fails to adequately maintain, I do not believe that these tensions lead to the sorts of positions that many Reformed people hold, which seem to me to be riven by internal contradictions.

In my opinion, one of the most important things that we need to do is to focus on the idea of God’s purpose as being the formation of the totus Christus, rather than identifying it with the will to save a particular number of ‘elect’ individuals or anything like that. I believe in God’s universal sovereignty (in the ‘no-risk’ sense) and that God works out His purpose throughout all events in history, even the ones that run contrary to His purpose. However, I do not believe in universal teleology, which seems to be a position advocated by many Reformed people. Just because God works out His purpose through and in spite of evil events doesn’t mean that He willed those events to take place. The distinction between will and permission is important.

I find it helpful to draw some sort of distinction between different kinds of sovereignty. Let me use a very limited analogy. There is the sovereignty of the author of a novel and the sovereignty of a character within the world of the novel. God is the ‘author’ of history and also an actor within history. The biblical focus is on God as an actor within history (primarily as the ‘hands’ of God — the Son and the Spirit — act within and upon history). The purpose and will of God is the purpose and will of God as an actor within history. However, as the author of history God permits things within history that are genuinely contrary to His will.

The mistake that many Calvinists seem to make is that of forgetting the distinction between God as ‘actor’ and God as ‘author’ (working within the framework of the above analogy). If we conflate the two we end up with God willing evil events in some sense (even if they are willed for good ends). This is the position that I deem to be intolerable. I really do not think that it is helpful to say that everything that takes place takes place according to God’s will without making God appear capricious and portray Him like a tyrant. Certainly we must admit that no event takes place apart from God’s permission or will, that no event takes place without God being the ‘author’ (in the sense that I have used the word above, not in the more general sense), but the equivocal manner in which Calvinists use the language of God’s ‘will’ really leads to problems. It makes it hard to say that certain events were not according to God’s will, which seems to me to be a real issue for concern.

All of these problems are particularly seen in the Reformed doctrine of double predestination and in the related idea of a necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall, both of which positions I strongly believe need to be rejected. Whilst many admit the ‘asymmetry’ of double predestination, I do not think that this is anywhere near enough. The ‘asymmetry’ between election and reprobation is so complete as to make their pairing positively dangerous.

“One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.”

My first thought was: that certainly brings back the tension in our life, the expectancy of a New Creation that the bible is speaking of and that we so often seem to be lacking. It may be caused by muting the tension created by God being challenged.

I also had to think about Klaas Schilder’s treatment of the pass-over, who in his treatment acknowledges the fact of different wills being at work at the same time, stressing Gods governing will and victory in that event.

Finally, what did you think of Gerrit Glas’s treatment about evil at the conference in Hoeven?

Yes, Schilder’s treatment (as I remember it) is helpful. I would have to look at my notes from the conference to give thoughts on Gerrit Glas’ treatment of the subject. I was very tired and didn’t follow his lecture as well as I could have done. Perhaps we can discuss this in person in a few days’ time. :)

[...] Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo. [...]

[...] theology, however, has all too often held a theodicy that explains away the problem of evil as everything is placed within a universal teleology. The brokenness of the creation marred by sin ceases to be a problem to be wrestled through and [...]



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Hart, Hauerwas, God and Suffering

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?I have just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. I found it a very accessible (for Hart!) treatment of some of the theological questions raised by disasters such as the Asian tsunami, although others might be put off by Hart’s rather florid style.

In one of the more cogent arguments that I have read for the position, Hart argues that we cannot make sense of evil. We cannot see such events merely as acts of divine justice and explain misfortune in terms of culpability. Evil does not exist for the service of any greater good. Evil does not exist in order to reveal divine attributes that would otherwise be hidden. Nor can evil be explicated within some great overarching and universal teleological scheme. Hart rejects any attempt to identify ‘a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum’ (29). He argues that ‘providence … is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind.’ Providence must always be distinguished from a universal teleology. We must deny that (in themselves) death, suffering and evil ‘have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all’ (61).

For Hart, sin must be seen as privation, as a sort of wasting disease. God’s will ‘is the creative power that makes all things to be and the consummate happiness to which all things are called’ (98), but God’s will can never be identified with all that takes place. In the end, Hart claims, nothing is lost: ‘the coherence of the universe is preserved by God acting to save what he has made — what is real, what has substance — not by providing a divine rationale for every dimension of every event in which his creatures are involved, no matter how much those events might reflect that ultimate privation, evil.’

There is much in this book that is worth reading. Hart’s defence of divine impassibility, for example, is brief but gets straight to the point. However, the latter part of the book, which is a critique of the position of Calvin and any others who fail to distinguish divine permission from the divine will, is particularly important. Hart does caricature Calvinism badly in some areas, failing to recognize some of the important distinctions that Reformed theologians have drawn (I have yet to meet the Calvinist who believes that God is ‘the immediate cause of all evil in the world’ [94]). Nevertheless, he still succeeds in landing some telling blows and I would recommend that people read this book, even if they do not end up entirely agreeing with it (Stanley Hauerwas’ God, Medicine, and Suffering, which I read a few months ago, also has some helpful things to say on this subject).

Over the last few years I have found myself moving away from common Reformed understanding of evil and the sovereignty of God. I fear the tendency to normalize the brokenness of this present order by presenting it as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. I do not believe that my suffering is inherently meaningful. Death, suffering and evil are parasitic and destructive. God may use evil as an occasion for the working of grace and may bring about His good will in spite of the wicked actions of man and the power of Sin and Death, but He does not will the rule of Sin and Death and the wicked actions of man; He merely permits them. I believe that there is an important distinction to be maintained here.

In large part this movement came as a result of a return to the Scripture to re-examine the doctrine of election in the light of God’s Word. I was persuaded that the decree of election lies at the very heart of all that takes place in God’s creation. However, this decree of election is not the election of a certain number of particular individuals, but the election of the totus Christus. This was always what the Father willed to do in history.

This was the primary insight from which a number of further insights followed. I began to appreciate that it was always God’s purpose to send His Son and form a new humanity in Him, even prior to the Fall. Once I recognized this, it became obvious that the doctrine of election does not directly entail any doctrine of reprobation. Discussions of supralapsarianism (which is the position that my view approximates to) and infralapsarianism are no longer central, because no necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall is presupposed.

If my position is correct, God’s purpose and the destiny of the world is fixed in the person of Christ, rather than in a hidden decree concerning the eternal destiny of each individual. This removes the sense of necessity from history and restores its contingency. It also began to make clear the manner in which God’s purpose in Christ stands opposed to much that takes place in history. The fact that God’s purpose in Christ is accomplished by means of a victory over history (as the realm of Death, Sin and evil) was thrown into sharp relief. Once the necessity of sin and the Fall (along with that of my day-to-day actions) were totally removed in my understanding it became increasingly obvious that God’s purpose was achieved in spite of sin and evil, rather than by means of them.

My position also made clear that election is God’s will for the entire human race, rather than for a select few. The human race was created in order to be consummated in Christ. There is no nature/grace dichotomy. The Fall was a falling away from the purpose that God had for the human race. The Fall was not a necessary outworking of God’s eternal decree, but an obstacle — an interruption — that had to be overcome if the decree was to be outworked. Within the Church we experience God’s purpose for humanity (rather than merely for a select few) brought to fulfilment. We are called to be those who implement Christ’s victory over Sin and Death in fulfilment of the Father’s eternal purpose, acting as agents of the Spirit by whom others are brought to share in the freedom in which we have come to share.

There are, of course, many questions left to answer, most of which I am without adequate answers to. Whilst all that I have written above might give another impression, I believe that no event takes place without God being in some sense ‘behind’ it. However, I would go to far greater pains than most Reformed theologians to distinguish the manner in which God is behind the event of the Fall and the manner in which God is behind the event of conversion, for instance. One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.

If one accepts the position that I have outlined above, one’s attitude to events of suffering, evil, sin and death will probably be far closer to that of Hart and Hauerwas than it will be to the significant majority of Reformed theologians, for whom the doctrine of election (particularly in its necessary relation to the Fall) serves to normalize sin in some sense. God’s purpose is certainly worked out in spite of and in the midst of suffering and evil, but suffering and evil are quite clearly distinguished from anything that can be identified as God’s will.

When evil and suffering take place there is always the danger that we will respond by attempts at redescription — arguing that this is all really an outworking of God’s hidden will — rather than by proclaiming resurrection, Christ’s victory over the powers and all that subjects this present creation to Death, Sin and decay. If we try to justify God by means of redescription, all that we end up doing is legitimating the status quo. When one has normalized the brokenness of our present age, one will only be left with a terribly stunted eschatology.

I have come to believe that God wants us to feel the tension between His will and the way things are in the world. Arguing that bad events are merely inscrutable manifestations of God’s will eases the deep and painful tension that we should be feeling between the way things are and the way that things were designed to be. However, it achieves this easing of tension at great expense. As we turn a blind eye to raw reality and try to explain it away we end up treating God as one who is not big enough to be confronted with things as they really are. The God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not need to be protected from our cries of pain, suffering and despair. We also end up further alienating ourselves in our suffering and other sufferers. No voice is given to the anguish and meaningless of suffering within the Church. Whilst contracting the language of the Church by refusing to voice to the sufferer might make us feel more cosy, it leaves the sufferer out in the cold.

As Stanley Hauerwas observes, this is one of the reasons why the laments in the psalms are so important. They resist the option of redescription. By our laments we bring our sorrow, rage and despair at the deceptions, injustices, hollow comforts and cruelties of our world to the ears of Him who is the final reference point of all of life.

The purpose of lament is that of calling God to act in our world. What makes Christian suffering different from the suffering of others is our transforming of our suffering into agonizing prayer and lament by the power of the Spirit. It is only within the life of the Church that the cries of anguish of a creation in bondage to futility can be articulated as promises of new creation. In Romans 8, Paul describes the groaning of creation in terms of the cries of a mother in birth pangs. It is through the Spirit’s work in the Church that we are assured that these birth pangs will be followed by the safe delivery of a new creation and a deliverance of the old creation and ourselves from our present state of bondage.

Our confidence must flow from the knowledge that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. This does not mean that evil is really an illusion after all and that everything takes place exactly as God wishes it to. Rather, this verse teaches us that, even in the face of radical evil and agonizing suffering, God’s purpose is still at work and will finally triumph. No suffering or evil can thwart God’s purpose to deliver His creation into the formation of a new humanity in His Son. In fact, God even uses the weight of suffering and evil against them. Things that Satan designs for evil, God can use to accomplish good.

I have yet to be persuaded that Reformed theology ultimately founders on these points. Most Reformed theologians would be able to ‘Amen!’ the majority of what I have said. However, I am persuaded that there are some problems that are quite deeply rooted in the tradition that need to be dealt with here.

I would appreciate any thoughts that you might have.

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It seems to me that perhaps the best theologian to follow on this one is Augustine. He held to a view of providence any monergist/”no-risk” (ala Helm’s definition, anyway) thinker could hold, but denied there was any efficient (and therefore intelligible, I think) cause of evil. Perhaps too paradoxical for some, but it strikes me as the most consistent with Scripture’s way of speaking, and definitely consistent with the best of what Hart wants to say and what Calvinists want to say without falling prey to either the problems of libertarian free will (ala Molinists) or the necessity of evil (ala some Calvinists, fatalists, etc.).

Some random thoughts…

That sort of approach is far better, IMHO. The thing that troubles me is the fact that many Reformed ways of speaking about God’s sovereignty seem to be so alienated from the language of Scripture. They seem to leave no room for the idea of challenges to God’s rule in the world that are not orchestrated by God in such a direct way as to make them appear completely illusory in the final analysis.

I do not believe in the ‘risk-taker’ God that someone like Wright speaks about, but frankly I feel that Wright may be closer to Scripture on this one than many Reformed people are. At least Wright’s position allows him to do some sort of justice to the biblical teaching about how contrary Sin, Death and evil are to God’s purpose. Whilst I believe that there are tensions to be maintained that Wright fails to adequately maintain, I do not believe that these tensions lead to the sorts of positions that many Reformed people hold, which seem to me to be riven by internal contradictions.

In my opinion, one of the most important things that we need to do is to focus on the idea of God’s purpose as being the formation of the totus Christus, rather than identifying it with the will to save a particular number of ‘elect’ individuals or anything like that. I believe in God’s universal sovereignty (in the ‘no-risk’ sense) and that God works out His purpose throughout all events in history, even the ones that run contrary to His purpose. However, I do not believe in universal teleology, which seems to be a position advocated by many Reformed people. Just because God works out His purpose through and in spite of evil events doesn’t mean that He willed those events to take place. The distinction between will and permission is important.

I find it helpful to draw some sort of distinction between different kinds of sovereignty. Let me use a very limited analogy. There is the sovereignty of the author of a novel and the sovereignty of a character within the world of the novel. God is the ‘author’ of history and also an actor within history. The biblical focus is on God as an actor within history (primarily as the ‘hands’ of God — the Son and the Spirit — act within and upon history). The purpose and will of God is the purpose and will of God as an actor within history. However, as the author of history God permits things within history that are genuinely contrary to His will.

The mistake that many Calvinists seem to make is that of forgetting the distinction between God as ‘actor’ and God as ‘author’ (working within the framework of the above analogy). If we conflate the two we end up with God willing evil events in some sense (even if they are willed for good ends). This is the position that I deem to be intolerable. I really do not think that it is helpful to say that everything that takes place takes place according to God’s will without making God appear capricious and portray Him like a tyrant. Certainly we must admit that no event takes place apart from God’s permission or will, that no event takes place without God being the ‘author’ (in the sense that I have used the word above, not in the more general sense), but the equivocal manner in which Calvinists use the language of God’s ‘will’ really leads to problems. It makes it hard to say that certain events were not according to God’s will, which seems to me to be a real issue for concern.

All of these problems are particularly seen in the Reformed doctrine of double predestination and in the related idea of a necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall, both of which positions I strongly believe need to be rejected. Whilst many admit the ‘asymmetry’ of double predestination, I do not think that this is anywhere near enough. The ‘asymmetry’ between election and reprobation is so complete as to make their pairing positively dangerous.

“One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.”

My first thought was: that certainly brings back the tension in our life, the expectancy of a New Creation that the bible is speaking of and that we so often seem to be lacking. It may be caused by muting the tension created by God being challenged.

I also had to think about Klaas Schilder’s treatment of the pass-over, who in his treatment acknowledges the fact of different wills being at work at the same time, stressing Gods governing will and victory in that event.

Finally, what did you think of Gerrit Glas’s treatment about evil at the conference in Hoeven?

Yes, Schilder’s treatment (as I remember it) is helpful. I would have to look at my notes from the conference to give thoughts on Gerrit Glas’ treatment of the subject. I was very tired and didn’t follow his lecture as well as I could have done. Perhaps we can discuss this in person in a few days’ time. :)

[...] Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo. [...]

[...] theology, however, has all too often held a theodicy that explains away the problem of evil as everything is placed within a universal teleology. The brokenness of the creation marred by sin ceases to be a problem to be wrestled through and [...]



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It seems to me that perhaps the best theologian to follow on this one is Augustine. He held to a view of providence any monergist/”no-risk” (ala Helm’s definition, anyway) thinker could hold, but denied there was any efficient (and therefore intelligible, I think) cause of evil. Perhaps too paradoxical for some, but it strikes me as the most consistent with Scripture’s way of speaking, and definitely consistent with the best of what Hart wants to say and what Calvinists want to say without falling prey to either the problems of libertarian free will (ala Molinists) or the necessity of evil (ala some Calvinists, fatalists, etc.).

Some random thoughts…

That sort of approach is far better, IMHO. The thing that troubles me is the fact that many Reformed ways of speaking about God’s sovereignty seem to be so alienated from the language of Scripture. They seem to leave no room for the idea of challenges to God’s rule in the world that are not orchestrated by God in such a direct way as to make them appear completely illusory in the final analysis.

I do not believe in the ‘risk-taker’ God that someone like Wright speaks about, but frankly I feel that Wright may be closer to Scripture on this one than many Reformed people are. At least Wright’s position allows him to do some sort of justice to the biblical teaching about how contrary Sin, Death and evil are to God’s purpose. Whilst I believe that there are tensions to be maintained that Wright fails to adequately maintain, I do not believe that these tensions lead to the sorts of positions that many Reformed people hold, which seem to me to be riven by internal contradictions.

In my opinion, one of the most important things that we need to do is to focus on the idea of God’s purpose as being the formation of the totus Christus, rather than identifying it with the will to save a particular number of ‘elect’ individuals or anything like that. I believe in God’s universal sovereignty (in the ‘no-risk’ sense) and that God works out His purpose throughout all events in history, even the ones that run contrary to His purpose. However, I do not believe in universal teleology, which seems to be a position advocated by many Reformed people. Just because God works out His purpose through and in spite of evil events doesn’t mean that He willed those events to take place. The distinction between will and permission is important.

I find it helpful to draw some sort of distinction between different kinds of sovereignty. Let me use a very limited analogy. There is the sovereignty of the author of a novel and the sovereignty of a character within the world of the novel. God is the ‘author’ of history and also an actor within history. The biblical focus is on God as an actor within history (primarily as the ‘hands’ of God — the Son and the Spirit — act within and upon history). The purpose and will of God is the purpose and will of God as an actor within history. However, as the author of history God permits things within history that are genuinely contrary to His will.

The mistake that many Calvinists seem to make is that of forgetting the distinction between God as ‘actor’ and God as ‘author’ (working within the framework of the above analogy). If we conflate the two we end up with God willing evil events in some sense (even if they are willed for good ends). This is the position that I deem to be intolerable. I really do not think that it is helpful to say that everything that takes place takes place according to God’s will without making God appear capricious and portray Him like a tyrant. Certainly we must admit that no event takes place apart from God’s permission or will, that no event takes place without God being the ‘author’ (in the sense that I have used the word above, not in the more general sense), but the equivocal manner in which Calvinists use the language of God’s ‘will’ really leads to problems. It makes it hard to say that certain events were not according to God’s will, which seems to me to be a real issue for concern.

All of these problems are particularly seen in the Reformed doctrine of double predestination and in the related idea of a necessary connection between the decree of election and the decree of the Fall, both of which positions I strongly believe need to be rejected. Whilst many admit the ‘asymmetry’ of double predestination, I do not think that this is anywhere near enough. The ‘asymmetry’ between election and reprobation is so complete as to make their pairing positively dangerous.

“One of my greatest concerns is that we do not mute the biblical truth that God’s sovereignty is achieved by means of daring victory over the powers within history, rather than merely existing beyond all threat as the ordering of all events from a great height.”

My first thought was: that certainly brings back the tension in our life, the expectancy of a New Creation that the bible is speaking of and that we so often seem to be lacking. It may be caused by muting the tension created by God being challenged.

I also had to think about Klaas Schilder’s treatment of the pass-over, who in his treatment acknowledges the fact of different wills being at work at the same time, stressing Gods governing will and victory in that event.

Finally, what did you think of Gerrit Glas’s treatment about evil at the conference in Hoeven?

Yes, Schilder’s treatment (as I remember it) is helpful. I would have to look at my notes from the conference to give thoughts on Gerrit Glas’ treatment of the subject. I was very tired and didn’t follow his lecture as well as I could have done. Perhaps we can discuss this in person in a few days’ time. :)

[...] Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo. [...]

[...] theology, however, has all too often held a theodicy that explains away the problem of evil as everything is placed within a universal teleology. The brokenness of the creation marred by sin ceases to be a problem to be wrestled through and [...]



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