Review: When tragedy strikes

2 April 2021

Most Christians are weak in theology. They just jog along happily with their received tradition—until some personal tragedy strikes. Then they start asking questions like ‘Why did God let this happen?’ and, suddenly, firming up their theological convictions become strikingly relevant. Here is where this book pitches in. It is:

Is God To Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory A. Boyd (IVP, 2003).

Our mental picture of God determines our attitude towards him, and that picture is, in much evangelical tradition, a skewed one. We need to realign it with Jesus, the Word and image of God, and his unique revelation of what God is like, says Boyd. Then we need to question the notion that everything that happens is part of God’s great plan, an element of his giant blueprint. It isn’t. Instead, we live in a complex world that is a spiritual war-zone, where God’s desires for us are sometimes frustrated.

Particularly frustrating can be the seemingly arbitrary nature of what sometimes happens. The author opens up the Book of Job in a masterly way to shed light on this key topic. On the way, he tackles related issues like how God determines what he will do, and how our prayers fit into it all.

This is a highly practical book, and it can be such because of the robust biblical theology that undergirds Boyd’s arguments. If you have been stressed out by serious ‘why’ questions in the wake of some personal tragedy, or are called to pastor and counsel others in that situation, you will find this book truly helpful.

It doesn’t toe the typical evangelical party line in many respects. Towards the end, Boyd therefore tackles some of the ‘But doesn’t the Bible teach…?’ reactions that you might raise, including a detailed look at Romans chapter 9, and other NT passages leant on by many for their ‘blueprint’ convictions.

This is no easy afternoon devotional read. It’s a book that will require your full engagement, and the use of your God-given brain. But you will find it immensely satisfying. And it will put you in a more confident position to address this messed-up world. Is it perhaps time to rise to a challenge? This book will provide it.

Here’s the usual sample of quotations to whet your appetite.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

‘Melanie, do you really believe that God kills babies to teach parents a lesson? And do you really think that God is now refusing to give you any more children until you learn this lesson—though he won’t tell you what the lesson is?’  (56)

When things went wrong in people’s lives, whether it was about their physical or spiritual condition or some tragedy that happened to them, I don’t recall Jesus ever looking for the hand of God in it. Instead, he had compassion on suffering people and treated them like casualties of war. He expressed God’s heart by bringing relief to people’s suffering.  (71)

…the why questions. These questions are almost always unanswerable. But they are not unanswerable because God is so mysterious—his character and purposes are unambiguously revealed in Jesus Christ—rather, they are unanswerable because creation is incomprehensibly complex.  (97)

A creation which includes free agents capable of love cannot be one in which God can guarantee his will is always done.  (119)

To the extent that the God we envision is less than all-loving, gracious, kind and altogether on our side, we can’t trust him with our whole being. (189)

Whenever and wherever people experience true life and true light, it is Jesus Christ, whether they know it or not (Jn 1:4, 9).  (209)

Our (fallen) tendency, operating out of our illegitimately seized knowledge of good and evil, is to project onto God every ‘good’ we think God ought to have. For example, in classical Western philosophical tradition, emotional vulnerability is a weakness, so we have projected onto God the attribute of ‘impassability’ (above suffering). All variability is thought to be an imperfection, so God must be ‘immutable’ (above any sort of change). Lack of control is also an imperfection, so God meticulously controls everything. But we get a vastly different picture of God when we simply allow God to define himself in Christ!  (316)

The [mistaken] ‘blueprint worldview’…asserts that directly or indirectly everything in world history follows a meticulous divine blueprint. This view is succinctly expressed in the maxim ‘There is a reason for everything.’ The ultimate reason why anything happens is that God decided it was better to have it happen than not…  Christian theologians who espouse the blueprint worldview find various passages in the Bible to support their view. But their reading of the Bible is rather selective and is strongly influenced by a Hellenistic preconception of what God and his relationship to the world must be like.  (377)

The cross refutes the traditional notion that omnipotence means God always gets his way. Rather, the cross reveals God’s omnipotence as a power that empowers others—to the point of giving others the ability, if they so choose, to nail him to the cross. The cross reveals that God’s omnipotence is displayed in self-sacrificial love, not sheer might.  (467)

How can we hold that God is unchanging when in Christ we see that the second person of the Trinity became a man?  (477)

To question God’s experience of time by postulating that God really experiences all of history in a timeless fashion is to question the authenticity of the incarnation.  (482)

God is not ‘above’ suffering or being affected and responsive. God is God precisely in his willingness to be affected, to be responsive, and to suffer for the sake of love.  (492)

The New Testament depicts evil forces and human agents as having a good deal of ‘say’ in what transpires. And tragic afflictions are understood to arise from these wills, not Gods.  (518)

One of the chief problems in the Western philosophical tradition is reconciling the presence of evil with an all-good and all-powerful God. The problem, in a nutshell, is that if God is all-powerful, it seems he must have the ability to stop evil if he wants to. And if God is all-good, it seems he would want to. Yet evil persists… While blueprint theologians offer sophisticated responses in an attempt to avoid this conclusion, their position seems to implicate God in the very evil it attempts to explain. If God deemed the suffering of the Holocaust worth the good that would result from it, how is his thinking any different than the Nazis’?  (541)

The belief that God is all-powerful does not mean that God exercises all power. It only means that God is the ultimate source of all power… God empowers others to act on their own, against his own wishes if they so choose.  (572)

The kingdom of darkness has been dealt a decisive deathblow, and it is now just a matter of time before it is utterly vanquished. But this truth doesn’t negate the claim that to some extent human and spiritual agents can continue to thwart Gods will.  (605)

The church fathers repeatedly stressed that love and virtue require morally responsible choice. Thus they taught that God’s mode of operation in running the world is not coercion but persuasion.  (630)

Acknowledging that humans have free will explains much, but not all, of the evil in the world. To fully account for the war-torn nature of this creation we need to understand that God created angels as free agents as well.  (713)

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s among the smallest of all seeds when planted, but it eventually grows to become the largest shrub in the garden (Mt 13:31-32). The point is that though Jesus defeated Satan in principle and re-established the kingdom of God on the earth, the earth doesn’t automatically revert back to the way God intended it to be. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the seed has been planted, but it needs to grow. The ‘strong man’ has been tied up, and now God’s troops need to ‘pillage the house.’ God could do all this himself, of course. But because God is a social being and his goal is love, he chooses to work through mediators (humans and angels) who lovingly choose to cooperate with his plans. How they use their freedom genuinely affects the extent to which God’s will is done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  (737)

When people believe that everything is already part of God’s ‘secret plan,’ they won’t work with passion and urgency to establish God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Rather, as much popular Christian piety reveals, they resign themselves to all that happens as coming ‘from a Father’s hand.’ They pray for the ability to accept things more than the ability to change things. They seek the power to comfort more than the power to deliver.  (762)

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass.  (814)

We ordinarily can’t know why particular individuals suffer the way they do. But in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, our assumption should be that their suffering is something we should oppose in the name of God rather than accepting it as coming from God.  (872)

[Re the Book of Job]  Eliphaz’s statements illustrate the remarkable capacity some people have to ignore reality for the sake of preserving a formulaic theology.  (912)

People often quote Job’s words, ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away’ (Job 1:21)… The irony is that though these words are spoken from an honest and upright heart, they are part of a theology job repents of.  (980)

We aren’t omniscient, but having eaten from the forbidden tree, we have a misguided impulse to judge matters as though we were. We have difficulty accepting our finitude and the massive ignorance and ambiguity attached to it.  (1099)

The perennial question ‘Why me?’ is no different than the question ‘Why did this duck land in this pond at just this moment?’ It is strictly unanswerable from a finite human perspective.  (1127)

Life is arbitrary because of the way the decisions made by an unfathomably vast multitude of free agents intersect with each other. It is not a function of God’s will or character.  (1137)

Taking Jesus Christ as our starting point, we can’t avoid concluding that God intervenes in the world. Indeed, Jesus is the supreme instance of God intervening in human affairs.  (1144)

The same miracle-working power that gives hope to the believer also raises a multitude of questions. Chief among these is, Why does God’s intervention in the world seem so arbitrary? Yes, God can heal blindness. But why does God heal one blind person and not another?  (1153)

If God decided to create a world where love is possible, he thereby ruled out a world in which his will is always done. If he chooses to create this kind of world, he can’t guarantee that his will is always done, not because he lacks power but because of the kind of world he created. Just as a triangle can’t be round, so too a world that includes love can’t guarantee that God’s will always comes to pass.  (1187)

If God wants a world in which agents can relate to one another, he must create a world that is very stable and thus quite predictable. In deciding to create this kind of world, God ruled out a world in which the laws of nature could be altered every time someone was going to be harmed.  (1209)

The regularity of the world doesn’t have to be absolutely uniform. As Creator, God certainly has the power and the right to ‘suspend’ the regularity of the world at any time. But he can’t do this all the time, or even most of the time, if he wants us to have stable, nonchaotic lives. Because of the kind of world God decided to create, he can intervene on occasion, but not at all times.  (1213)

God has always anticipated that agents will use their freedom the way they do, for he is infinitely intelligent and thus foresees every possibility as though it were a certainty. So he has a strategy to bring good out of any decision by influencing the situation to minimize its harmful effects. But this doesn’t qualify the truth that God nevertheless has to tolerate free decisions and their effects.  (1241)

We have no more reason to hold God morally responsible for the evil his creatures bring about than we do to hold parents morally responsible for the evil behaviour of their adult children.  (1251)

Though we have every reason to accept that God is not morally culpable for creating a world where evil occurs, we must remember that God nevertheless takes responsibility for evil. This is what the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are all about.  (1261)

…the fine line between God influencing an agent as opposed to coercing an agent.  (1279)

The constraints God placed on himself by the necessity of a stable world order and by irrevocable freedom are strong enough to prevent God from always unilaterally intervening to prevent evil. But they aren’t so strong that they prevent God from sometimes intervening. They are strong enough to allow agents to relate to one another and have morally responsible say-so. But they aren’t so strong that the only thing that decides matters is the say-so of these agents.  (1298)

Along with the necessary order of the world and the freedom of agents, Scripture consistently depicts prayer as significantly influencing God’s interaction with us.  (1346)

Scripture encourages us to believe that prayer really changes what God does. Indeed, it sometimes changes what God can do in particular situations… God created a world in which he has significantly bound himself to the prayers of his people.  (1352)

Since we can spend only so much time in intercessory prayer, and since there is virtually an infinite number of things we could pray for, praying for direction on how we should spend our say-so in prayer is extremely important.  (1435)

On the authority of Jesus Christ and the biblical witness we can be assured that prayer always furthers God’s purpose in the world. Yet prayer is not the only variable that influences what God can and can’t do in any particular situation within this complex war zone. Among other things, God must respect the necessary stability of the world and the irrevocable revocable freedom of vast multitudes of free agents. Prayer makes a difference, but so do the necessary regularity of the world and every free choice humans and angels make. We have no way of knowing how the power of prayer intersects with these and other variables.  (1445)

Our awareness of the complex mechanics of prayer helps us locate the mystery of unanswered prayer in the unknowable complexity of creation rather than in the will of God.  (1460)

Those who place their trust in God are called to work with him to bring redemptive meaning out of every event, however tragic it may be.  (1701)

We aren’t called to accept everything as God’s will; instead, we are called to transform everything to bring it into conformity with God’s will. Only when we live with this mindset can we claim to be doing God’s will.  (1736)

Understanding that life is unfathomably complex encourages us—indeed, forces us—to listen to God on a moment by moment basis.  (1760)

The view that God unilaterally determines some humans to be forever outside his saving grace contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  (1831)

The point of the potter-clay analogy is not God’s unilateral control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changed hearts.  (1902)

For all their erudite distinctions between primary and secondary causes, necessary and contingent effects, and so on, no blueprint theologian has ever adequately explained how God can infallibly bring about evil while remaining all good, and while holding other agents morally responsible for the evil he ultimately brings about.  (1968)


Review: God is like Jesus!

9 March 2018

A big question today is ‘What is God like?’ A consensus has been crystallising in the reply, ‘God is like Jesus’. This book takes that, not as its conclusion, but as its starting-point. It is:

A More Christlike God: A more beautiful gospel by Bradley Jersak (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015. ISBN: 978-1508528371).   

amcglargeIt treats its topic comprehensively. Starting with how we tend to create a view of God in our own image and then find scriptures to support it, the book goes on to look at history’s competing images of God (‘will’ versus ‘love’) before looking at the scriptures, both OT and NT, that present a vengeful God—a view of him which the author sees as trumped by Christ’s perfect revelation of the Father’s heart.

Jersak develops at length the idea that God is a cruciform God. He rules through self-emptying love (kenosis), and ‘Christ crucified’ is the climax of his self-revelation. Kenosis is not a surrender of the divine attributes but the very nature of them! God rules, not by force, but by consent, which is evident in the deference of the Persons of the Trinity to one another, and in God’s allowing us to choose to respond to his love.

This notion of ‘consent’ leads to an interesting take on theodicy, what the author calls ‘an anti-theodicy of the cross’. God has given consent both to natural law and to human will, and does not normally interfere in their operation. But he comes with love and compassion when their effects are negative, having been there himself in Jesus.

The concept of God’s ‘wrath’, too, comes under examination, and the author sees a progression of understanding of its nature as the Bible unfolds, ending in its definition as God’s ‘giving over’ of sinners to the natural results of their behaviour. This is how theoutstandingbook ‘bipolar image’ of God (as both angry and loving) is resolved. Inevitably, this ventures into the realm of ‘atonement theories’, on which Jersak has some well-balanced comments, and takes a detailed look at Jesus’ own metaphors for his saving work, and those used by Paul.

This is meaty, challenging material but also heart-warming. I’ve never been a fan of ‘devotional’ books, always preferring something intellectually challenging. But this book somehow manages to combine both aspects—and that, in my view, is a huge plus.

Here are some quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.

God is love and every other aspect of God must align with his love. (271)

When we say “God is love” or “God is good” or “God is light,” we aren’t merely describing his characteristics. We are saying God is love, goodness and light in his energies, just as we say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his persons. (283)

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised how this proposition—the message that Jesus shows us what God is like—is often well received by those who don’t profess Christian faith. (308)

What are we to think when the ‘God of the Bible’ seems so un-Christlike? Sometimes even Jesus seems to describe this kind of God. It’s not as simple as tossing the Old Testament; God the vengeful king makes a cameo appearance in several of Jesus’ parables. Awkward! (359)

Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. (451)

The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we create out of our own temperament. Then, easily enough, we find scriptures to establish our image as ‘biblical’! (528)

…just one beautiful image of God, evident in the Christ of the Gospels: he’s the Restorer of lives. (754)

…the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide affects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! (778)

If God is pure will—even a divine tyrant—then we’d better submit, like it or not. The fact is, historically, such a God recurs in various forms throughout Christian history and even within the pages of the Bible. (966)

According to Calvin, God is not only beyond good and evil, but everyone who does evil is merely acting as his instrument and at his command. When an evil person or even the devil commits evil, it is because the Lord not only permitted it—he commanded them and forced them to do it. Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name. (1006)

…the obvious intended trajectory of revelation from Old Covenant to New. God didn’t evolve; our conception of him did, in greatest part because Jesus came to show and tell us exactly who God is in ways no prophet had the capacity to anticipate—not Moses, David or even Isaiah. (1138)

It’s not only the vengeance or violence from which I’m recoiling: the real problem is the portrait of a God whose un-Christlike naked will eclipses love and trumps grace—a coercive force incongruent with Christ’s cruciform revelation of his Father’s love. (1147)

Throughout his letter [Romans], Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles. (1178)

Because God is fully revealed in Jesus—exactly like him—then God is a self-giving lover, and not a conquering emperor, like Constantine for example. We will need to address both the problem of a seemingly two-faced God (love versus force) and an apparently two-faced Christ (Lamb versus Lion; the suffering Servant versus the bloody Warrior on the white horse). (1216)

If God sent his Son to reveal himself, if Jesus showed us how true sovereignty works, what real power does, and what victory looks like—on earth as it is in heaven—then let me propose that the King of Heaven rules and reigns, not like Constantine, but like Jesus of Nazareth. (1320)

Some believe that kenosis means that God gives up his divine attributes or hides or hinders his own nature in order to become incarnate. He either puts on something (like wearing a disguise) or takes off something (like disrobing). Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation. But it is uniquely revealed in Christ as well. “We beheld his glory,” says John (John 1:14). (1413)

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it? (1437)

Unlike the synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, which usually associate glory with the resurrection, in John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Christ’s execution is the hour of his exaltation. Jesus is the serpent ‘exalted/lifted up’ on the wooden stick (John 3:14). When he is ‘exalted / lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people(s) to himself (John 12:32). Thus, the language of glory and the exaltation / lifting-up of Christ are synonymous in John. For John, the Cross is the diadem of God’s unprecedented self-revelation. (1618)

“Please accept my proposal, my beloved …or I’ll throw you in a lake of fire.” Where’s the freedom in that kind of ultimatum? Where’s the consent? (1672)

Cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of Christ. They describe God’s divine identity—not just what he is like, but who he is. (1676)

As first cause, God is Good and all he does is goodness. But there are also secondary causes. Secondary causes include natural law and human freedom. We refer to them as secondary causes because while God caused them, they also cause things that God does not directly cause. That is, God consents to the free (and often catastrophic) play of these secondary causes—he allows natural law and human freedom to do their thing. God is ultimately responsible for all that is—for natural law and for human freedom—but we would say he doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do. (1798)

God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. (1852)

Kenotic power may seem feeble because it is patient and humble, but in the end, God-as-love—the truly Christlike God—is the overcoming force more powerful because he does what no tyrant can ever do: he wins hearts, restores lives and transforms societies. (1889)

I once heard the renowned South African human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, say, “For whatever reason, since humankind showed up on the scene, God does nothing without a human partner.” (2076)

Christlike prayer is kenotic, cruciform and willing—not coercive, demanding or manipulative. Partnering prayer listens first to seek God’s will, rather than attempting to impose our will in the world in his name. (2157)

At the Cross, we see the perfect love of God and the crazy-making affliction of all humanity in one place, one moment, one Man—Jesus Christ, the cruciform God. Rather than dazzling us with a clever answer, the Cross arrests us. It offers an anti-theodicy. The love and the anguish—both present in the extreme—are astonishing. (2246)

If evil exists and yet we hold that God is good, then what of his power? Ultimately, the cruciform King—the Cross itself—challenges this premise and overthrows our ideas of what it means for God to be all-powerful in this world. (2325)

A theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow X?” with “God (obviously and observably) allows everything!” If God is all-powerful, his power is not akin to control. (2339)

We might know theologically that God is everywhere and always present, but we don’t always feel it. In affliction, God’s real presence often makes no practical difference; people still suffer and die in all manner of cruel ways. So in the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it. (2400)

The Bible…itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents—gives us over—to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. (2491)

By reading the Bible’s judgment narratives through the lens of cruciform consent—through the Cross—we will begin to understand the wrath metaphor. And we will be equipped to retrieve rather than dismiss the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Bible. (2599)

Boyd teaches that the judgment of sin is not an externally applied penalty by a divine judge. God doesn’t actively investigate, arrest, convict, sentence and punish sinners. There’s no need and, in fact, that’s not God’s heart at all. Here’s the bottom line: sin carries its own penalty (or ‘wages’ in Rom. 6:23) because consequences are built into the fabric of the universe… It’s not that my sin literally causes God to be angry and provokes God’s judgments. Rather, that sin itself is harmful to us and to others. (2621)

When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, “Okay, enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release the wrath,” what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if it’s the very same thing? (2641)

God consents, but remember, there is so much more. God also participates. This is super-important. Yes, our heavenly Father allows, but he is also truly good and he cares. (2641)

Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God… When mercy gives way to wrath, it must be that we ourselves hit the off-switch and rebuffed mercy through our sinful acts. (2672)

As God is increasingly unveiled as life-giver rather than death-dealer, the biblical authors reflect this perspective more and more, becoming ever more careful to assert that God is not to blame. A simple example of this shift appears when David counts his armies. (2707)

In the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). (2845)

The cruciform King is not literally an angry monarch seething from his heavenly throne, but we do experience wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to the destructive forces of necessity. (2886)

How did the life, death and resurrection of Christ save us and reconcile us to God? Was the wrath of God somehow satisfied through the punishment of Christ? Or was the Cross God’s grand rejection of wrath as a solution to sin? (2998)

Confusing atonement theories with the gospel itself, or with the biblical metaphors they strive to interpret, leads to a terrible mistake. The mistake occurs when we want to speak about the meaning of the Cross, but skip the Gospel narratives and New Testament metaphors, and charge straightaway into debatable and polarizing theories. (3026)

God’s saving work through Jesus is so multi-faceted that Christ and the apostles found it necessary and helpful to use a constellation of metaphors to describe its benefits. Each metaphor serves to clarify, but can also obscure. Every metaphor can extend our understanding, but can also be over-extended such that we corner ourselves into error. So our theories about the metaphors need to be held very lightly—no theory holds a monopoly on the gospel, nor should it lay claim to actually being the gospel. (3033)

One of the tragedies of the atonement wars is how wound-up many pastors and theologians get about theories composed many centuries after the New Testament, and the great efforts involved in imposing those later theories back onto Scripture. If this weren’t already worrisome, the comparative dearth of concern for the breadth and depth of Jesus’ own metaphors is pretty appalling. (3060)

When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure. (3097)

There is no law or principle of justice higher than God to which he is beholden. ‘Justice’ is not a god to whom Yahweh must bow or appease with blood. Nor is God’s ‘Law’ some retributive principle that binds him. The whole point of the prophetic Book of Hosea is exactly this: that God is utterly free to forgive sinners—to show mercy to the guilty. He is able to respond to legal demands for punishment with a counter-verdict: complete pardon based in God’s own grace. (3260)

Christ’s self-offering must define the true meaning of sacrifice, as opposed to letting the symbols of sacrifice define the reality of what Jesus did. Reversing these is the quickest path to paganizing the sacrifice of Christ. Christ doesn’t get his meaning from the symbols; the symbols derive their meaning from him, even when they predate his own sacrifice.

The meaning Christ attributes to sacrifice is simply this: laying one’s life down for someone else (1 John 3:16). Anyone who gives their life to rescue another—whether it’s a fireman dying while pulling someone from a flaming building; a policeman who’s fatally wounded while rescuing a hostage; or a martyr stoned to death for preaching the good news—is ‘paying the ultimate price.’ Here, the metaphors are off the table. Here, sacrifice (laying down your life) is raw actuality—the events as they really happened.

Notice that this type of sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment, payment, retribution or appeasement. In every case, a life is given for the sake of the other, not to satisfy someone’s wrath or placate their anger, but as a life-giving, life-saving sacrifice. (3390)

We want—even demand—to know how the death of Christ removes sin, whereas Paul resists the mechanics of transaction: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Wages, payment, sin, death—that’s ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn’t balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it. God’s ways are not bound to the ledger, but free to the boundless way of pure grace and free gift. (3412)

We can retain a biblical form of ‘substitution’ if we ask simply, “Did Jesus do for us what we could not do for ourselves?” Of course he did. Did he ‘step into the ring’ as our substitute? Did he go through the battle royal with Satan, sin and death for us? Sure he did. Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! The key is to remember, God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are. And as he bleeds to death, he forgives us and says, “I’ll be back—see you in three days.” (3462)

The great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives (Heb. 2:15). (3721)

This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them. (3769)

Some will resist and reject God’s love and forgiveness to the bitter end. And when humanity experiences the penalty of its own sin, when it falls away into death to be forever separated from God, what does God do? God says, “My love is stronger than the grave!” (Song of Sol. 8:6). “Even if you make your bed in sheol, I am there” (Psalm 139:8). God in Christ pursues us in his wild love all the way into death. (3856)


Review: Love trumps sovereignty

12 January 2018

Open theism has made a big impact among Evangelicals in recent years, giving a third option alongside the Calvinist and Arminian views of divine providence, and their versions of theodicy. This book is firmly in this third category. It is:

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An open and relational account of providence by Thomas Jay Oord (IVP Academic, 2015).

tuloglargeIt deals with the age-old question of why, if God is all-powerful, does he not prevent the appalling evil that scars our world. Most of the traditional answers are anything but convincing, appealing in the end to ‘mystery’. Oord contends that God, in fact, cannot unilaterally prevent purposeless, gratuitous evil, just as he cannot lie, deny himself or make a square circle.

He grounds this conviction on what he calls ‘essential kenosis’. We normally associate the term ‘kenosis’ with Philippians 2:7, which says that Jesus, in his incarnation, ‘emptied himself’ or ‘made himself nothing’. But because Jesus is the complete revelation of what God is like, Oord contends, God’s essential nature is eternally kenotic. By that he means that God’s love, not his sovereignty, is his defining feature, and love, by definition, does not control. God thus leaves the beloved space to respond willingly to his love and, inevitably, risks being spurned.

God can, of course, work within the created order to influence, call or persuade, but he cannot control, and therefore cannot stop humans killing, raping etc. Nor can he alter the random natural processes that produce suffering and pain, like earthquakes, genetic mutations etc. If he were to interfere, it would be a revoking of the gifts he has given and by which the world operates.

While this approach lets God off the hook for the evil in the world, it perhaps leaves some unanswered questions. How, for example, is God ever going to fulfil his ultimate purpose to make all things new in Christ if he is permanently limited by the shortcomings of his much-loved creation? And while Oord believes in miracles, his explanation of how they fit into the ‘essential kenosis’ scenario is not easy to follow, in my opinion.

But that doesn’t mean that his book isn’t worth bothering with. It has some fine insights and some interesting angles on particular scripture passages. Well worth a read!

I have written a synopsis of the book, which you can access here. Meanwhile…

…here are some quotations from the book.

My overall goal is to make sense of randomness and evil in light of my conviction that a loving and powerful God exists and acts providentially.  (p10)

If we should not blame God when things go badly, should we praise God when things go well?  (p23)

Many Christians have ignored biblical passages that speak of chance. Like Rick Warren, they have believed that accidents are just incidents in God’s predetermined story. For them, randomness and chance are ultimately unreal.  (p30)

Life is an open-ended adventure, not an already settled script.  (p38)

Any design we encounter—and we encounter design often—comes from randomness, regularity and other forces, including God. Because of this, arguments pitting evolutionary randomness against design and organization are usually misguided.  (p43)

Absolute randomness is a myth. But absolute determinism is too…  Chance and lawlike regularity characterize our world. If chance reigned absolutely, chaos would ensue. If law reigned absolutely, order would eliminate creativity. Both randomness and regularity persist in the universe.  (p50)

Libertarian free will supporters are incompatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces. In other words, free will and complete determinism are incompatible.  (p59)

Being morally responsible is impossible if free will is an illusion.  (p60)

Most often, believers who wrestle with the problem of evil say God loves perfectly and can control others entirely. Because these believers cannot reconcile their beliefs with the genuine evil they experience, they appeal to mystery…   Those who appeal to mystery still usually say we should oppose genuine evil. “God calls us to work to make the world a better place,” they may claim. But it is hard to be motivated to oppose that which an omnipotent God allowed.  (p64)

If we look for it, we will notice goodness all around. Virtue is far more common than we may realize.  (p70)

I can think of numerous evil events a voluntarily self-limited God should have prevented by momentarily becoming un-self-limited. Victims of horrific evils likely have their list of events too. Saying God allowed or permitted but did not will evil offers little comfort. A perfectly loving God should and would prevent genuine evil if it were possible.  (p92)

The model of God as voluntarily self-limited thinks self-limitation is a free divine choice. It begins with the idea that God essentially has the capacity to control others entirely, and God could choose not to self-limit. But God freely chose at creation or, usually, chooses in history thereafter not to exercise the capacity to control others entirely. The model of providence as essentially kenotic, by contrast, portrays God’s self-limitation as involuntary. God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.  (p95)

Forty or more Old Testament passages say God has a change of mind, which suggests God does not foreknow the future in its entirety.  (p110)

By the end of the twentieth century, it seemed the majority of Christian scholars rejected the classical view of impassibility. Most believed God to be relational because God affects others and others affect God.  (p125)

The alternative to a risk-taking God model is some form of theological determinism. Outcomes are guaranteed only if God controls others. Robots can be trusted to comply, but free creatures may hinder divine plans.  (p135)

Sanders’s position seems to imply that voluntarily giving freedom to others is always the most loving thing God can do. But is this true? Is giving freedom when it could be restrained always an act of love?  (p142)

If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say “God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.” If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.  (p147)

I follow the contemporary trend of interpreting kenosis primarily as Jesus’ qualified power, other-orientation and servant love. This interpretation seems more fruitful overall than discussions about what might be communicated between Christ’s two natures, although I think such discussions have their place.  (p156)

Although no translation is perfect, the most helpful rendering of kenōsis may be “self-giving”…   Kenōsis translated as “self-giving, others-empowering love” corresponds well with passages found throughout Scripture.  (p159)

Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power.  (p169)

Realizing that God cannot unilaterally prevent suffering caused by simple entities helps us make sense of suffering caused by natural malfunctions or disasters. This means, for instance, we should not accuse God of causing or allowing birth defects, cancer, infections, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, or other illnesses and catastrophes. The degradation brought by such calamities does not represent God’s will. Instead, we can blame simple structures, various natural processes of the world, small organisms or creation gone awry.  (p172)

As an omnipresent spirit with no localized divine body, God cannot exert divine bodily influence as a localized corpus. This means God cannot use a divine body to step between two parties engaged in a fight, for instance.  (p178)

Although Jesus can be angry or even exert strong force on occasion (e.g., clearing the temple), Jesus never acted coercively in the sense of controlling others entirely. The a posteriori evidence of the life of Jesus, whom Christians believe reveals God better than any other person, suggests that God does not coerce.  (p184)

God is almighty in at least three senses. God is . . . mightier than all others. the only One who exerts might upon all that exists. the ultimate source of might for all others…   God’s almighty power in these three senses does not involve coercion. God can be the mightiest without controlling others. God can exert power upon all creation without unilaterally determining any. God can be the ultimate source of power—empowering and enabling others—without dominating any creature or situation entirely. Almighty is not coercive.  (p189)

If God can enact miracles to do good or prevent evil, why doesn’t God enact miracles more often?…   it’s natural to wonder why an alleged consistently loving God enacts miracles so inconsistently.  (p192)

Instead of thinking miracles are entirely in the mind of the observer, I think they are objective events in the world. Instead of defining miracles as violations of natural laws or divine interventions, I think God is already present to and active in all creation. Instead of believing miracles require supernatural control, I believe miracles occur by means of God’s uncontrolling love in relation to the universe and its creatures.  (p196)

We have no evidence on which to argue that God ever acts miraculously in a vacuum. Essential kenosis presumes that creaturely causation of some kind is present in all miracles, even when biblical narratives do not identify the creaturely causes.  (p207)

In this miraculous activity, God’s steadfast love does not supersede the lawlike regularities of nature, and God does not control. But God coordinates creaturely elements in ways that bring about unexpected and good results. This coordination is possible because of God’s omnipresence and complete knowledge of what has occurred and is occurring.  (p209)

Essential kenosis removes the “selective miracles” reason for rejecting special divine action. God never has and never can control others entirely when acting miraculously. God does not selectively coerce to enact miracles for some people but not for others because control-based selectivity is not possible for the God whose nature is kenotic love.  (p213)

Even when we consciously say yes in faith to the divine desire for our well-being, our bodies may not cooperate with God’s healing plans.  (p213)

Essential kenosis offers an adventure model of reality. This model may strike some as a precarious paradigm of providence. Adventures aren’t safe, after all, because they have general goals, not predetermined designs. Adventures involve calculated risks, free decisions and sometimes random occurrences. Love is an adventure without guaranteed results.  (p220)


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