Theodicy as “the open wound of life”

Earlier today I was skimming the comment section on Pastor Brad Strait’s recent viral blog post about a member of his congregation who has miraculously survived the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It’s a truly touching story – the kind that gives the faithful goosebumps and reminds us of God’s gracious involvement in our world.  I love to hear stories like this, and I do think that this is the kind of thing we should thank God for.

But… you don’t have to scroll down very far to see the predictable (and understandable!) responses from the skeptic crowd: “Miracle?! Tell that to the families of those who died. God’s choice to save one person was a choice not to save others. How can you believe in a god like that?” [And, as an aside, it appears that Pastor Brad has been attempting to respond to these objections intelligently and gracefully]

This of course touches on the question of theodicy: If God is both “good” and “all-powerful” – why suffering and evil? 

Before we jump into this with one of the typical pat responses (like: “This is all part of God’s bigger plan,” or, “God gave humans free will, and can’t be blamed for what humans do with it”)…  let’s step back for a moment. Is there ever a truly satisfying “answer” to this question, especially to the one suffering? In The Trinity and the KingdomJürgen Moltmann reminds us of what is at stake when we enter into this question:

It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all. Wherever the suffering of the living in all its manifold forms pierces our consciousness with its pain, we lose our childish primal confidence and our trust in God. The person who is torn by suffering stands alone. There is no explanation of suffering which is capable of obliterating his pain, and no consolation of a higher wisdom which could assuage it. The person who cries out in pain over suffering has a dignity of his own which neither men nor gods can rob him of. The story of Job makes this evident; and since that time no theology can fall below Job’s level. The theology of `Job’s friends’ is confuted. Does Job have any real theological friend except the crucified Jesus on Golgotha?
~Jürgen Moltmann. The Trinity and the Kingdom (Kindle Locations 782-789). My emphasis. 

Chew on that for a moment. To where do we look in times of suffering? To a neat and tidy theological explanation, like Job’s friends? Or to Jesus the Christ – the one crucified with and for the godless and godforsaken?

Moltmann continues, reminding us that the problem isn’t going away, that it will remain for as long as we go on living in this world:

No one can answer the theodicy question in this world, and no one can get rid of it. Life in this world means living with this open question, and seeking the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored. The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through experience of the new world in which `God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation.
~Moltmann, Trinity (Kindle Locations 807-816). Author’s emphasis. 

Theodicy is the open wound of life in this world. Faith is not a way of detaching ourselves from the pain and suffering of ourselves and others in the world… but (more profoundly) of entering into the problem of suffering. And when we do, we cannot help but long for and work towards something better. That longing is pregnant with hope for the day when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Good” Dogmatics vs “Bad” Dogmatics

Many of us have a low opinion of dogmatics. Dogmatics = dogma = religion = impractical = rigidity and lifelessness. At least, that’s the impression I get half the time when I tell people I really enjoy reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Why bother? Doesn’t this type of endeavor actually distract us from the mission that we’re “really” supposed to be about?

Absolutely. Or, it can anyways. That’s why Barth provides some criteria for evaluating “good” dogmatics against “bad” dogmatics. And guess what? The good kind ain’t rigid or impractical.

All the conclusions of dogmatics must be intended, accepted and understood as fluid material for further work. None of the results of dogmatics– really none at all — can be important. The only important thing is the activity of the Church, denoted by the results so far attained, in its striving for purity of doctrine. Whatever stimulates, maintains and guides this activity is good dogmatics; whatever checks it, lulling the church into a comfortable sleep, is certainly bad dogmatics, even when the texts it reproduces or itself originates are in themselves excellent. (Barth, CD I.2 p 769) 

Biblicism Leads to Heresy

According to Christian Smith, Biblicism just plain doesn’t work.

The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended. (The Bible Made Impossible, Kindle Location 189)

Karl Barth put it this way: 

In actual fact, there has never been a Biblicist who for all his grandiloquent appeal directly to Scripture against the fathers and tradition has proved himself so independent of the spirit and philosophy of his age and especially of his favourite religious ideas that in his teaching he has really allowed the Bible and the Bible alone to speak reliably by means or in spite of his anti-traditionalism. (CD I.2, p 609)

I’m becoming convinced that the problem goes even deeper: Where Biblicism holds sway, heretical understandings of essential doctrines will always be able to gain traction. This is an inevitable result of biblicism and interpretive pluralism.

Let’s step back and remind ourselves what is meant by “biblicism.” I’ll defer to Smith’s definition from The Bible Made Impossible:  “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” (Kindle Location 66)

I’m generally pretty reserved about using an “H” word (heresy or heretic) to describe a contemporary Christian teaching, movement or teacher.  And when I use it, I don’t intend it in an insulting or demeaning way; and I don’t intend to come off as having an opinion about any individual’s eternal destination. To me, it’s simply a descriptive word meant to denote a teaching universally rejected by all major segments of the church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant). Arianism and Sabellianism (which came up in yesterday’s post) are great historical examples of heresy, and are relevant because they still creep up today in places such as Unitarianism and Oneness Pentecostalism. 

To illustrate a little more specifically… I’ve recently been exposed to something of a conservative denomination that adheres to a unique brand of  Unitarianism. I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance, but decided to take a closer look because a friend of mine has a background in it (and I really want to understand where he is coming from). Most of us think of more gushy liberal types when we hear the term Unitarian (think: the “Unitarian Universalist” denomination); but this particular group shares a lot of surface-level similarities to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist cultures. They take the Bible seriously, in a literalist sort of way (though I would argue that, like everyone else, they are selective about their literal interpretations). They affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s son and the Messiah, the substitutionary atonement and physical resurrection of Jesus, salvation via faith/repentance, etc etc. Sounds fairly typical, no? Orthodox, with nothing to raise an eyebrow at? But their main distinctive doctrine is a denial that Jesus can be called “God” in any meaningful sense (since it is a term reserved for Jesus’ Dad), or that he was preexistent; in other words, they deny the Trinity because they see it as at odds with the “unity” of God.

I’ve started into a book by one of their current principal thinkers, Anthony Buzzard (it’s free on Kindle right now). He argues (at length) that Christians should return to the creed of Jesus, which was the same “unitarian creed” of Judaism (i.e. the Shema). I don’t intend to address any of his arguments here at this time (honestly I’m not sure if I have the patience for it!). However, I do want to note that he supports his unorthodox views via a sort of restorationist biblicism. He believes that Jesus “was the ultimate biblicist,” making Buzzard’s mission to restore the church to the original beliefs of Jesus and the apostles regarding the unitary nature of God. 

In places Buzzard seems bewildered that anyone would simply write him off as a “heretic” without engaging his arguments. After all, he shares a common basic approach to the Bible with many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (biblicism), and he also proclaims basically the same “how-to-get-saved” gospel message. Given that common ground, shouldn’t Christians be more willing to engage in open conversation regarding the foundational question of who God is?

Who can blame him?

Biblicism makes for a confusing, splintered playing field, with no clear authority. As Barth argued, biblicism takes authority out of the hands of Christ, and puts it into the hands of the reader of Scripture (see quote in previous post, “Our Paper Pope“)With the “Bible” as our only foundation (i.e. without relying on “man-made” creeds or even doctrinal statements), what grounds do we have to dismiss either Unitarianism or Oneness Pentecostalism as heretical? They base their beliefs on the Bible also. While we can argue with them about the texts, these conversations are rarely  productive — since all sides involved are absolutely convinced that they are faithful to what Scripture clearly reveals.

Can we just be honest? American Evangelicals have biblicism in our blood. Sometimes we can only get along with each other based on a common view of the Bible — that it is inerrant, clear, and the ultimate authority on… everything. Want to learn about science? Read the Genesis account of creation. Want to know what to make of the situation in the Middle East? Read the newspaper alongside the prophetic literature in the Bible. Want to be happier, healthier, or more physically fit? Vote for the right presidential candidate?  Bible, Bible, Bible. (Smith’s excellent book, The Bible Made Impossible, is replete with examples of this type of thing).

Biblicism lets us use the Bible to address our pet-issues that it wasn’t meant to address, and at the same time inevitably leaves the back door open for essential doctrines to be brought into question.

Finding our political/religious (non)identity

Nowhere is the church’s “christological identity crisis” more evident than in the political arena. I thought this particular section of Moltmann’s famous book, The Crucified God, was thought-provoking on this issue. Is it possible that with much of our “God and politics” talk (from both the “Christian right” and the “Christian left”), we have lost sight of our identity with the Crucified one? 

Bonhoeffer’s ‘existence for others’, which so much appeal has been made, becomes meaningless if one is no longer any different from others, but merely a hanger on. Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him. And this is not much help to them. Thus we must say that, ‘as the result of the debate about [political] organization, these communities are faced with the theological question of their Christian identity as churches’. Because this question is posed not merely by the ancient traditions and institutions from which they have separated themselves, but also by those others with whom they have associated themselves in solidarity, it must be taken seriously and answered.  The identity in question here is the identity of the object of faith, for the sake of which individuals and whole groups have accepted self-emptying and non-identity and a solidarity which allows no distinction. When a Christian community feels obliged to empty itself in certain social and political actions, it must take care that its traditional religious and political identity is not exchanged for a new religious and political identity, but must sustain its non-identity. Otherwise a church which, seeking for an identity and not preserving its distinctiveness, plunges into a social and political movement, once again becomes the ‘religion of society’. It is of course no longer a conservative religion of society, but the progressive religion of what may perhaps be a better future society. It then follows those who criticize the old religion from a political point of view, only to make a religion of their new politics. But can a Christian community become the ‘political religion’ of its existing or future society, without forgetting the man from Nazareth who was crucified, and losing the identity it has in his cross?

~Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (p. 16-17, my emphasis)

Moltmann against Monarchical Monotheism

I have been absolutely mesmerized by the writings of German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann (who I blogged about once before here). In the past few months I’ve read three of his major works: The Trinity and the Kingdom (1981), then The Crucified God (1973), followed by A Theology of Hope (1967). In between those, I also read a short (and accessible!) collection of his sermons, titled The Gospel of Liberation (1971), along with his autobiography, A Broad Place (2007). And, yes, in case you were wondering, my wife thinks I’m a bit obsessed. 🙂 (Not a bad thing, because the other day this helped her find me a closeout book on Moltmann at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids; thanks for being on the lookout, babe!). 

I’m hoping to attempt to unpack a few of the major themes in the Moltmann books I’ve read so far (I started drafting several of these a number of weeks back and never got around to posting!). I’ll start with the one I read first (though it is last chronologically), The Trinity and the Kingdom. Here goes:

Moltmann doesn’t think that most Christians are trinitarian enough, which has a profound impact on the way we talk about God and engage with the world (and I’m inclined to agree with him!). Moltmann believes that monarchical (i.e. “strict”) monotheism is an ongoing temptation of the church today — which goes back to the third century, when Sabaletist and Arian heresies were getting their original traction. Both heresies shared the same essential goal: To maintain (at all costs) the unity of God.

In Trinity Moltmann develops a “social doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is a community of Father, Son and Spirit, whose unity is constituted by mutual indwelling and reciprocal interpenetration.” (p. viii). The six-penny theolgoical word for this interpenetration is perichoresis. To quote Moltmann at length:

God’s unity cannot in the trinitarian sense be fitted into the homogeneity of the one divine substance, or into the identity of the absolute subject either; and least of all into one of the three Persons of the Trinity. It must be perceived in the perichoresis of the divine Persons. If the unity of God is not perceived in the at-oneness of the triune God, and therefore as a perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sebellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.

For the most part, we’ve largely forgotten about what Arius and Sebellius.

“The necessary resistance against Arianism on the one hand, and the laborious surmounting of Sabellianism on the other, led to the development of an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. Both heresies are christological in nature. Consequently the dogma of the Trinity was evolved out of christology. It is designed to preserve faith in Christ, the Son of God, and to direct the Christian hope towards full salvation in the divine fellowship. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot therefore be termed ‘a speculation’. On the contrary, it is the theological premise for christology and soteriology.”

Arius (unitarianism) and Sebellius (modalism) share one and the same error: strict, or “monarchical,” monotheism.  Trinity is largely a critique of strict monotheism. Most Western Christians think of themselves as first monotheists (along with Jews and Muslims), and then break down that one God into a tri-unity as a secondary matter. To Moltmann this is problematic: “To represent the trinitarian Persons in the one, identical divine subject leads unintentionally but inescapably to the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to monotheism.” (p. 18) 

A Theology of Luke-Acts Blog Tour

I’ll be participating in a publisher-sponsered “blog tour” of Darrell L. Bock’s A Theology of the Luke and Acts – for which I received a free review copy in the mail today. The tour takes place July 23-27, and requires me to compose a review focused on one specific chapter (a fact for which I’m grateful, as it’s actually a fairly hefty volume). Can’t wait to crack it open! In the meantime, my intent is to warm up for this by blogging on some other things I’ve been reading as of late (from Moltmann to Hodge). I know, it’s been way too long. Stay tuned…

(And thanks Zondervan!)