Monday, April 6, 2015

Back to the Basics: Building Blocks for a Sound Theodicy, Pt. 1

“Not everyone accepts Paul’s answer [Romans 11:33-36). As we saw a few pages ago, many humanistic atheists protest morally against a God who causes or allows evil and relieves humans of the burden of freedom. If an all-powerful God ‘co-works’ all things – no matter what humans choose – what does it matter if they can choose? And if an all-powerful God works for the good, why is there so much evil in the world? If humans are truly free, then God is not all-powerful. But a God who is benevolent yet powerless hardly seems worth rejecting. In brief, if we are to retain belief in an all-powerful God, then we must conclude that God colludes in evil, and if we are to retain belief in an all-loving God, then we must conclude that God is less than all powerful” (Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters,” page 88).

I’m back at this point to address the divine sovereignty/human responsibility debate that has been a never-ending one in the church (even to this day). Much ink has been spilled over the subject, with many theologians and Christians writing their comments on the subject. I’m honored to have read Luke Timothy Johnson’s words on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed because the sovereignty/responsibility discussion he brings up when discussing “God is all-powerful” was a pleasant surprise for me. I love the discussion surrounding a topic that, for many, seems to be controversial.

Before I get into my thoughts on the matter, I want to bring us up to speed with Johnson’s statement above. The divine sovereignty and human responsibility debate always comes down to addressing 1) the sovereignty of God (hence, divine sovereignty) and 2) the responsibility of man. This becomes a particularly interesting discussion when someone brings up the existence of evil as a way to refute the notion of divine sovereignty.

I’ve written much on the subject here at the Center for Theological Studies, so I won’t address those thoughts in detail (I’ll aim for brevity). At this point, however, let me say that, Johnson’s statement above seems to be what many believe about God: that is, if they want a sovereign God, they must abandon free will (hence, Calvinism). And, if they want to affirm genuine free will, many feel as if they must abandon the sovereignty of God (hence, process theology and openness theology).

If you’ve heard of Calvinists and Open Theists, you can insert them in the argument: Calvinists emphasize the sovereignty of God to such an extent that God is responsible for evil, and Open Theists and Process Theists emphasize the responsibility of man to such an extent that God’s omniscience is no longer exhaustive (but substantial) and God is absolved of responsibility for evil because He didn’t foreknow what the individual(s) would do. Johnson puts process theists in the argument here, but open theists operate under many of the same points as process theologians and adherents.

I do agree with Johnson when he attacks both process theology and liberation theology in their attempts to reconcile divine sovereignty and the presence of evil: “The process and liberation understanding of God is both philosophically and religiously deficient. It is philosophically unsatisfying because the notion of God’s ‘coming into being with the world’ seems the most basic contradiction of the principle ex nihilo nihil fit (‘out of nothing, nothing can come’). God is as unnecessary and as dependent as the world to which God is related. It is difficult to see how the absolute can arise out of the relative, the necessary out of the contingent, the eternal out of the temporal. It is religiously unsatisfying because it removes the need to pray and worship. How can we pray that God’s will be done, if God is no more powerful than we are? How can we worship a God in the process of becoming – and needing our help?” (Johnson, page 90).

Process theology says that “God is in process,” that He’s “becoming God” in the sense that He’s learning as we learn. Along these lines, process theists and open theists would also say that God has a “dynamic” omniscience, which is ever changing, in contrast with a static omniscience which is exhaustive and foreknows everything. In other words, in process and openness theology, God has to give up some portion or all of his foreknowledge and exhaustive omniscience to be acquitted of any responsibility for evil. The process/openness view of God is an attempt to build a theodicy, a word that means “righteousness of God.” A theodicy attempts to show why God is righteous in the face of evil, suffering, and tragedy.

Should we attempt to build a theodicy?

At the same time, however, Johnson seems to write, rather boldly, that we should not try to bring God down to our level in order to “contain” Him: “By reducing the mystery of God’s power and knowledge to the level of a problem, by insisting also that the ‘problem’ of free will and the ‘problem’ of evil must be understood within the frame of ordinary human understanding, such theologies diminish both the majesty and mystery of God, and diminish both the tragedy and hope of human existence” (pages 88-90).

According to Luke Timothy Johnson, process theologians and liberation theologians are treading on a path that they cannot travel. They are attempting to “diminish the majesty and mystery of God” by wrestling with the sovereignty of God and the existence of evil. Is this necessarily so?

Well, yes and no. If process theists, in particular, diminish anything, then they’re guilty of diminishing Scriptural teaching. For instance, their desire to diminish God’s omniscience and foreknowledge goes against Scriptural teaching. Where I disagree with Johnson is that I don’t think that theologians are trying to diminish the majesty and mystery of God by trying to put the knowledge of God from the Scriptures into perspective. After all, the Lord did reveal Himself in the Scriptures; why would He reveal Himself if He didn’t want us to make sense of those same Scriptures?

We can’t just sit back and say, “Although God gave us the Scriptures to know who He is and what He stands for, we can’t seek to know what the Scriptures tell us, because, if we do, we’ll ruin the mystery and majesty of God.” No; the Scriptures REVEAL the mystery and majesty of God, and by studying them, we come to learn more and more that God’s ways are not our own. If anything, learning more about God’s sovereignty in the face of evil will result in greater praise and worship from believers to the King of Kings than before.

Do the Scriptures attest to God’s sovereignty in the face of evil? Yes, they do. With that said then, a robust theodicy must include divine sovereignty, divine omniscience, and human responsibility. We’ll discuss these pieces of a strong theodicy in my next post.

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