My Response to Christianity Today Review
I thank Derek Rishmawy for his Christianity Today review of my new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I offer this response as a way to clarify and note differences between Derek’s views and my own.
Derek begins his review (click here) with a concise summary of the general drift of my book. This summary is fair and clear. I always appreciate it when reviewers get the overarching ideas I am proposing. Kudos to Derek for this!
Derek’s first criticism is that my view does not fit with how biblical writers describe events as intended by God. He notes that I draw upon Jesus’ healing of a man blind from birth. I say this story is a possible example of a chance occurrence God did not want but out of which God brings good.
Derek responds, “Jesus explicitly says that the man was born blind ‘so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (v. 3). The ‘so that’ is a statement of purpose, of intentionality, not happenstance off of which God did a creative riff.”
I understand Derek’s thinking here. I first thought the same when I looked at the passage. But when I read original Greek words translated in this passage, I discovered the “so that” phrase is not found in the Greek. Apparently, the theological bias of the translators prompted them to use English words that suggest God intended the man’s blindness. But the Greek words don’t require this interpretation; “so that” isn’t there.
In my view, we can appropriately assume that random mutations or creaturely mishaps caused the blindness. I admit this is speculation. But the “so that” translation is also speculation.
Derek’s second major point is more substantial. He rightly says that miracles, as I define them, are acts of love. They are “positive” events not “negative,” to use his words.
Derek points to biblical miracles he regards as negative. Those events include the Genesis flood, the plagues of Egypt, the blinding of Assyrians, the blinding of Paul, and Jesus cursing the fig tree. (He includes the death of Ananias and Sappira, but the text never attributes those deaths to God.) Derek says “none of these qualify as acts of empowering, enabling love—at least not for all involved—and many involve God explicitly overturning “law-like regularities” in acts of destruction.”
On this, I offer two responses: 1) I am committed to the view that God always loves and never does evil. I think this is the dominant biblical witness to God. When Derek points to events and calls them negative or examples of God doing evil, I disagree. I believe God’s love is steadfast, relentless, and never failing. Consequently, God never does evil.
But 2) Derek may be noting that God’s actions are not necessarily positive for all creatures involved. I have no problem accepting this, because I think God seeks overall well-being. What God does to promote overall well-being may involve suffering for those who do not cooperate with God (and his examples fit this description). Such suffering because of uncooperation is the natural negative consequence from failing to cooperate with God’s love.
I also don’t think we need to believe that all actions attributed to God are rightly attributed. One need not be a liberal theologian to believe that sometimes we misunderstand God’s calls and misidentify God’s action. Some events identified as divinely accomplished or sanctioned are not so. Derek should agree with this view, because later in his review he acknowledges that humans have limited understanding.One need not be a liberal to believe biblical writers sometimes misunderstand God’s desires and misidentify God's action. Click To Tweet
Derek says my account of miracles “yields conflicting propositions.” By this, he means that “it asks us to believe that God is able to raise the dead to life in Jesus’s resurrection—but also that, in this life, the ‘law-like regularities’ governing cells, organs, and body parts can ‘resist’ and ‘thwart’ his healing initiatives.”
I can understand Derek’s confusion here. He wonders, How can something new and dramatic occur, and yet law-like consistencies also be present?
Fortunately, we can affirm law-like regularities and also affirm that creatures, organisms, and simple entities have a range of possible responses to God. The smaller the entity, the more law-like consistencies prevail but do not entirely determine. According to quantum theory, for instance, even the smallest entities of existence are not entirely determined.
In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, his crucified body and whatever aspect of him retaining subjectivity (call it “soul,” “mind,” “spirit,” or whatever) could cooperate with God’s actions to resurrect. Law-like regularities do not entirely determine body and soul. (For more on Jesus’ resurrection, see my earlier book, The Nature of Love.)
Cross is Foreordained and Foreknown
Derek points to a few verses in the book of Acts, in which Peter preaches about the Cross of Christ. Here, Derek wants to affirm that “free choices” are “deliberately planned and foreordained by God.”
The passages Derek highlights have for ages been a source of disagreement between Calvinists and free-will theists like me. One does not need to be an open and relational theologian to reject the idea that creatures are both free and predestined. This is apparently Derek’s view, however. In affirming it, Derek is taking on free-will theists of every stripe.
Is God Free?
I give credit to Derek for thinking deeply about possible ways God is free and ways God is not. Derek agrees with me that God necessarily and essentially loves. This implies that God is not free not to love, although I’m not sure from the review that Derek realizes this. The God who necessarily loves is not free in all ways.
Derek’s concern here, however, is the idea that God must create. In a footnote of The Uncontrolling Love of God, I say one could affirm my views and also affirm creation ex nihilo. But Derek apparently knows from reading my other writings that don’t affirm creation from nothing. I think God always creates out of that which God previously created, because God’s nature of love compels creating.
Derek worries that the view that God must create “threatens to slide into pantheism.” Thankfully, other alternatives are available. Many panentheists (not pantheists) reject creation ex nihilo and pantheism while affirming that God necessarily creates.
My position is also fully compatible with the idea that God is triune. Derek is right that some theologians say God is “full and complete” within the “the eternal realm of mutual self-giving between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Affirming intra-trinitarian mutuality, however, is compatible with saying God must create. In other words, we can affirm both views. (I also argue this point in The Nature of Love.)
Derek ends the article with what he says is the “major” problem of my book: I don’t appeal to mystery. I’m allergic to it, he says, and that I don’t respect the gap between Creator and creature.
We’ve all heard the mystery claim. It’s the go-to position for those unwilling to rethink their views of God. It’s the claim that makes it impossible for most Christians to make good sense of life. And the mystery claim is a main reason I wrote The Uncontrolling Love of God.
Derek appeals to Job to support his mystery appeal. Job’s friends wanted “neat and tidy” answers, he says, and they “couldn’t sit with the tension.” But “they failed to understand that it’s quite rational to believe many of God’s ways are beyond us.”
Note that earlier Derek didn’t say “Gods ways are beyond us” when it came to his theology of how God does miracles. He doesn’t appeal to mystery when it comes to his theology of the cross or resurrection. He’s not appealing to mystery when he says God created from nothing or created the world freely. Derek’s not even appealing to mystery when he says God engages in mutual giving and receiving in Trinity.
Judging by this review, Derek is pretty confident on so many theological issues. But when it comes to the primary reason most atheists say they cannot believe in God, he says the “major problem” of people like me is that we’re unwilling to accept mystery.
I’m consistently amazed by those who say “God’s ways are beyond us” when it comes to the problem of evil but who act as if God’s ways are pretty obvious when it comes to most other aspects of theology!Those who say “God’s ways are beyond us” in response to evil often act as if God’s ways are obvious on other theological issues! Click To Tweet
Derek concludes his review by saying that God is infinitely wise. He affirms that God is found in the suffering and folly of the cross. He claims that God is the source of our salvation. On all of these points, I agree with him.
But as I argue in The Uncontrolling Love of God, we can make far more sense of life when we understand reality as created, sustained, and transformed by the uncontrolling love of God.