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!
“So That” Miracle?
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.
Hey, thanks for responding. I’ve got a second part review going up on my own blog soon. I think I’ll simply note a couple of points by way of response:
1. The Greek does have word there: “hina”. It’s usually translated, “that, so that, in order that, etc.” I actually referenced this in the original review, but it didn’t make it in.
2. On the miracles, I think one point I didn’t get to was the general biblical theology of the Exodus curses were a theology of de-creation, according to recent commentators. Also, I wonder if your comment about seeking general well-being, not always particular well-being, doesn’t seem to fit with your argument in the book. That would be a nuance to add.
3. I actually included a line in the review about the preaching of the apostles that drew that out more. I think Arminians, Wesleyans, and even Open Theists like Boyd can hazard a plausible reading of those texts. They have space for them. I do not think yours does as your is more restrictive of God’s activity and his ability to act unilaterally and so forth.
4. Finally, your last point about all those things I claim to know very certainly misses one very important point: I think Scripture tells these things. I’m not just believing these things out of nowhere. I am actually basing my beliefs one what God has revealed in Scripture. I have verses for these things. They are *revealed*. And what I further go on to argue is that the revelation of God seems to tell us that there are things that God has not revealed to us. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s part of my point–revelation itself points to mystery in this area.
I’ll probably take up more of this in the next part of my review. But again, thanks for the charitable interaction.
Tom in reading the many reviews, and this is one, I am struck that when one begins where Derek does, like others like him, one can never get your points. Of course, it is possible when one reads your clear position, one may actually change their mind. So when I read the review I realized that Derek’s position is problematic. It is true he gives an good outline, but he really does not engage your theological position but really just rejects it and tries to justify that rejection. At this point he does not engage in theological criticism but he rejects the book out of his position, and that position is not open to open theism.
Thanks Thomas for the thoughtful post! Just came across Derek’s review and your response, and appreciate your guys charitable yet critical interaction. I might be misunderstanding here, but a few thoughts that arose reading this:
1) It seems to me the primary significance Derek raises is the Creator/creature distinction, which gives space for God’s agency not being univocal with ours (on this, it seems like a confusion your attributing to him “God does evil” simply because he recognizes God’s agency even in events that oppose him), this seems like a caricature of the vision of sovereignty he’s espousing.
2) On “so that,” it seems even if you pull out the Greek for the phrase you still have the overriding context of Jesus’ declaring God’s purposes to glorify himself applying to the prior state of the man’s blindness, not simply the event of healing;
3) On “God always loves,” that’s doesn’t actually appear to be a point of distinction between you two (as you acknowledge later in the post), but rather your distinction is how it gets fleshed out in relation to sovereignty (yet in this earlier section you seem to state it as if to say, “I say God always loves; Derek says God does evil)”;
4) On “not all actions to God rightly attributed,” I can’t tell if you’re making the obvious point (ie. my neighbor who says God told him to cheat on his wife or murder the mayor), or the more significant but controversial point (ie. in context of Scripture, the Pete Enns move, etc). While the wording’s ambiguous enough to leave vague which is in mind, the context hints strongly at what would tend to be a liberal claim on the authority of Scripture;
5) On “natural negative consequence,” this seems to miss the historical point that because God as Creator has ordered creation in such a way that such consequences transpire when we rebel against his ways, and because God sustains creation with his very presence even under such conditions as which we experience those negative consequences, God is involved with a true agency (even if dissimilar from our own) in our experience of the negative consequences our actions give rise to; ie. “nature” does not distance us from our Creator, it brings us before him. This gets back to the primary point of the Creator/creature distinction and its implications for a more nuanced framework for God’s agency.
6) On resurrection, I can’t tell if you take this to mean you think we as well can “resist resurrection”?? ie. if so, how do you make sense of “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22)–is this only limited to those who “cooperate” with God’s purposes for their own resurrection??
7) On “freedom,” it seems the historical concern was that God is free to act according to God’s eternal nature / “immanent” identity prior to and apart from his “economic” relations with creation, versus a view that binds up God’s “economic” action with creation as eternally necessary. Derek’s view articulated in the post seems to affirm the historical concerns with freedom (while not denying that, of course, God acts in accordance with his immanent nature), but I don’t see how your vision avoids constraining God’s freedom in the context of the historical concern (ie. the eternal constraint of an “economic” bond not freely entered into).
Perhaps I just need to read the book. 🙂 But thought I’d share some thoughts in interaction with the post. Thanks!
Whoever follows Derek’s logic to its end must necessarily arrive at a god who controls evil and inflicts it on unborn babies. That is the only conclusion one can draw from his insistence that we insert a nonexistent “so that” in the story of the man born blind. The god of Derek’s imagining caused that man to be born blind so that later he could heal him and get praise for it. I shudder to think about the kinds of people who are willing to call that god praiseworthy.
Tom, I have always appreciated your spirit in responding to others’ differences of opinions. This post does not disappoint once again. One can only imagine the influence followers of Christ might have if we shared one another’s opinion gracefully, so to work out our own convictions with as much consistency as possible. I do think your book The Uncontrolling Love of God offers a fresh and possibly the best to date solution for how God’s goodness and the presence of evil can co-exist. Besides perhaps predetermined views of God’s omniscience, miracles since they bring to mind the arbitrariness of God are the biggest challenge. I hope you have a book in you about this matter if you haven’t already written
Thanks for your response. I’m traveling at the moment, so I cannot answer your good questions as well as I would like. But here are a few responses…
1. Thanks for further clarification on the “so that” translation. The word is translated in other ways when used elsewhere in the Bible. I’m not saying the “so that” translation is not a possible one. I’m saying it is not the best one, and I suspect the theological presuppositions of the translators inclined them toward their rendering here.
2. Thanks for the clarification. As to “general well-being,” I don’t want to seem that my argument amounts to a simple “greater good” defense. (I’m not saying you’re suggesting this, but I just thought I’d mention it.) Rather, I want to emphasize that doing other than God’s loving best undermines well-being for individuals and creation at large.
3. I don’t understand your third comment.
4. Your fourth point is a fair one, and I do think the Bible is clearer on some points than others. I’d say its a matter of degree, however, and not kind. I would also concede that the biblical writers don’t offer a coherent and clear solution to the problem of evil. Bart Ehrmann’s book, God’s Problem, does a strong job of showing this. But I do think we can piece together various biblical arguments and themes to construct a solution to the problem of evil that is consonant with the Bible. That’s what I’ve attempted to do in my book. In a future book, I plan to offer what I call a 5-fold solution to the problem of evil. The Uncontrolling Love of God focused primarily on one aspect of my larger solution.
Thanks again for your charitable tone.
Great set of questions! Responding to them all carefully takes more time than I have. But in the spirit of charity and respect to your post, here are some very brief responses…
1. I’m not so worried about univocal language when it comes to divine and creaturely action. I just think we should admit that what we think is univocal may be not be so.
2. I do think we can say God uses the situation of blindness for glory. I simply reject that notion that God caused or allowed the blindness.
3. Perhaps you’re right. But Derek’s use of “negative” in relation to miracles sounds to me and others like an evil rather than loving intent.
4. I’m making the stronger point that biblical writers sometimes misunderstood God.
5. I do think God is a necessary cause in every event, whether loving or evil. But that doesn’t mean God wanted the evil or is the primary cause of it. Just like the rapist’s parents are necessary causes of his existence and yet not culpable for his rape, God is a necessary cause of all things, but some actions go against God’s call, command, or wishes.
6. I’m open to the notion that some can resist God’s resurrection initiative. But I haven’t worked this out well. But I think the Corinthians passage is speaking of spiritual life and death, not physical.
7. You’ve pointed to an important difference here between my view and Derek’s. I think God MUST create and has been everlastingly doing so. Unlike most theologians, I think creating is an essential activity of God, because creating derives from love. And love for others (not just in Trinity) is essential to God.
I really hope you get the book!
Thank you so much Thomas! Grateful for the charitable response and clarification. Sincerely,
What do you see as the essential difference between God “using” a problem like blindness “for glory”, and God “allowing” such a problem for the same reason? And how does that relate to the situation in which Job found himself, in which it SEEMS God is explicitly “allowing” some pretty terrible things to happen to Job?
I have worked none of this out in my own mind, so I’m simply coming at this from a place of genuine curiosity.
Thanks for the replies.
1. Agree to disagree on translation. I think the clause indicates purpose, but we probably won’t settle that here.
2. We’ll leave that there.
3. To clarify, I was addressing your comments about my reference to the preaching of the apostles about Jesus’ Cross being the result of both human, free choices and the direct foreknowledge and plan of God, as both passages in Acts indicate. My point was that you suggested my critique of you was based in my rejection of free-will theists of every stripe and I’m saying that it was not intended so, originally. I disagree with their readings, but Arminians, Wesleyans, and even more traditional Open Theists like Greg Boyd have categories that allow them to try to make sense of those verses. I was suggesting that your bolder iteration of Open Theism has greater difficulty than they do. And I don’t think you have to be a Reformed Calvinist to think so.
4. I agree that to some degree we can construct a broader, biblical view of the problem of evil out of the various themes. What I think, though, is that part of the biblical material is a very clear warning that some of this will be beyond us–mystery is part of the revealed view, even if we can speak of other dimensions. I’ll be curious what your five-fold solution will be, though.
Incidentally, I’m reading Eleonore Stump’s “Wandering in Darkness” on the problem of suffering. Fascinating work on the subject. Highly recommend so far. Also, Todd Billings’ “Rejoicing in Lament” might be fun for you to interact with.
Thanks for the note, Kevin. I don’t like to use the word “allow,” because it suggests God could have done otherwise and not allowed. In terms of evil, this suggests that God could prevent evil but chooses instead to permit it. If the evil is genuine, I think a loving God would ALWAYS prevent it and never allow it. By the way, I address this in several places in my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m just a common layman—that’s it—but I’ve always been troubled by the “Sovereignty of God” versus the “Free will of man” issue. Based on what I learned in my formal education you can’t have it both ways. However, lately I’ve decided that if I can’t understand how light can be a “particle” and a “continuous wave,” then maybe I should let the “Sovereignty of God” versus the “Free will of man” issue go.
I just want to comment on the “mystery” thing. I think there is room for a lot of it. It was a Saturday, and I walked into the pastor’s office to be baptized because my wife and I wanted to join the church (bring the kids up right, that kind of thing). He asked a bunch of questions that were contained in his book, and I gave all the right answers—remember I’m there because I want to join the church. He poured the water on my head, I thanked him, walked out the door and stopped dead in my tracks. I looked back at the door and said, “What in the hell just happened here.?” I walked in to join the church and walked out a different person. This is very mysterious to me.
I think some of the trouble dealing with good, evil, how God works and so on, comes from confusing “belief” and “faith.” To me they are not the same. “Belief” is a necessary product of the mind and act of the will. We like “belief” because we like to figure things out. Believing in Christ and trying to figure out how God works is a good thing, but it comes up short—very, very short—and I would say it doesn’t save you. No matter how much you “believe” or think you have figured out God, there is always doubt because of all the bad stuff happening around us and to us (I’m a cancer survivor). We cover this up because we don’t like to admit that the doubt exists: it makes us very nervous. Not to worry friends. God in His grace fills in that huge gap of doubt with His faith. Sometimes God is very close to me and sometimes I can’t find Him at all, but His faith never leaves me. It’s a real mystery.