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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Letter to the board of trustees of Northwest Nazarene University with regard to the firing of Tom Oord

I did not originally intend this as an open letter, but my wife urged me to publish it on the grounds that some of what I say here about issues in contemporary evangelical higher education is worth saying publicly. And I tend to trust her judgment on that sort of thing.

Background for those who don't already know: recently a tenured theology professor at Northwest Nazarene, Tom Oord, was suddenly laid off, allegedly for budgetary reasons. Since the president of the university had tried to get rid of him before, and since he was both a very prestigious and a very controversial member of the faculty, the claim that this was a purely financial decision didn't hold water. Most recently, the layoff has been put on hold while the board reviews the president's decision (though I didn't know that when I wrote the letter).

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I take the liberty of writing to you because of my deep concern about the recent removal of Tom Oord, and the broader pattern of craven, worldly pragmatism cloaked in piety that is rotting away the heart of evangelical higher education.

Unlike many of the people you are hearing from about this matter, I have no connection with NNU and no direct connection with the Church of the Nazarene. I come from a radical Holiness background (in fact my grandparents grew up in a church where "Nazarene religion" was a pejorative synonym for a compromising, watered-down version of Holiness teaching) but have been Episcopalian since 1998. 

What I have to say to you on this matter comes from my own bitter experience at another evangelical institution of higher learning, Huntington University. I taught for six years at Huntington , arriving in the wake of the firing of John Sanders in 2006. I lost my own job in 2012 for genuinely financial reasons (I was an untenured assistant professor and the generalist in the department, so unlike Oord, I was the logical person to lay off), and the questions concerning presidential leadership and the relationship between Board, faculty, and administration raised in the context of that budgetary controversy were very similar to those that you are currently considering. 

It is my belief, however, that the roots of the problems faced by HU in 2011-12 lay in the removal of John Sanders in 2005-6, and the broader pattern of poor decisions of which the firing of Sanders was the most egregious example. Institutions of higher learning in the United States are facing tough financial and strategic decisions, and more and more are compromising traditional liberal arts education in the name of pragmatism. In the case of evangelicals, however, there is a further factor at work--the intense pressure exerted on university administrations by conservative donors, alumni, pastors, and parents who object to any ideas being taught at "their" institution which violate their particular understanding of Christian orthodoxy. Those who call for the removal of "heretical" faculty are generally themselves deeply sincere Christians, and I respect their piety even when I disagree with their views and their methods. However, the pressure exerted by these sincere believers for godly (if in my opinion misguided) reasons interacts with the broader institutional culture of pragmatism in deeply toxic ways which risk destroying the intellectual and spiritual integrity of American evangelical higher education.

In the case of Sanders, intense pressure by conservative Christians hostile to Sanders' open theism and inclusivism led (allegedly) to a decline in enrollment. Since HU's growth plan was (disastrously) based almost entirely on a steady increase in enrollment, anything that hurt recruitment among evangelical youth was seen as hurting the institution. That pragmatic consideration was, as far as I could discern from speaking to the people involved, the primary reason for the removal of Sanders. As a result, all faculty at HU (including myself) worked in the knowledge that the institution had no genuine commitment either to academic freedom or to doctrinal principles. Any faculty member who awakened controversy would be seen as expendable, even if the administration had no problem with his or her theology. 

I understand that Tom Oord's theology has been examined by authorities within the Church of the Nazarene and found to be compatible with the doctrinal commitments of the denomination. If the CotN had decided otherwise, it would of course not be my place as an outsider to protest. But I do protest with all my heart against the transparent pretext that Oord has been fired for merely financial reasons. Given his stature in his field and (if I am not mistaken) his excellent teaching evaluations, the claim that he was the most expendable member of the department is simply not believable, unless his controversial status is taken into account. No coherent account of why this decision was made has emerged from the administration, as far as I'm aware.

If you allow this decision to stand, you are putting your seal of approval on injustice and corruption. If you ask President Alexander to resign, but also do not reinstate Dr. Oord, then you have not solved the real problem. the real problem is not the poor leadership of one president (I know very little about Dr. Alexander and bear him no malice) but the broader pattern, going far beyond Dr. Alexander or any one institution, of which this reprehensible incident is simply the most recent example. If you are going to have a liberal arts college at all, then you must stand by the academic freedom of your faculty up to the point at which they are officially found by competent church authorities to have violated the basic principles of the Church of the Nazarene. The removal of faculty based on a fear of negative financial consequences resulting from controversy obviously undercuts the intellectual integrity of your institution. But it also compromises the university's claims to uphold Scriptural holiness.

Holiness requires truth. It may be holy, it may be loving, sometimes to remove heretics from positions of authority. It can never in any way be holy or just to remove a man who has been found innocent of heresy simply because his ideas are controversial.

I pray that whatever decision you make in the coming days will be made not in the spirit of worldly calculation but in a manner that you will be able to defend before the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,

Edwin Woodruff Tait

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 6--how it all fits together

Boyd's "warfare theology" is a comprehensive account of how God relates to the world in providence and salvation, from creation to the final consummation. Having looked at parts of this theology over the previous several posts, we're now in a position to examine how it all comes together. And in doing so, I want to highlight several parts of Boyd's theology that don't come under the previous headings, particularly his eschatology (which is one of my favorite parts of his work).

Boyd's fundamental starting point is that God respects creaturely freedom. Creation, for Boyd, involves God giving creatures a space in which to exercise a certain degree of autonomy. It is central to freedom, as Boyd sees it, that this decision be irrevocable. God can't say "sorry, you are messing up and so I will step in and take away your freedom." At the same time, freedom has a limit--eventually the created being will have worked out the potential for good and evil inherent in its creation, and will face judgment for how it has used the power God gave it. This power affects not only the creature itself but other beings, to a greater and lesser extent depending on the power of the being in question (very great in the case of Satan, for instance).

Boyd supports this high valuation of creaturely freedom by appealing to quantum mechanics and chaos theory. I'm not in a position to evaluate this part of his work scientifically, or even philosophically. But for Boyd, order emerges out of the chaos of myriad beings (or even just quantum particles) interacting with each other. God is in "control" in the sense that God rides the wave of created freedom, guiding it without ever determining the actions of individuals. God moves creation infallibly toward the final goal of union with Himself in peace and love, but God shows his sovereignty precisely by accomplishing this goal through (rather than against) the freedom of His creatures.

God's providence, then, takes the form of responding to the free actions of created beings, sometimes in anger and sorrow, but always with an ultimate purpose of mercy and redemption. Boyd suggests that there have been moments in the history of the universe when creation became so messed up that God had to create the opportunity for a new start through a cataclysmic act of judgment. Boyd speculates that the destruction of the dinosaurs and the creation of the world described in Genesis 1 (recall his interest in the "gap theory") was one such moment. Another, more clearly recorded in Scripture, would be the Flood. God's "regret that he made humanity," while genuine, is not the final word. God always finds a way to respond graciously to the destructive behavior of creation, setting the stage for a new act in the drama of created freedom.

Eventually, however, the misuse of freedom will end. Reality will catch up to those who have tried in vain to create a reality of their own. Following C. S. Lewis and Jerry Walls, Boyd understands hell as a self-imposed punishment, a prison to which people condemn themselves. But following on some hints in Lewis (quite differently from Walls), Boyd suggests that this false reality is, in fact, a kind of nothingness. I don't see this as outright annihilationism, but Boyd certainly approaches annihilationism (and I understand that he may have embraced it more explicitly in recent years). He uses the concept of relativity, again, to suggest that the damned lock themselves into a "now" that is somehow separated from God's "now" and thus left behind. Hence, from the standpoint of God and the redeemed, they no longer exist. (I may be getting this part wrong--it was pretty complex and my slow progress on these blogs has meant that it's now quite a long time ago that I read the book.)

Boyd's entire theology, then, is structured around a progression from an initial good creation rooted in the gift of freedom to a final consummation in which those who have insisted on misusing their freedom will be locked into the false reality they have created, and those who have opened themselves to God's love will rejoice with God in a world from which evil has been banished. His open theism and "warfare theology" are key parts of this vision, but it's important to understand them in their broader context within the compelling drama of salvation that Boyd outlines in these two books. In my final blog post in this series (yes, the series will finally end with the perfect number of seven), I will summarize my own reactions to Boyd's theology as found in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 5--open theism

As I said in my first post in this series, my knowledge of open theism before reading Boyd was primarily dependent on the work of John Sanders and William Hasker (also David Woodruff and Tom Oord). I respect Sanders' work very much but did not find his presuppositions with regard to open theism convincing. Hasker held my feet to the fire on a number of points of logic in very helpful and challenging ways, but again I found his understanding of God to be on the whole too anthropomorphic and not sufficiently open to mystery. I have been intrigued by Boyd for years precisely because he links open theism with a "warfare theology" that I find intriguing and appealing in principle. Hence my desire to read his work in more depth and understand just what he means by warfare theology and how it relates to his open theism. I have spent three posts laying out warfare theology without bringing in open theism precisely because open theism is, for me, the most clearly problematic aspect of Boyd's thought. If I can take his insights on warfare theology and leave the open theism, I'll be happy to do so.

I think the relationship between warfare theology and open theism in Boyd's thought is best described by analogy with Richard Dawkins' famous remark about atheism and evolution: that evolution does not require atheism or prove it but makes it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist." In the same way, I think, open theism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled warfare theologian. (And just as one can certainly be an evolutionist without being an atheist, so one can certainly be an open theist without being a warfare theologian. Hasker's theodicy, for instance, does not appeal to a warfare model.) One can, Boyd argues, hold to warfare theology without adopting open theism, but there are various awkward questions one has to answer. Open theism is the philosophical position best suited to warfare theology. Hence, if Boyd's description of the Bible's stance on God's war with evil is correct, open theism becomes more appealing.

Boyd, like other contemporary authors who have written about this issue, distinguishes between three basic explanations of God's "exhaustive foreknowledge" (i.e., knowledge of everything that has happened or will happen).

1. The Thomist (or Augustinian, or Calvinist) position that God knows things by causing them. Open theists tend to roll Thomism, Calvinism, and other forms of Augustinianism together. It's a bit more complicated than that. Thomists deny that God causes evil, because (like other traditional Christian theologians) they deny that evil is a thing. Evil is a privation--a lack of a good that ought to be in something God has created. Calvinism is really a theological position, not a philosophical one. Some Calvinists are more thoroughgoing determinists than Thomists are. Some are essentially Thomists. Some hold to some other slightly different way of reconciling God's sovereignty and human freedom. At least one prominent modern Calvinist philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, is a Molinist. At any rate, for the purposes of this discussion I'll use the term "Thomist" for the relatively more "deterministic" end of the spectrum (though of course Thomists deny that they are determinists). That is to say, Thomists explain how God knows things by saying that God knows everything as an imitation of his own infinite perfection. God knows possible things as possible reflections of his goodness, and he knows the specific things he creates by knowing the specific ways in which he eternally chooses to have those specific creatures reflect the divine perfection. Aquinas deals with the question of God's knowledge of free acts by saying that God knows things in the mode in which they exist. So if we choose freely, God knows us choosing freely. Later Thomists have tried to deal with the complexities of this, and I'm not very familiar with these discussions. But obviously open theists find this explanation, however nuanced, less than satisfactory, particularly when combined with the claim that God knows things precisely by virtue of causing them. If God knows my action by virtue of causing it, and knows it timelessly with absolute certainty (more on timeless knowledge in a minute), then what does it mean to assert that the action is free? Furthermore, for Boyd Thomism is a classic embodiment of "blueprint theology," and he clearly assumes that it is simply incompatible with a warfare perspective. Hence, Boyd does not deal with Thomism in much detail in Satan and the Problem of Evil. Rather, he focuses on the views that hold more potential for compatibility with warfare theology.

2. Chief among these is Molinism. This was proposed in the late sixteenth century by a Jesuit theologian, Luis de Molina, as an interpretation and development of Aquinas' thought. The Dominicans rejected Molina's view (and clearly he does disagree with Aquinas on some significant points), and formulated the developed "Thomist" position in opposition to it. Molina's innovation was to suggest that God knows not only what is possible and what actually exists, but also what would exist if certain other things came to be. (This is called "middle knowledge," because it's in between God's knowledge of what is and God's knowledge of what is merely possible.) The classic Biblical example cited by Molinists is 1 Samuel 23. David saves a city called Keilah from the Philistines, and Saul promptly gets an expedition together to attack the city and capture David. David asks God whether Saul will attack, to which God responds "yes." Then David asks whether the people of Keilah will hand David over, and again God responds "yes." Now in my opinion this isn't anything like a conclusive. It can be explained in terms of God's knowledge of the human heart--the people of Keilah actively intend to hand David over if Saul shows up, or perhaps they are simply people of such a character that God knows they will hand him over (this is Boyd's explanation). But it's a good example of what Molinists are talking about when they speak of middle knowledge. Since David skedaddles before Saul gets there, there is no "future" event for God to know. But at the same time, the betrayal of David by the people of Keilah isn't just one among many possibilities God sees--it is a fact about what would have happened.

Philosophically, the classic problem with Molinism is the so-called "grounding objection." At this point, we're getting into philosophical waters that are a bit deep for me, but as I understand it the grounding objection means that it's not clear just what it is God knows when God knows "what would have happened." The men of Keilah never actually chose to betray David. On Molinist principles, they wouldn't even have had to think about what they would do if Saul attacked for God to know that they would betray David under those circumstances. Indeed, according to Molinism God knows "what would have happened" from all eternity. His knowledge is logically prior (i.e., not dependent on) anything human beings do. So what is the basis for this knowledge? It isn't God's decree. It isn't a choice that a creature actually makes which God can see/foresee. What exactly, then, is God knowing?

A second objection, related to the first I think, is that Molinism actually is deterministic, though it's trying to avoid determinism. To say that there is a fact about what I would do under circumstances X seems (at least to me) to imply that my actions are determined by their circumstances. I do not have "libertarian freedom" with regard to possible circumstances if there is only one thing that I would do under those circumstances. But perhaps I just don't get it. The issues surrounding Molinism are extremely complex, and while I have become much more dubious about the theory than I used to be, I'm not in a position to have a firm view one way or the other.

3. The third and often least understood possibility is "simple foreknowledge." Now on the face of it this is apparently what a lot of people believe. People speak all the time about God knowing things or foreknowing them, whereas middle knowledge is a rather abstruse philosophical concept. But I think most theists are implicit Molinists--I certainly was. Once the concept of middle knowledge is explained, it makes intuitive sense. If God knows everything, wouldn't God know what "would have happened"? Only on a bit more thought do the problems with middle knowledge appear (and perhaps--or at least so say the partisans of middle knowledge--with a bit more thought they disappear again!). In simple foreknowledge, on the other hand, God only knows things that actually happen. Those are the only things there are to know. There is no truth or falsehood about the statement, "Edwin would accept a job at Harvard if it were offered to him" or the statement "Ted Cruz would start a nuclear war if elected president." There may be things about me or Ted Cruz that would make it likely or even morally certain that we would or wouldn't do these things, and in all the views I'm discussing (including open theism) God would know these things perfectly. But the only things God actually "sees" are the things that actually happen, at whatever point in the timeline of creation they happen.

Open theists tend to think that this view, like all the "exhaustive foreknowledge" positions, is incompatible with free will. But a further objection to this one is that it does nothing at all to explain divine providence. In middle knowledge, God might know that Herod will kill baby Jesus if God does not send an angel to tell Joseph to flee to Egypt. So God sends the angel. But under simple foreknowledge, God knows only that He will send the angel and that the Holy Family will flee. He knows eternally that this is what happens. Thus, this knowledge can't guide Him in knowing what needs to be done to prevent Herod from killing Jesus. I have been informed that there are responses to this objection, but I have not yet read them. At this point, it seems to me that simple foreknowledge is primarily about the nature of God and says little about how God actually exercises providence.

A fourth position really isn't an alternative to the previous three, but has traditionally been assumed by adherents of all of them. That is "timeless knowledge"--the view that God exists in an eternal "now" and thus knows everything that has been, is, or will be as if it were present. Many modern philosophers have abandoned this position while still arguing for some form of "exhaustive divine foreknowledge." Thus, open theists such as Boyd frequently seem to treat timeless knowledge as an extra add-on--a view that proponents of exhaustive foreknowledge may hold but which if so will put extra burdens on their position.

My own view, on the other hand, is that God's timelessness is the key issue. If God moves through time much as we do, then the open theist position is likely to be correct. I think that open theists have good arguments explaining why, setting God's timelessness aside, it is not necessary to believe that God knows the future exhaustively. Indeed, if God exists in time, it seems to me to follow almost necessarily that the future does not exist to be known. The only reason to believe the future is real is that God is, so to speak, already there.

Boyd's philosophical arguments for open theism rest on a reworking of Molinism. Boyd argues that just as God knows the truth of all statements about what is or is not (the basic definition of omniscience), and of all statements about what would or would not be (the Molinist "middle knowledge"), so God knows the truth of "might/might not" statements. In other words, some things exist, and God knows them as existing. Other things would exist if certain conditions were fulfilled, and God knows those things as conditionally real. But other things exist only as possibilities depending on the choices of free beings. God perfectly knows just how probable these things are, because that is all there is to know until the choice is made one way or the other. Again, if divine timelessness is untrue, then these arguments are quite convincing. And if divine timelessness is true, but "simple foreknowledge" best describes how God's knowledge relates to God's providence, then for all practical purposes the open theists are right about how Providence operates, even though they are wrong about the nature of God's knowledge.

One modern scientific theory that is sometimes invoked (by Larry Wood, for instance) to support the traditional view of God's timeless knowledge is Einstein's theory of relativity. Does it not appear to demonstrate that time is just a dimension of reality, and thus that the future is real? William Hasker's response to this is to argue that Einstein's theory requires total determinism--a "block theory of time" in which the future is unchangeable because it's just as real as the present. Hasker thus appeals to believe that Einstein is basically wrong about this, although I don't claim to understand either Hasker or Einstein very well. Certainly open theists have a natural affinity for quantum physics (I'll deal with that in the next post). Boyd, however, takes a different tack from Hasker, appealing to Einstein to support his position. Boyd argues that God has a "now" that includes the "now" of every creature, even though their "nows" may not entirely coincide with each other. I would argue, on the other hand, that God's "now" includes every moment of every creature's life, and that Boyd's use of Einstein actually works better to defend that position. (Though certainly we then run into Hasker's determinism objections. . . . )

Biblically, open theists generally seem to think they have a very strong case. Sanders rests his case very largely on the alleged more "Biblical" nature of open theism compared to the Greek philosophy underlying classical theism, and Boyd follows suit. Like Sanders, Boyd points to the many passages from the Bible speaking of God changing his mind or seeking to learn something he did not already know. One obvious, traditional objection to this reading is that this language is anthropomorphic. Boyd, like Sanders, leans heavily on evangelical worries about playing fast and loose with Scripture through non-literal readings. According to the open theists, Christians have been taught to read this language non-literally because of presuppositions borrowed from Greek philosophy. Sanders acknowledges that, in fact, all theological language about God is in some sense metaphorical. Boyd, on the other hand, seems to interpret the language in a more consistently literal way (perhaps I misunderstand him). For instance, while all open theists rest a lot of weight on passages such as Genesis 6:6 which say that God changed his mind, Boyd works this concept (and particularly Genesis 6:6) into his overall theodicy. Boyd seems to believe that God really did regret making humanity and really did initiate a horrific cataclysm that wiped out most of the world, allowing God to start over again. Similarly, as we've seen, Boyd argues that God may have done something similar before the creation of humans, in response to the fall of the demons (the "Gap Theory").

My objection to Sanders' appeal to a more "literal" reading of the God-changed-his-mind passages has always been that Sanders doesn't actually seem to want to take the context of these passages very seriously. Do open theists really want a picture of God in which God actually decides to wipe out the chosen people in his anger (Exodus 32:9-10, for instance) and then changes his mind because of Moses' intercession? It has seemed to me that open theists want to abstract the picture of "God changing his mind" from the actual instances in which God does so in Scripture, and that in fact the traditional understanding of the language as anthropomorphic metaphor is therefore a lot more defensible than the supposedly more "faithful" open theist interpretation.

Boyd, on the other hand, does seem to take the contexts for these passages very seriously. But I still wonder whether a "literal" reading of such language is actually sustainable. What does it mean to say that God really regretted having made humanity? Doesn't that, in fact, contradict Boyd's claim that God knows all the odds and is never taken by surprise (more on that later)? And what does it say about God's relationship to those of us who live after the Flood? Does he still think we shouldn't exist? Or has he changed his mind again?

In short, I remain unconvinced that this language should be read as indicating a real change of mind on God's part, and thus unconvinced that it makes a solid case for open theism.

Furthermore, it is striking that the passages Boyd relies on come (I believe exclusively) from the Old Testament. I think Boyd has become aware of this problem more recently, since in a tweet some months ago he appealed to Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to support open theism. If Jesus is God, and Jesus didn't know for sure if he had to go through with dying on the Cross, then that's an indication that the future is open for God. I don't think that this argument holds up Christologically (it seems to me quite clear that Jesus was there speaking as a human being, and I hold a fairly "kenotic" Christology), but it does represent a move toward finding more explicit NT support for the position.

I think that this point often goes without much notice because the most vehement opponents of open theism are Calvinists, who have a very robust view of the authority of the OT. But if, in fact, it's true (as I believe) that the NT does not support open theism in the ways that the OT often does, then I think that's a serious blow against the open theist case for two reasons. First because, according to most forms of historic Christianity, the NT has doctrinal priority over the Old and is the key to interpreting the Old. (I got into an argument about this recently in which a good friend who is an OT scholar accused me of Marcionism, and I hope to write a post sometime soon that defends against this accusation, but this isn't the place for that.) But furthermore, if your argument is that post-Biblical Christians came to believe in divine unchangeability and exhaustive divine foreknowledge because of the influence of Greek philosophy, you have to deal with the fact that the Greek-speaking authors of the NT appear already to have been "corrupted."

On the whole, I find Boyd's philosophical arguments more convincing than his Scriptural ones. Together with Sanders and Hasker, Boyd has convinced me, at least tentatively, that open theism can support a robust doctrine of providence. (More on that in the next two posts.) It does not seem to me that a non-determinist version of timeless knowledge actually provides any significant advantages in accounting for God's providential actions in the world. Indeed, Boyd argues persuasively throughout the two books that an "open" view of providence accounts best for the Scriptural descriptions of God fighting evil, and gives us more hope than does the view that God has everything under total control. However, I still find the open theist arguments too reductionistic and anthropomorphic. And I do not find Boyd's arguments from Scripture convincing for this reason, although it may well be that the Scriptural language about God changing his mind speaks to a powerful mystery that our traditional understanding of God fails to grasp.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Two Messengers

Perhaps to the clear-eyed angel
There was nothing in the word he brought but glory:
Infinite splendor in a point of flesh,
Bursting, breaking through the veil of blood and mucus,
Passing through a narrow gate
To fill creation with redoubled light.

Only the old man, his rheumy eyes
Blurred with false hopes,
Back scarred by Roman rods,
Feet hard with trudging up the stony hill
To watch the heroes die,
Only he, perhaps, could taste in his body the sourness of the sweet word,
Could see the sword quivering in the stainless heart,
And know in what bitter way the glory comes.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 4--the "blueprint model"

Boyd's antagonist throughout his two volumes of "warfare theology" is something he calls the "blueprint model" or "the myth of the blueprint." This view of Divine providence, according to Boyd, became prominent with Augustine, replacing the "warfare model" which had prevailed in the first three centuries of the Church's history. In "blueprint theology," God ordains in some way everything that happens. This may take Calvinist or Arminian forms, may use the language of "permission" rather than saying that God directly causes everything. For Boyd (a point where he ironically agrees with Calvin) this doesn't make a lot of difference. If God's will is seen as the ultimate reason why everything (including evil) is the way it is, then we have "blueprint theology."

Boyd acknowledges the comfort this confidence that "God's is in charge" brings to believers. But he believes this comfort to be an illusion. He drives this point home in several places throughout the two books by means of harrowing examples. The first, from which Boyd names the first chapter of God at War, is the horrifying story of a girl named Zosia whose eyes were ripped out by Nazi soldiers. The second example is the story of a young woman who was raped as a child and who, as a college student, continued to struggle to find "God's purpose" in what had happened to her. The third is the story of a couple whose two children contracted a rare genetic disease that caused them to degenerate physically and mentally, eventually dying horribly and leaving the parents' marriage and faith utterly shattered.

Boyd argues that terrible things like this--and any of us could easily come up with dozens more examples--are not best explained by some hidden providential purpose of God. Their ultimate explanation--the only explanation possible or necessary for the specific event--is that fallen beings (human or demonic) abused their freedom in ways that led to these tragedies. God does use evil to bring forth good, but God does this by fighting against evil, not by choosing sovereignly to permit it to happen for a higher purpose. God's response to evil produces good, but the evil itself is not part of a "higher plan."

This distinction is, perhaps, just as subtle and tricky to make as the one Boyd rejects between God actively causing evil and choosing to permit it. Furthermore, God does still choose to permit evil in the sense that God chose to create a world of free creatures knowing every possibility and indeed every probability. (More on this in the next post, on open theism.) Boyd has to admit, then, that on his theory our universe has had some pretty bad "luck" in terms of the choices made by free creatures, choices God (in Boyd's view) hoped the creatures would not make. Thus, Boyd does not entirely "get God off the hook." Instead of a blueprint, Boyd paints a picture of a chaotic universe in which God allows millions of free agents to make free choices in ways that interact with each other (and with God's choices, and with the behavior of non-sentient creation) in a dance of infinite complexity. And yet, this chaotic universe still has a kind of pattern, a pattern willed by God, and for the sake of which God is willing to risk the very real possibility of horrific tragedy. In that sense, then, the differences between Boyd's view and the "blueprint" theory are somewhat less than Boyd admits.

Boyd argues that the "blueprint" has radically warped our understanding of God's relationship to evil. Instead of fighting evil, we seek to understand it as an intellectual "problem." Boyd points to hymns enjoining humble submission to God's loving providence as poisonous fruit of the "blueprint myth." He points, for instance, to William Cowper's "God moves in a mysterious way," with its famous lines
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
 This is a particularly infelicitous example for Boyd's argument. William Cowper, who wrote it, was a passionate opponent of slavery and a close friend and colleague of John Newton, one of the major figures behind the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. And there are plenty more examples of Christians whose confidence in God's sovereignty and providential care empowered their efforts to change the world.

The narrative "Christians have made X theological mistake, which has led to all the problems of Christian history, but I will correct the mistake and then everything will be great" is a deeply tempting one. On this particular issue, I'm particularly tempted by it, because clearly Christians have a huge intellectual problem explaining evil in traditional terms. And clearly this problem is linked to the broader problem of how we understand power, how we think of God's power, and how we exercise power as Christians on earth in the service of righteousness. But the temptation to place our hopes for the future effectiveness and purity of the Christian faith in a particular theological "tweak" must, I think, be resisted. That is not to say that the tweak may not be a good and much-needed one. But we will probably find some way of compromising with the powers of the world no matter what our theology. We can only try to make it as hard for ourselves as possible.

Historically, is Boyd right to blame Augustine for the shift to "blueprint theology"? I expect that he will flesh out his argument more fully when he finally comes out with the third volume in his trilogy, The Myth of the Blueprint. Elaine Pagels makes a related argument in her Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. She contrasts pre-Augustinian theologians such as Justin Martyr, for whom Christianity was a message of freedom, with Augustine's conviction that human depravity needed continual repression and correction by coercive authorities in both church and state. Clearly there is a contrast between the theology of figures like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr and that of Augustine. How much of it is Greek/Latin and how much is due to Augustine's influence or other historical shifts within Western theology is open to debate, I think, since figures like Tertullian and Cyprian don't quite fit with either Augustine or with the Greeks. And far too much often gets blamed on Augustine (for instance, penal substitution is often linked to him even though his atonement theology is actually primarily "ransom"). But I think Boyd is on to something in arguing that the second-century apologists were much more willing to ascribe real agency to created beings, human and angelic/demonic, while Augustine's theology seeks to explain everything in terms of the divine will. However, Augustine does not in fact say that evil has its origin in the divine plan. For Augustine, God uses evil and sovereignly chooses to permit it, but Augustine explicitly ascribes the origins of evil to a defective will falling away from the divine goodness. William S. Babcock has argued ("Augustine on Sin and Moral Agency" in The Journal of Religious Ethics 1998, and "The Human and Angelic Fall" in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian, 1992) that Augustine never managed to explain just how this defective will could originate. So perhaps rather than painting Augustine as straightforwardly ascribing the origin of evil to God, it would be better to say that even in Augustine there is a tension between a "blueprint" view and a more free-will-oriented approach. In short, I think Boyd's account could be more nuanced, and no doubt will be in the forthcoming volume. But I think he's right that Augustine contributed heavily to the development of an approach to evil that explains it primarily in terms of God's mysterious purposes, thus leaving the question of the origins of evil as a thorny if not insoluble problem.

But does Boyd in fact have a more satisfactory explanation of the origin of evil? Boyd leaves free will as a basic assumption for which no explanation is necessary. Free beings make the choices they make and there's an end of it. His glorification of the pre-Augustinian tradition clearly is due in part to the fact that they simply don't ask the difficult questions Augustine asks about the nature of free will. But once the genie is out of the bottle--once the Augustinian questions have been raised--I don't think we can simply return to the pre-Augustinian naivete just because it's convenient to do so. (I recognize that Boyd doesn't think it's naivete--he thinks it's a sensible recognition that free choices need no explanation beyond themselves.) Once again, my fundamental disagreement with Boyd and with open theists in general lies in their discomfort with paradox and mystery. On this issue, in particular, paradox and mystery are unavoidable.

That being said, I'm on board with Boyd's passionate denunciation of the way "blueprint" explanations make a mockery of the reality of evil and harm people who have suffered terrible evil. Clearly, whatever we say at the philosophical level, on the practical level "Satan and evil people have done terrible things to you, but God loves you and is fighting for you, and so am I" is a much better response to people who have been raped or abused than "God allowed this for a reason and you need to figure out the reason." And clearly there are philosophical questions that need to be asked if we are going to give the second answer and not the first. Boyd has done the Christian community a service in raising these questions.

But alas, I've heard very little discussion about these issues in the 13 years since Satan and the Problem of Evil came out, or the 17 years since God at War was published. No doubt some of this is due to the fact that Boyd's open theism has led to the subsuming of his powerful and provocative "warfare thesis" under the broader category of open theism. In the next post, I'm going to address Boyd's arguments for open theism and how they relate to his "warfare theology."

Monday, December 08, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 3--Creation

Boyd's "warfare theology" rests on a doctrine of creation as an act whereby God gives radical freedom to His creatures. This means that, for Boyd, the ultimate explanation of the acts of free beings is to be found in their own choice, not in some further cause such as the providential purpose of God. The world is what it is not solely because of God's will, but because of the interplay of many wills, which may be acting against God. This doesn't undermine God's sovereignty, which is shown precisely in the fact that God can bring about His ultimate purposes through interacting with many free created wills. But it does mean that in the short run many things happen that God does not want. Hence, the creation of free beings involves the possibility of warfare, and this warfare is real, consisting of real opposition to God which God (within the limits He has set Himself) can only overcome through a lengthy struggle.

Boyd uses this "warfare theodicy" to explain not only moral evil but also natural evil. ("Theodicy"=a defense of the wisdom and justice of God's actions in the world in the face of the problem of evil; "moral evil"=the actions of free creatures that go against the moral law; "natural evil"=things that cause harm and suffering but are not in themselves moral actions, such as diseases, earthquakes, etc.) The standard Christian "free will defense" (evil exists because God creates free beings, which means that these beings may choose to act in evil ways) does not do much to explain natural evil. Why, for instance, is there an Ebola virus? Christians traditionally tend to say that natural evil results from the Fall. We get sick and die, natural disasters happen, etc., because the sin of Adam and Eve caused something to go awry in our relationship with the natural world, and indeed in the natural world's relationship to itself. The "groaning of creation" mentioned in Romans 8 would then be one of the consequences of the sin of Adam. Conservative Protestants generally hold this view in a more thoroughgoing way than do Catholics. Most of us who grew up in conservative evangelical contexts were taught that all animals were vegetarians before the Fall, for instance. Catholics, particularly those following the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas ("Thomists") are more likely to say that nature is "red in tooth and claw" because that's the way God made it. Without sentient beings, this isn't in itself an evil thing.  A triceratops being eaten by a tyrannosaur is experiencing some degree of suffering, but this is not, in the Thomistic view, incompatible with the goodness of creation. The Fall, in this view, is seen as the explanation for human evil and the suffering that flows from our evil choices. This would include human sickness and death, but not animal suffering. The most defensible version of this view would hold, as I understand it, that human beings were created in order to bring order to creation, which would include reducing animal suffering, the potential for natural disasters, etc. In other words, the evolutionary process, guided by God, produced human beings, whose task it was to rule creation with justice and mercy. But because humans messed up, creation has continued to be racked by natural evils, to which "moral evil" has been added.

Boyd, in contrast, believes that natural evils and moral evils have a single source: the activity of created wills which choose to rebel against God. This involves giving Satan and evil spirits generally a much more important role in salvation history than Western theology for the past millennium or so has given them. But Boyd's argument goes beyond simply suggesting that Satan is behind particular disasters. Creation itself, as we know it, is full of suffering and conflict. Boyd argues that this was not God's original plan. Thus, the world as we know it does not reflect God's purposes entirely, but is the result of a conflict between God and rebellious "gods," principally Satan. Animals may be carnivorous, he suggests, because of Satan's influence. Extremes of hot and cold may result from the same source.

A case can be made that this is perilously close to the ancient heresy of Manicheanism, which taught that certain kinds of animals and other aspects of the physical world were created by Satan and not by God. Of course, Boyd does not believe that Satan is an independent source of anything. I'm not sure that his view is heretical, but I'd like to see more discussion of it. To what extent does Boyd's theology allow us to say that a tiger, say, is good? If the tiger is only carnivorous because Satan has messed with creation, then how can we see the tiger as a reflection of God's glory? Isn't carnivorousness kind of essential to the nature of a tiger?

Another difficulty Boyd faces is that Genesis 1 seems to portray a "conflict-free" creation. God creates solely through speech, and finds creation "very good." This in contrast to other Near Eastern creation stories in which Marduk or some other god creates through defeating a monster of chaos. As Boyd notes, there are other passages in the OT that seem to refer to such a cosmic battle--but Genesis 1 doesn't appear to be one of them. Boyd deals with this difficulty by tentatively embracing a form of the "gap theory"--the view that v. 1 of Genesis describes an initial act of creation, followed by some kind of cosmic catastrophe resulting in "tohu vabohu" chaos. The rest of Gen. 1 would then describe the re-creation of the world following this catastrophe. The cosmic battle referred to cryptically in passages such as Isaiah 51:9 and Psalm 74:13-14 would then have taken place between v. 1 and v. 2. Boyd draws support from the work of Arthur Custance, a creationist author and probably the best-known proponent of the Gap Theory. This, I have to admit, was one of Boyd's most surprising moves for me, underlining how fundamentally conservative Boyd's approach to Scripture is (or was when these books were written). He has certainly made me take the gap theory seriously again for the first time in quite a while. At the same time, I'm not sure it does all the work Boyd wants it to do. Boyd seems to think (as other advocates do) that it reconciles a literal reading of Genesis 1 with the scientific record, whether one accepts evolution or not. But I don't see this. A literal 7-day "re-creation" is no more compatible with the scientific evidence as we have it than a literal 7-day creation. Boyd also suggests that the extinction of carnivorous dinosaurs was part of God's correction of a creation that had become hopelessly corrupted by satanic forces. Well, maybe. . . I'm still chewing on that one!

The bigger problem, I think, is that God's "very good" would apply neither to the original creation (corrupted by satanic forces before the seven-day narrative begins) nor to creation as we know it, but to something that only existed briefly. Perhaps I'm trying to take Boyd too literally here. Perhaps his point is simply that creation is a constant struggle between God and the forces seeking to corrupt creation. But he seems to think that his ideas constitute some kind of olive branch to conservative Christians who want a more literal reading of Gen. 1, and I don't really see it.

That being said, the fundamental issue with regard to Boyd's doctrine of creation is whether it is too "Manichean." And I think this feeds into the larger question of whether Boyd's theology as a whole does justice to the complex interplay between God's good purposes in creation and the rebellious wills of fallen beings. Boyd speaks of God bringing good out of evil, but because his main concern is to "rescue" God from being involved in responsibility for evil (including "natural evil"), he does not use this theme in as thorough-going a manner as I think he needs to do in order to have a coherent and orthodox position. With regard to the specific issue of "natural evil," any position that does not allow us to look at a tiger or an earthquake and see it as a reflection of God's glory is a flawed position. (OK, I grant that Ebola and tapeworms fit Boyd's theories better!) In the next post, I'll address this bigger question: how do Boyd's understanding of "God at war" and his doctrine of creation function to address questions of theodicy, and how does this theodicy compare to what Boyd calls the "blueprint model"?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Immanentizing the eschaton

Conservatives are fond of saying that one shouldn't "immanentize the eschaton." What else, I ask, is one to do with an eschaton?

What they mean by this, of course, is that we should not use violent means to bring about a utopian society. Of course we shouldn't. But the violent means used by Marxists and other secular seekers of the Eschaton are themselves decidedly means of "this age." Marxists justify totalitarianism precisely because the perfect classless society isn't here yet. When it is, coercion will be unnecessary. People will work joyfully and painlessly for a few hours every day and then sit around and make art, or whatever. But the road to this utopia is a winding one and leads through a grim and joyless land where party apparatchiks drive around in fancy cars while everyone else goes without. In the utopia, people will happily care for each other and everyone will be equal. But on the road to it, concentration camps and firing squads are a constant presence.

This is not, actually, treating the eschaton as immanent. It is trying to make it immanent. Of course the phrase "immanentizing the eschaton" can mean either of these things. But those who use the term scornfully don't make that distinction. They argue, in fact, for something that looks much more like the Marxist approach (we can't live, right now, by the values that will prevail when the utopia comes) in the name of rejecting Marxism and similar ideologies. They argue for supporting corrupt dictatorships, for waging ruthless war when necessary, for accepting inequality and social deprivation, in the name of a proper respect for the transcendence of the Eschaton. And if anyone suggests that may be we ought to be living more like citizens of the kingdom, they cry "Immanentizing the eschaton," and conjure up images of concentration camps. This is bogus.

To try to bring about by force the state of affairs we imagine to be characteristic of the Kingdom is indeed a demonic delusion. But that's precisely because force isn't a characteristic of the Kingdom in the first place. The Kingdom should be immanent in our practices. Se should strive to do the kinds of things that make the Kingdom present, while knowing that the Kingdom will never come in its fullness through our efforts.