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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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 2--God at war in Scripture

The first of Boyd's two books on "warfare theology,"  God at War, focuses primarily on the Scriptural evidence for a God who fights evil. Boyd places this picture of God over against what he calls "blueprint theology" in which God stands above the fray, having ordained in detail everything that happens. Boyd argues that the "blueprint" view is both un-Scriptural and practically harmful, because it leads Christians to accept evil as part of God's plan rather than fighting against it. i'll say more about that in later posts. Hence, I am omitting consideration of chapter 1 of God at War, "Hearing Zosia," not because it is unimportant, but because it is so powerful and so important that it needs to be discussed separately, along with similar material in the second book.

Much of God at War outlines the Biblical evidence for "warfare theology," from Genesis to Revelation, with the first part of the book naturally dealing with the OT and the second with the NT.  Chapter 2, "Locking up the Raging Sea," draws a broad picture of the ancient Near Eastern world as one dominated by a consciousness of hostile, demonic forces. Chapter 3 speaks more specifically of the primordial monsters of chaos and their role in the creation story, chap. 4 deals with the "gods" and their relationship to YHWH, the God of Israel, and chap. 5 addresses Satan in particular.

Boyd argues that the Old Testament posits the existence of a number of superhuman beings, many of whom (the "gods") have genuine authority over human beings, particularly over individual nations and cities. The evidence, for this, is of course plentiful--there are a number of OT passages that speak of YHWH addressing a council of gods, or imply that other nations have their own gods which have given them territory, etc., or command Israelites not to worship other gods, with the implication that these gods are real. For many modern Christians, these passages are somewhat of an embarrassment. Many scholars have spoken of a development within the OT from "henotheism," the view that there are many gods but that YHWH is the one Israel worships, to true "monotheism," which holds that only one God is real. The former view is often spoken of as more primitive or obviously erroneous, and some conservative scholars are reluctant to admit that any of the canonical writers actually held it. Boyd bites the bullet: of course the OT speaks of other gods as real. Furthermore, Boyd does not argue--as many Christians do--that if real these "gods" are simply "demons" who are enemies of God and have no legitimate authority. Rather, picking up on Jewish and early Christian hints, Boyd argues that the "gods" were given genuine authority over creation by God, which they then misused.

This allows Boyd to portray Satan, in chap. 5, as the most powerful and malevolent of these "gods." Here he is in line with early Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, who believed that Satan was originally the angel in charge of our planet (a view picked up by Lewis in the Space Trilogy). However, there's a certain jarring shift between the earlier chapters, which draw richly on ancient Near Eastern mythology and take it seriously as a picture of the world, and chapter 5. After all, there is no "Satan" in ANE mythology. Nor is Satan mentioned in most of the OT. One can certainly think of explanations as to why both Israel's pagan neighbors and Israelites for most of their history would be unaware of this particularly powerful and evil "god." (Perhaps Satan works through minions, and the Israelites were aware only of the minions until late in their history, while their polytheistic neighbors had even less reason to look behind the "gods" they worshiped to see who was really pulling the strings.) But as Boyd treats the subject, it feels too much as if he is suddenly bringing in Satan because Scripture and Christian doctrine require him to.

A similar problem is that, as Boyd admits, the OT does not in fact have anywhere near as much to say about demons and evil spirits as other ANE sources do. The absence of such language, with a few exceptions, is a striking difference between Israel and its neighbors. Similarly, the Israelite creation story is free from the conflict that marks many other creation narratives from surrounding cultures. Whereas Babylonian and Canaanite myths involve a god battling a chaos monster to create the world, Genesis 1 describes a single almighty God speaking the universe into existence. Boyd mines the text for hints that in fact a cosmic battle does lie in the background of the Genesis 1 creation story. Also, following scholars such as Frank Moore Cross, Boyd points to other passages in the OT that speak of God "smiting the heads of the dragons in the waters" or "wounding Leviathan" as part of the work of creation. Cross and other historical-critical scholars see these passages as pointing to an earlier, "mythological" layer of Hebrew tradition, which has been heavily edited in the version we now have. Boyd's position is a bit more complex than this. He argues that the OT downplays the role of evil spirits as well as the "warfare" aspect of creation because the primary need in OT times was to stress God's sovereignty over creation and the qualitative difference between God and other superhuman beings. Thus, rather than a mythological layer that was buried by more monotheistic developments, Boyd sees a subtle, understated theme of conflict between God and the forces of chaos and evil, becoming more explicit in Daniel and in the NT.

Another common scholarly approach to the Old Testament which Boyd rejects is the "demonic-in-YHWH theory." In this view, the earlier texts of the OT portray God as in some sense morally ambiguous. Evil spirits, such as the one who afflicted Saul  or the one who deceived Ahab, are sent by YHWH and seem to act at his bidding. In 2 Samuel, YHWH tempts David to conduct a census, thus bringing YHWH's wrath on him (whereas the presumably later 1 Chronicles account ascribes the temptation to Satan). Even in Job, Satan is seen as a member of the heavenly court rather than an enemy of God. Boyd rejects this interpretation at every point. He argues that while God may use Satan and evil spirits to accomplish just judgment, and while God always seeks to bring good out of the evil they do, these spirits should always be seen as acting in conscious opposition to God's good purposes. 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel describe two different agents behind the "tempting of David," because both God and Satan wanted it to happen, for very different reasons. Ironically, this sounds a lot like Calvin's view that Job's calamities were caused by God, Satan, and evil human beings at the same time, but that each agent was acting with a different motivation. The difference is that Calvin thinks this is _always_ the case, while Boyd thinks it just happened to be the case in specific instances. In his own comments on Job, Boyd argues that Satan is portrayed as God's antagonist, not God's servant. Boyd takes God's question "where have you come from" to mean something like "what are you doing here?" Supporters of the "Satan as member of the heavenly court" theory would take it to mean something more like "which of my subjects have you been spying on for me today?" But even if it doesn't mean that Satan was acting on God's orders, I don't see that it necessarily indicates surprise.

This is, to my mind, one of Boyd's less successful arguments in God at War. Nothing whatever in 1 Kings 22 indicates that the "lying spirit" was an enemy of YHWH. Boyd brings that assumption to the text. 1 Samuel 16:14 poses even more difficulties for Boyd, saying that "an evil spirit from YHWH" afflicted Saul. that sounds, on the face of it, as if evil spirits come from YHWH. Now the word "ra'," usually translated as "evil," doesn't have to mean moral evil. So "evil spirit" could be interpreted as "spirit causing harm." But that won't yield the "warfare" view of even natural evil that Boyd is after. Therefore, Boyd interprets all such passages as referring to occasional instances in which God and evil spirits are after the same thing.

I don't think the best way to describe these difficult passages is to speak of YHWH as "demonic." But it does seem that authors in the earlier strata of the OT thought about "evil" primarily in terms of harmful, destructive things, and they had no problem saying that God sent these evils in judgment, using "destructive spirits" to do so. After all, the surrounding pagan cultures did not (as far as I know) think of evil spirits in primarily moral terms either. An evil spirit was a destructive spirit. For the authors of passages such as 1 Samuel 16 and 2 Kings 22, what mattered was that YHWH was ultimately in control of events that appeared evil. Of course, this works against Boyd's overall theological argument, but it is quite possible to argue that with fuller revelation, it became clear that God was not directly causing or ordaining these harmful actions so much as using them for his own purposes. Still, these passages in themselves do seem to point toward a somewhat more complex view of divine causality in evil than Boyd wants to allow. Similarly, I think there's a strong case that Satan was first seen as an official in the heavenly court and came to be seen more as an adversary over time. Boyd's basic point that much of the OT rightly emphasizes God's sovereignty, with more emphasis on the demonic in the later parts of the OT and in the NT, would then still be correct. But Boyd's attempt to make all of the OT support this paradigm is not wholly convincing. In part, this is because of Boyd's very conservative reading of Scripture--he doesn't want to ascribe an imperfect understanding to the human authors, but rather sees each passage, in its historical context, as direct divine revelation. (More on this in the next post, on Boyd's understanding of creation.)

The NT poses fewer problems for Boyd's argument. The NT clearly does portray Jesus as being at war with the kingdom of Satan, and the casting out of demons is an important part of Jesus' ministry. I skip over this part of the book not because it is lacking in interest or value, but just because this post has already become very long and there aren't (in my view) a lot of complications or difficulties in this section. The NT clearly supports Boyd's "warfare worldview." (Whether it also supports his open theism is much more dubious--but more on that later.) That being the case, in a Christian paradigm in which the NT fulfills the OT, I don't think the difficulties posed by the OT "evil spirit from YHWH" passages are fatal to Boyd's thesis at all. They do, perhaps, point toward the value of a more paradoxical approach to the question. But overall, Boyd makes a thoroughly compelling argument that the Bible presents God as being genuinely "at war" with rebellious evil forces, and that the overcoming of that rebellion is a central part of Christ's work of redemption and of the Church's mission. Whatever qualifications we may want to make to his criticisms of the "blueprint model," any adequate understanding of God's purposes in the world must take the "warfare" theme seriously.

Thoughts on Isaiah, ISIS, and the Peaceable Kingdom

A few things that jump out at me from reading Isaiah in Hebrew (I'm on chap. 11 now):

1. The word that the NRSV translates as "argue it out" in 1:18 (Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow) is the same word that the NRSV translates as "arbitrate for" in 2:4 (He shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, etc.). In other words, the process of divine judgment and "disputation" applies to Israel and the nations. In Israel's case it results in forgiveness; in the nations' case it results in peace. I think this really strengthens N. T. Wright's point that forgiveness is a condition for Israel to be the blessing for the nations that God intends it to be.

2. Similarly, the word translated as "stream" in 2:2 ("all nations shall stream to it") is a verb with the same root as the noun for "river," almost always used of either the Euphrates or the Nile. As far as I know, it is never used of the Jordan. In other words, the apocalyptic event described here involves Jerusalem taking center stage and replacing the classical imperial centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In the present situation, Israel doesn't have its own "river." It is dependent politically on Mesopotamia and Egypt. But in the day that is coming, the nations will "stream" as a great river to Jerusalem.

3. The famous passage in chap. 11 about the shoot from the stump of Jesse follows on language in chap. 10 about God's judgment felling great forests. This is, in other words, the same metaphor as Daniel 4: God will cut down the great tree of imperial/national power, but out of the stump that is left will flower a branch, and that branch will bring in the Peaceable Kingdom.

4. The word for "wolf" (as in "the wolf shall live with the lamb") in 11:6 is "ze'eb." Oreb and Ze'eb ("Raven" and "Wolf") were Midianite bandit chiefs killed by Gideon in the book of Judges. That's interesting because Oreb has just been mentioned in 10:26 ("The LORD of hosts will wield a whip against them [the Assyrians], as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb"). Judgment against the nations is followed by a kingdom in which bandit chiefs like Ze'eb live peaceably with their prey. Which leads me to the final point:

5. The word translated "live with" in 11:6 is "gur," which so far (as I've worked through the narrative and legal parts of the OT) pretty much always has meant "sojourn as a resident alien." The "ger," or "sojourner," or "stranger," is one of the basic categories of helpless people entitled to protection in the Torah. The word always seems to imply a state of powerlessness. The stranger is cut loose from his normal support networks, cast on the mercy of those among whom she lives (like Ruth). But here the wolf is pictured as a stranger, begging the lamb to take him in. It's a complete reversal of the normal power relationship.

It was helpful to read this passage this morning, right after being part of a live online discussion yesterday on the Patheos website discussing a new book about the rise of ISIS and the proper U.S. response to it. My discussion partners, David French (co-author of the book) and Keith Pavlischek, both argued for a strong military response to ISIS, and both admitted that their approach would require the U.S. to be committed to a long conflict with Islamic radicalism. (Dr. Pavlischek commented at one point, "our sons will be having this conversation in a generation about whatever the radical Islamic group is in their day.") I don't have good answers to the question of what should be done right now. (The book argues for giving the Kurds heavy weapons, for a start, and while I have misgivings about such an approach it may be the least bad option at this point.) But in the long term, the use of military power to protect Western interests (and even to protect innocent victims, which is a much more legitimate use of force) will only contribute to the cycle of violence.

Isaiah is no stranger to that cycle. The dominant theme in the early chapters of Isaiah is that God uses the Assyrians to punish Judah, and will in turn judge the Assyrians. But out of this comes the promise that God will raise up a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and that the sevenfold spirit of God will rest on this fragile branch, leading to a kingdom of justice and peace. As Christians, we must, above everything else, bear witness to the in-breaking of that kingdom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology, part 1

One of the major theological controversies in the evangelical world in the past couple of decades has centered on the theological position known as "open theism." The controversy seems to have died down in recent years, largely because open theists have been expelled from positions of influence in evangelical intellectual culture, not because their arguments have been effectively answered. For anyone reading with this not familiar with the controversy, I should define "open theism" before going further.

Open theism is the view that God does not know future free actions with certainty. God knows everything that exists, but the future does not exist yet, so God only knows the future insofar as it follows necessarily from what exists already. Free created agents, such as angels and human beings, make choices that do not necessarily follow from anything in the past. Hence, those choices are not yet real things that can be known. To say that God knows the unknowable is logically contradictory. Hence, open theists claim that they aren't denying God's omniscience. Open theism rests on the premise that time is a reality for God as well as for us, so that the future really is future for God. In other words, open theism denies the traditional view that God is timeless. Calvinists have naturally been the most active in opposing open theism, but they are not the only ones who see it as a denial of basic Christian orthodoxy.

When I applied for an open position in the Bible and Religion department at Huntington University in the fall of 2005, I was only vaguely aware of this controversy. I had read the exchange between John Sanders and Chris Hall in Christianity Today, and had had a couple of conversations with friends about the issue. But it was not really on my radar screen. As a church historian, I took the premodern Christian tradition as my theological starting point. I was aware of the work of theologians who challenged "classical theist" premises such as divine impassibility, and one of those theologians (Robert Jenson) had made an impression on me. But during the application process at Huntington, and after being offered and accepting a position as assistant professor of Bible and religion, I became acquainted with an entire world of evangelical theology that rested on presuppositions I found distinctly alien. The position I had applied for was open largely because of Sanders' dismissal. (I say "largely" because many of Sanders' theology classes were already being taught by another newly hired faculty member, so that both she and I could claim to be Sanders' "replacement.") Therefore, I realized that I needed to understand the controversy both in order to decide whether I would accept the position and in order to handle the very sensitive situation into which I would be stepping if I did accept it.

What struck me from the beginning was that Sanders' theology began from fundamentally evangelical premises. Ironically, this was precisely what I found unconvincing about it. I was arguably more orthodox than Sanders, but certainly not more evangelical. Sanders' starting point was his deep conviction that God is personal and relates to us as one person to another. For me, this was an aspect of classical Christian theology with which I struggled. I found (and still find) concepts of God as a fountain of life, a deep and dazzling darkness, a consuming fire of holiness easier to relate to than more anthropomorphic concepts. This isn't to deny the centrality of the Incarnation, but to underline it. Sanders seemed to think that the Incarnation is simply the fullest manifestation of something that was the case (and was in some sense knowable) all along. In my understanding, the Incarnation radically changes our relationship to God. This is, of course, not an adequate response to Sanders' thoughtful and well-argued work, but an indication of why I didn't, on the whole, find his approach convincing. During my years at HU, I had some interaction with William Hasker, perhaps the most notable philosopher of the open theist movement. (Hasker was retired, but he had an office across the corridor from me and we had a number of conversations.) Hasker challenged me on some of the logical difficulties with classical theism, particularly having to do with divine timelessness. But again, his fundamental assumptions seemed too limiting to me. His God, like Sanders', seemed extremely anthropomorphic, and neither of them seemed to have any place for mystery and paradox in their theology. Therefore, during my years at HU I found myself in the position of a friendly adversary of open theism. I was appalled by the way Sanders had been treated by the institution, and I felt guilty for the fact that I was occupying what had been his office (though my guilt was alleviated by the fact that he had beaten me for another of the jobs I'd applied for. . . . ). But I did not (and still do not) find open theism as taught by Sanders and Hasker a congenial form of theology. I respect their work, but their starting points are not mine.

Greg Boyd's version of open theism starts in a somewhat different place from Sanders and Hasker. While Sanders is primarily concerned with God's relationality, and Hasker with logical coherence, Boyd starts with what he regards as the Biblical picture of God as genuinely at war with evil. (Of course, all three theologians care about all three of these things. In particular, all three of them are deeply concerned with the issue of theodicy--how we can explain the existence of evil in the world given the goodness and power of God.) Boyd's "Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy" has been set forth in two companion volumes. The first, God at War (IVP, 1997), deals with the Biblical evidence. The second, Satan and the Problem of Evil (IVP, 2001), connects the philosophical and theological dots more fully. I've recently read both books and am going to discuss them in a series of blog posts. I find Boyd the most compelling of the three open theists I've mentioned, not because Sanders or Hasker fail to make powerful and interesting arguments, but because Boyd's starting point--that God genuinely fights against evil--is one that I find utterly convincing. I have come to believe for a long time now that many of the problems with Western theology derive from our failure to give the figure of Satan the same place in our thought that he held in the thought of early Christians. For instance, with regard to atonement theology, early Christians believed that Jesus' death rescued us from Satan, while modern "penal substitution theory," having eliminated Satan from the picture, seems to say that Jesus' death rescues us from God. (See my two posts on Aulen's Christus Victor.) Thus, I came to Boyd's work with a strong presumption in favor of his basic thesis about divine warfare, but many reservations about the open theist position to which Boyd links that thesis. In the posts that follow, I'll evaluate Boyd's arguments in more detail.