Marvin argues that a doctrine of divine determinism–that everything that happens, even apparently horrible things like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, is an expression of God’s will–is actually a more comforting doctrine than people sometimes give it credit for:
If this sounds harsh, and as I said last week, I am against harshness as a test of orthodoxy, then assuring people that God had nothing to do with the tsunami may be equally harsh. For then we live in a world where evils befall us from outside God’s will. And that raises a disturbing question: Is God’s arm, in fact, too short to save? Are we in fact in a s**t happens world where God wishes us well but can’t be counted on to do anything about it?
My problem with this view (and I don’t know that Marvin is whole-heartedly endorsing it) is that it provokes an equally disturbing question: if nothing happens “outside” God’s will, then why does God visit us with so much (apparently) undeserved evil?
It’s not just death, or premature death that poses the problem. Acute, prolonged pain and suffering are just as much of a problem, if not more so. And the suffering that happens, in many cases, goes well beyond any reasonable reformatory or punitive purposes that theologians may offer as explanations. As Clark Williamson argues, one criteria for doing contemporary theology is that you shouldn’t say anything you couldn’t say “in the presence of the burning children” of the Nazi death camps. Could we tell them that their suffering was part of God’s will for them?
This isn’t to say that God’s arm is too short to save, but to offer a different understanding of divine sovereignty. Whatever else we know, we know that God doesn’t in fact save people from undeserved suffering or death (that is, unless you have such an intense doctrine of original sin that no amount of suffering would be undeserved). Instead, I’d propose that divine sovereignty is an eschatological concept: it means that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, despite the best efforts of fragile and foolish human beings. That’s different from saying that God controls the outcome of every event. It means affirming with Paul that our present sufferings aren’t worth being compared with the future glory, or with the seer of Revelation that God will wipe away every tear. It means that, in God’s time and by God’s power, “all things will be well.”
Doing a Google search, I came across this passage from evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz’s systematic theology:
Strictly speaking God’s sovereignty is an eschatological concept. It refers to the bringing to pass of the final goal God has for the world. This situation will emerge at the end of the historical process. When viewed from the vantage point of the eschatological end, therefore, God is fully and obviously sovereign.
When viewed from the perspective of present experience, however, it is not so obvious that God is sovereign. In fact, whether or not God is reigning over the world is presently an open question. In a sense, the present open-endedness of the divine sovereignty is implicit in the act of creation itself. The very existence of creation as a reality different from God raises the question of ultimate sovereignty: Is God sovereign over creation or is creation autonomous? (Theology for the Community of God, p. 106-7)
Citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grenz goes on to argue that, during the present age, God’s sovereignty is contested by the forces that work against God’s purpose. But God acts in history to establish his Kingdom. The eschaton is the point at which God’s sovereignty will be fully manifested. “In the strict sense, then, God is sovereign from the vantage point of the eschatological future” (p. 108).
I don’t know much about the context of Grenz’s overall theology (though I’m intrigued by this passage), but this sounds very similar to what I was trying to get at in this post.
Marvin has a follow-up post here. Like him, I’m attracted both to classical theism and to more contemporary process- or narrative-oriented approaches. And I agree that the classical view has much more sophisticated and able exponents than the pop-Calvinists who dominate much of the theological debate among American Christians. (To Marvin’s list, I might add a more contemporary figure like Tillich, though I understand Marvin finds Tillich boring. :))
I also agree with Marvin that there are no problem-free positions out there. There are theologies (such as some forms of process theology) that do seem to qualify God’s sovereignty to the point of impotence, or that make a fetish out of divine suffering. That’s part of the reason I’m attracted to a “neo-process” perspective like Clark Williamson’s, which incorporates some of the key insights of process theology without abandoning its commitment to tenets of traditional theology like creation ex nihilo and a strong view of God’s eschatological triumph. (Others who might fall into this broad middle ground: Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke.) Of course, such a position is open to criticisms from both the “left” and the “right” for being an unstable hybrid.
I also think there’s a lot to be said for classical theism of the Augustinian variety, especially in its emphasis on the mystery and transcendence of God. The deity of some process and other contemporary theologies can seem a bit too personal and chummy. Theology needs to preserve a space for holy awe and that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom.
Maybe what tips the scales for me is that I just find it impossible, on a gut, existential level, to affirm that God directly wills some of the terrible events that happen in the world. But it could be that it’s possible to square the circle and affirm traditional notions of divine sovereignty without being forced to that conclusion.