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Hot in my Inbox:

I received a message from someone whom I do not know- but the fact that they still have a hotmail address tells me plenty about them- who felt compelled (called, really: ‘God laid it on my heart…’) to tell em that God gave me cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.’

And no, the email was not from Donald J. Trump.

It’s an outrageous, offensive comment, but it’s the sort that’s really not distinguishable from John Piper’s contention that the 35W bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, killing 13, was “merciful” display of God’s sovereignty. The only difference is that Piper’s perspective bears the sheen of authority when delivered from the pulpit , his weathered edition of Calvin’s Institutes in his righteously angry hand. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then how is God wreaking havoc in order to punish his sinful creatures any different than God doing so to display to his sinful creatures his awesome and manifold sovereignty?

My initial response to the message, which I will argue with anyone was the most authentically holy and Christian response, was to snarl in disgust at my inbox: ‘F@#% you.’ 

My second response, after I dug my finger nails out of the wood of my desk, was to think of the Gnostics, those most sympathetic and substantive of the early Christian heretics.

In an earlier post I ventured that Piper’s steroidal strain of Calvinism, which insists on seeing direct, causal 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every contingent event on earth, as a form of pantheism, for it renders the world nothing more than what it appears. Everything in the world, supposedly, in part and in toto, every tumor and every tragedy and every fortuitous parking spot and inexplicable story of survival, is the direct expression of God’s SOVEREIGN will. This is a kind of pantheism, I suggested, in that it collapses the will of God into the world so that they’re now inextricably linked and necessary for either to be intelligible, making creation no longer a gratuitous gift and God no longer good.

What’s remarkable, truly, about this dread sovereignty is the incredible distance which it has traversed beyond the the vision of the New Testament.

A world where every contingent event is the direct outworking of God’s will is, necessarily, a world exactly as God would have it be. In such Calvinism, then, there is no already/not yet gap of eschaton for if everything is God’s will everything is already already.

Quite apart from Piper’s rabid strain of Calvinism, both John’s Gospel and Paul’s corpus see with the Gnostics the world (cosmos) as it is as in captivity to the principalities and powers. The world, as both the Gnostics and the New Testament see it, is not as God would have it. They world is fallen, though Sin and Death have been defeated the vestiges of their power remain. Humanity, though redeemed and freed, lives as that old guy from Shawshank, still in rebellion and alienated from God. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

How odd then that John Piper et al would attribute the misery of this world to the dread sovereignty of God rather than, as the New Testament does to the fallen cosmos in thrall the (defeated) principalities and powers. How odd that heretics like Gnostics understood, to an extent too far for orthodoxy, that the world of tumors and tragedies and bridges collapsing is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ direct sovereign will but a world still alienated from its redeemer, groaning in labor pains, insisting against its new birth.

Morgan, Teer, and I discussed this and more in our latest Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast.

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For our latest Crackers and Grape Juice installment, Morgan, Teer, and I discuss and debate the latest Gospel Coalition video in which John Piper et al exult that God ordains tragedies in the world in order to manifest his sovereign glory. What an awesome god. Psych.

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This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

 

The Gospel Coalition, purveyors of a rather virulent strain of Old Perspective Calvinism, this week published a video wherein John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt joyfully exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Chandler describe the ‘good news’ of his cancer (of which in this construal God is the direct, efficient cause) keeping him from seeing his daughters’ weddings because it’s all a part of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy. Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Around a domestic dining room table, shot in the gray grains of German New Wave, Piper, Chandler, and Platt unwittingly provide me with Exhibit A for my argument in yesterday’s post about the repugnant heresy of nominalism.

Side Note:

Nominalism supposes that ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no correlation to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.

Instead God is a Being of absolute power and will- whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God (allegedly) did it.

By contrast, the ancient Christians believed that not even God can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

In contradiction to the ancient Christians, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge (Piper has said that too, before), God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

The offense of the Gospel Coalition video is muted somewhat by the fact that the speakers are all speaking out of their first person experience. They’re narrating their own experience of suffering. It’s hard to argue with someone’s story; however, the truly unholy nature of what they’re espousing (God collapsed the bridge on your kid to show you how awesome he is) becomes almost tactile when you think about how it would sound if their testimony turned into counsel. If they put their perspective on to some other sufferer and told them to feel the way they apparently feel.

My teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike John Piper, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra Piper et al

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words, if there is indeed a reason for everything, there is no reason to worship God. Not because God does not exist but because he is not worthy of our worship.

St Thomas AquinasTim Keller and DA Carson, leaders of the Gospel Coalition, recently and unceremoniously booted a fellow member, the high-profile grandson of Billy Graham, Tullian Tchividjian.

The offense?

Heresy.

As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.

Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.

The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.

After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.

In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.

And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.

The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.

Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.

In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.

The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.

Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.

It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.

According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.

God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.

But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.

The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.

Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.

The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.

To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.

After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).

The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:

1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.

 

2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.

In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.

When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.

But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.