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.
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.