This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/gods-good-chaos
Do not fall into the Theodicy trap.
Theistic Evolutionists don’t have any more theodicy to explain than the Young Earth
Do not get stuck to the Theodicy tar baby.
I hope that the very small print of the “This is a companion discussion topic for…” will not escape the notice of readers. My first reaction to the interesting OP for this thread was a recognition of various ambiguities in the terms, but a quick read of the article by Tim Reddish brought me up to speed. Indeed, what is “good and bad for creatures” is another reminder of the profound yet somewhat ambiguous implications of creation being described as “very good”. (TOV).
I’ve always found it interesting that the creation science movement of the 1962 brought not only more emphasis on what it meant for creation to be “very good” but what creation science proponents thought simply could not be good, namely, biological death. (Many insisted that animal death was foreign to the “original, very good creation” but some extended that to plants and even bacteria!)
Yet it always amazed me that so many of the confident claims of what “very good” could and could not be were based more upon presuppositions about what God would or would not create than on any particular scripture proof-text. Even when I was very committed and passionate about my church’s very traditional Young Earth Creationist interpretations of scripture, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way my brethren were making doctrinal conclusions based upon “I feel that God wouldn’t do that” instead of “The Bible in these multiple passages makes clear that…” Do we as believers truly know the mind of God so well that we can make claims about what God would and wouldn’t do?
Indeed, seeing even my academic colleagues insisting that the Apostle Paul’s context in Romans demanded “no animal death before the fall” and not just no image-of-God-endowed- human death before the fall truly amazed me, both then and now. Both then and now, when pressed for reasons why “no death before the fall” applied to all animals and not just humans, most relied upon:
Animal death is a very bad thing.
Therefore, animal death couldn’t have been a part of a “very good” creation.
Yet, (1) Why assume animal death must be a very bad thing when it obviously produces so many good things?
And, (2) ultimately, what does it mean for creation to be “very good”? and (3) would animal death truly be so obviously incompatible with it?
As a student, I was an experienced debater in collegiate tournaments. In deftly manipulating audiences (the bluntly-described objective of every good debater), one always appreciates a “wildcard argument” which can address and claim every and any item of evidence presented. And in my Young Earth Creationist mindset of the time, I could always depend on this popular simplistic dichotomy:
God is perfect and therefore everything God made in that “very good” creation reflected God’s perfection.
So if one identifies anything in creation today which appears to us NOT “very good”, it is obviously a product of the Fall.
(Yes. Self-inflicted palm-to-forehead slap.)
And even though human nature tends to love reducing complex realities to something very simple—especially the simplicity of crude but effective either/or dichotomies—the fact that I could always win over an auditorium or sanctuary filled with fundamentalist Christians (who assumed that Young Earth Creationism was the only possible conclusion for a “true Christian”) only amplified my skepticism towards my very shallow argument. (Things which come too easily tends to be valued less.)
But maybe that’s just me. I’d love to hear how other people react to such arguments and conclusions.
Thanks, Jim, for this thought-provoking article.
BTW, In the green intro, which I assume is your writing, you may have a forgotten word where you wrote: “But the biblical text itself does allow this.” I’m almost certain in the context that you meant to write: But the biblical text itself does not allow this.
More comments to come later … gotta go.
I realize that probably many readers—both Christians and non-Christians—consider the “Theodicy problem” a major conundrum for theists of the Abrahamic religious traditions. However, I would humbly mention that I’m not troubled about the theodicy problem at all and I’ve found that I’m far from alone in that regard within the ranks of evangelical academics. And just yesterday I heard Dr. William Lane Craig mentioning in an appropriately casual dismissal of Richard Dawkins arguments against God’s existence that “The so-called theodicy problem was worked through and dismissed by philosophers decades ago—both theists and atheist philosophers— so nobody in the academy nowadays considers it a valid argument against the existence of God.” (That is NOT an exact quote but rather a paraphrase of what I heard Dr. Craig say in one of his podcasts.)
So, I don’t mean to start a new topic…but simply wanted to point out that many of us with backgrounds in philosophy and theology consider the theodicy to only be problematic on a popular level, not an academic one. So it is only a “tar baby” to some.
For most Christians as well as philosophers, it is logically obvious that God is capable of allowing the existence of evil for some purpose, regardless of whether that result is known or understood by people. I don’t always agree with Dr. Craig on all sorts of topics so I visited the philosophy department for lunch today so I could ask one of my atheist friends if he considered the theodicy problem “solved”. He said, “No, it was never solved because it was never really a problem to begin with. The theodicy was always a false dilemma because there are no logic contradictions within it. It may appeal to some as an emotion-based argument against the existence of God but it is certainly not an argument from logic. And it plays no part in my apathy about the existence of God.”
That said, I also know from experience that philosophy is just as broad and subject to specializations as any other academic discipline, much like mathematics, chemistry, or particle physics. So there are many philosophers who probably have hardly given a thought to the theodicy since grad school, and they most likely have little awareness of the last major academic debate on that topic.
I commend you, dear sir!
If I were to re-state my admonition… it would be:
“Not everyone thinks concerns about Theodicy are valid! But because
there are many who do - - or many Creationists who attempt to make it
a SPECIAL problem of Theistic Evolution - - AVOID THAT TAR BABY!”
I like the clarity of your position!
I admit to being uninformed in scholarly theology, but this seems to me to support God’s invitation for humanity to join Him as Co-creators. As such we are asked to use our intellect and ingenuity to deal with the natural evils that beset Job. Does this not reduce or eliminate the perceived problems with theodicy?
I also have had the story of Job percolating in my mind the last couple of days, and I am fascinated by how well it describes that activity that we have now come to call ‘modern science’ — read Job 28 sometime … “Man puts an end to darkness, and to the farthest limit he searches out the rock in gloom and deep shadow.”
I’ve come to wonder if the whole of our preoccupation with science isn’t (unconsciously for many) motivated by a desire to give answer back to God. In those chapters where God finally gives reply and asks “so what do you know about making a universe? Where were you…?” “Have you walked the recesses of the deep…” I can imagine brash scientific voices chiming in today to say, “well, as a matter of fact, we can now check off a few of these challenges.” And so we desire to continue that dialogue and eventually give answer back to God that “Yes, we do now know where those storehouses of rain are, and yes, we do now know some of the ordinances of the heavens.” And so of course our Promethian arrogance leads us to think all could eventually in principle be answered.
But the more sober thinkers among us are acutely aware of how massive our ignorance has become. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. So we will never have the last word in any such exchange and even many of the challenges given Job in that ancient time still stand unanswerable.
Shifting attention to your proposition about God’s “Good Chaos” or the limited allowance God gives to such things, does the passage where Jesus calms the storm and his disciples wonder aloud: “who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?” --do you see that passage as having negative bearing on your thesis? Or if not, how would you incorporate it into the suggestion that God permits chaos? In one sense, that the storm was even there in the first place gives an easy answer to the question. But it was demonstrated to still be within God’s sovereignty. Is it one thing to say that God’s sovereignty is totally controlling, and yet another to say that it is permissive within restraints?
It seems clear to me that theodicy (a vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil) shouldn’t even be an issue at all, considering that God (Elohim) is the [eternal animating force]. How can we vindicate or incriminate the “divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice” of an energy force, when it [Elohim] has no such thing as “divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice”—an energy force which is directed according to its cosmological constants? It is all anthropomorphization to confuse the public with babble (Babel). It’s ridiculous that philosophers and theologians are still debating the issue. It should be expressly confirmed as a solved issue and screamed from all the rooftops and media networks throughout the world.
[Original post was intended for System.]
Concerning Jesus walking in the water and his calming of the storm: I do indeed think that these nature miracles are relevant—positively—in this context. As in the case of the resurrection, these are glimpses of the future realized in the present. These are vivid signs that point to the reign of God being inaugurated by Jesus, the Messiah.
“Is it one thing to say that God’s sovereignty is totally controlling, and yet another to say that it is permissive within restraints?”
You touch on an insightful and sensitive point. I don’t think God is, in fact, “totally controlling”—a micromanager. In Gen 1:16 we read that God delegates the Sun and Moon “to rule” the days and seasons. If this is the case, God evidently is not a micromanager who meticulously controls the cosmos; rather, he gave creation a certain degree of autonomy. The command to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:22, 28), which follows God’s blessing, gives permission to creatures to be the ‘other’ and further demonstrates God sharing his creative capabilities. Furthermore, God entrusts humankind “to rule” over the fish, birds and every living creature (1:28). God is manifestly a power-sharing God and does not exercise his sovereignty by sheer dominion. Sovereignty is not synonymous with absolute power, but rather with the total freedom God has to use his power as he wishes and for him to accomplish his purposes in the way he sees fit.
I don’t want to start a new topic either! This post is primarily about how scripture can inform our theology of nature. Too often we only consider Gen 1-3 and overlook the rest of the Old Testament. I fully appreciate the observation you make that this post also is relevant to theodicy, a defense of God in the face of evil (natural evil in this case), but I do not take up that complex topic here.
Albert: See my reply to Mervin. I totally agree that God invites us to partner with him in his ongoing creation project and in establishing God’s reign in a needy world. I think the existence of suffering causes Christians to examine (a) the kind of God we believe in and (b) the nature of the world God made. This post addresses the latter, and—if you choose the route of natural theology—can provide insight on the former. So, certainly our theology of nature is relevant to a Christian response to (so-called) natural evil, and moral evil for that matter.
Thanks for your response, Tim; and your seeing those signature events as “glimpses of the future” is intriguing to me, but I’ll comment on something else here at the moment.
God evidently is not a micromanager who meticulously controls the cosmos; rather, he gave creation a certain degree of autonomy.
You should beware (If you indeed aren’t aware already) that “them’s fightin words in these here parts” among some able challengers. Jon Garvey, among others, has repeatedly addressed this in countless places over on his blog at the hump where he shows the incoherence of thinking that nature (apart from sentient beings with a shot at free-will) could have anything resembling “freedom”. I’ll just link here to one such place, or here to the first of a whole series discussing free will. If Jon is reading and hasn’t wearied of what might feel like a “whack a mole” game to him over the past years, maybe he can link to others of his essays that might even give better focus on this.
Perhaps you are already aware of these oft-expressed objections and just choose to disagree with them. But if not, you should take a look-see at what’s been said and see if it gives you pause.
My own pause is to think that we might be mis-anthropomorphizing God if we invoke the “micromanagement” objection. After all, a creator for whom not a single sparrow alights apart from His will, is one who is already way beyond anything we would call micromanagement. It should be a solid hint that we are trying (and will necessarily fail) to contemplate a whole different level of power, and that our human analogies, while helpful in some respects, must fail in others.
How can we vindicate or incriminate the “divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice” of an energy force, when it [Elohim] has no such thing as “divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice”—an energy force which is directed according to its cosmological constants?
Well, I agree with you that we have no position or capacity from which to be doing any vindication or incrimination - either one - of God. But beyond that when you seem to go on to say here that this is because God is an impersonal force, an “it” if you will along the lines of Einstein’s mystical force, then you leave most/all of Christian orthodoxy behind.
So you may not get much traction here on that approach, at least not among Christians who think that God is both holy and just and personal precisely because that is the testimony handed on to us down the ages. And any of our resulting problems with theodicy then are precisely that: our problems to be worked out, or failing that, simply accepted. But we won’t be solving them by walking away from the foundation given us.
Come on, do you really think Jesus walked on water and influenced the weather but couldn’t escape from torture and execution? And his Father stood idly by while this happened to his son? Why? Because he had to? It was somehow required to redeem a species of primates that he made?
Here’s something for your files. It is of limited value the more literally one interprets scripture.
At the bottom is a link to a standard article on the Roman, Greek (and Phoenician!) practice
of ‘Devotio’ (the Latin term for the practice). At the bottom of the article, we see the rather
stunning reference to a Carthaginian:
“Devotio is very likely to be behind Herodotus’ story of the Battle of Himera (Syracuse defeat
of Carthaginians at Sicily, 480 BCE), in which the Carthaginian general Hamilcar throwing
himself in the fire.” [Herodotus, Histories, 7.165-167.]
Essentially, Devotio is an intentional sacrifice in order to win divine favor for one’s People,
Nation, or Family. Like Jesus, I suppose, the self-sacrifice of the Carthaginian General, Hamilcar ,
was honored in an annual religious celebration - - despite the fact his offering failed to give
Carthage a victory!
This same principle was behind the more obscure Melkart’s self-sacrifice into a mystical burning
tree … in order to establish the realm of Tyre, and to make Melkart (var. Melqart) a GOD !
You might call it the “Angelification of Melqart” - - which appears to be behind the rather ugly
’moloch’ cult of the Phoenicians. They were making ‘guardian angels’ to watch over the royal
house, or the kingdom, or the family. By burning, the person’s attachments to the material world
are completely severed … and he can then occupy the heavenly realm occupied by the rest of
So . . . responding to your comment about Jesus not being able to save himself from the cross . . .
if a more realistic interpretation of Jesus were to be used, one might conclude that he was
inspired by Phoenician Theology in order to save his people. That would be consistent with
why he doesn’t appear to be interested in saving himself.
Rather than the traditional choices: Jesus was telling the truth or he was crazy - - the third
choice is may be that Jesus was moved by the martyrdom of Hamilcar (Hamilcar specifically
or the theology in general). Rather than Crazy - - Jesus may have simply been FULL OF LOVE.
A great question, Patrick. In my view, any miracle story needs to be viewed in a theological context. As a physicist I am fully aware of the magnitude of physical implications of those two particular miracles, just as a biologist is stunned in the face of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. These things just don’t happen naturally in our world. We would say they are simply impossible. It is easy to doubt those nature miracles occurred; and some—perhaps many—Christians do. But if we do say they are miraculous stories—a fiction or, perhaps, based on some kernel of historical occurrences, but embellished—then why did the gospel writers pick such incredulous events? Put another way, into what to local context do they play? I think the Old Testament view of the “sea” (as discussed in the blog) is that symbolic or metaphorical link. Jesus is identified as the One who can tame chaos. New Testament miracles are not to be seen as a demonstration of power (the cross illustrates God’s power as manifest in weakness, not brute force), but as a theological sign of the presence of the kingdom of God. Incidentally, I do not think those two miracles were a publicity stunt to instill faith in order to command allegiance; he already had the disciples’ allegiance. Rather they were unforgettable teachable moments that revealed to the disciples exactly who it was they were following. (As far as we know, no one else witnessed the events—assuming they actually happened.)
Concerning the death of Jesus. The New Testament writers were also trying to answer the same question to 1st century Jews and non-Jews using language and images that were culturally familiar. They all knew, of course, that ultimately it was the Romans who tortured and crucified Jesus. His radical teachings were perceived to be a threat to the religious and political stability of the region. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus demanded an explanation as to the added significance of his death. Some writers portray Jesus as paying, willingly, the ransom price to liberate a slave in the marketplace. In contrast to that secular image, other authors give an explanation using Jewish religious symbolism—Jesus as the final sacrifice. Many other responses to this question have been proposed and held over the centuries—as you many well know. What we say in reply reveals something about how we view the character of God. One that I find to be particularly meaningful is summarized by theologian Douglas John Hall. He writes: “The Theology of the Cross is a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and potentiality that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for.” I find that a powerful and beautiful statement.
 D. J. Hall, The Cross in Our Context, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 24 (emphasis mine).
“them’s fightin words in these here parts”
Thank you Mervin for pointing me to that blog discussion. I had no intention of stirring up a hornet’s nest—it seems pretty self-evident to me. My point on God “giving creation a certain degree of autonomy” is a reference to the practical working of everyday science. Scientists do not seek recourse to evoking God (or God’s providence) as a helpful or productive explanation in understanding natural processes. This is also demonstrated historically with the rise and prominence of deism. Such a philosophical view could not have got off the ground without a “certain degree of autonomy” to creation. As Polkinghorne, quoting F. R. Tennant, states: This is where Christian theism is “necessarily tinged with deism to recognize a relatively settled order.”
 John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 77
Is this essentially the same as the suicide bombers in Paris yesterday? To get them favor with God?
Couldn’t the stories be an embellishment over time? Started as little coincidences like “storm stopped as Jesus began speaking” to “Jesus ordered storm to move, and it did.”