Posts Tagged ‘Drew McIntyre’

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 4)

September 18, 2017

This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.

I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.

Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)

Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.

The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:

[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.

Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.

While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.

Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.

Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.

I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”

God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.

By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.

In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.

If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.

Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”

Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.

Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.

But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.

Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.

The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!

If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?

When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.

Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!

Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:

He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):

Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:

Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

What can I say to this but Amen?

More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.

We don’t live in world that is “in and of itself”

December 3, 2015

Tackling the subject of evil and suffering the day after yet another mass shooting in the U.S. isn’t, I know, good timing. On the other hand, people are getting murdered all the time in every place in the world—it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t affect us. We can’t wait for evil and suffering to cease before we address the topic. I’m only addressing it now because, for me, nothing less than God’s goodness is at stake in the question. How can I ignore it?

Besides, I didn’t bring it up; this blog post by Drew McIntyre over at the United Methodist-affiliated Ministry Matters website did. Drew calls the suffering of children the number one reason to be an atheist.

I was pleased that Drew’s post got some good pushback from his readers. For example, one person said that in his experience of dealing with parents who’ve lost children, “I never once saw the parents or anyone else see this as a reason for questioning God’s existence. On the contrary, the experience brought them all closer to God, driving home their need for Him.”

I agree. In reply I wrote:

My experience as a pastor confirms this as well: When I’ve seen Christian parents lose children—again, I’m only speaking from my direct experience—it has the effect of bringing them closer to God, not pushing them away from God. People who have already convinced themselves that there is no God are the ones who find this moral argument against God persuasive.

But they’re not thinking clearly. The moral argument against God turns in on itself: If God doesn’t exist, then there is no objective basis on which to say, “The death of children is wrong.” Without God, our moral intuition is a meaningless byproduct of unthinking and unguided forces. Moral intuition becomes nothing more than a matter of personal taste. Without a lawgiver, there is no law.

When we object to God’s existence on moral grounds, we are, as Tim Keller says, “relying on God to make an argument against God,” as I discuss here.

The best comment came from Mike D’Virgilio.


I replied as follows:

Exactly right, Mike. The difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing evil, while important, isn’t nearly as great as many Methodists think. God is responsible for evil, as my (Lutheran) systematic theology prof at Candler said (echoing Pannenberg). God is responsible because God made this particular world, which permits evil. And as Christians we must assume that, from God’s perspective, it was worth making this world, in spite of the fact that evil would be one consequence of doing so.

I read Hart’s book, too, and I found it evasive at times: Evil has no positive contribution to make in our world, he says again and again. In and of itself that’s true. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world that’s “in and of itself.” We live in a world infused with God’s grace. The overwhelming biblical answer is that God can and does redeem evil, as the cross itself emphatically proclaims. (Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) If God can transform the greatest evil imaginable (the cross of his Son) into the greatest good imaginable (our salvation), then surely he can transform any lesser form of evil the same way.

I hate to be sectarian, but as an Eastern Orthodox convert, Hart doesn’t have to worry nearly as much as we Protestants do (or ought to) about making sure theology accords with scripture.

And, Mike, you’re absolutely right about prayer. The idea that God has nothing whatsoever to do with intervening to stop evil in our world conflicts with Jesus’ clear teaching that our prayers make a difference in the world. Logically, if God ever does something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then we must assume that God has a good reason for not giving us what we ask for—even when what we ask for is the safety of our children.

For all we know, if God intervened to prevent children from dying in a particular instance, something far worse might happen. We can’t know what that worse thing might be. Only God can. The question is, will we trust him?

I raised this question in a Facebook comment thread, and I’ll raise it here: Drew asks: “Could there ever be a good reason that God let your child die?” All I can say is, I hope so, because God clearly does let that happen. Right?

Finally, let’s remember: There’s no balancing of the scales of justice apart from heaven. Some Methodist thinkers refuse to resort to heaven—as if it were cheating or something—but ultimately it answers every objection. In the face of evil, the hope of eternal life and future resurrection is a fire hose extinguishing a birthday candle.

Or isn’t it? Do we not believe in it, after all?

I’ve made this point in sermons before but it bears repeating: In the aftermath of Sandy Hook three years ago, one theologian posted on Facebook: “The first five seconds in heaven will compensate for any suffering that these children and their teachers endured.”

Do you disagree? Please tell me why.

Questions pertaining to sex aren’t “core doctrine,” say UMC centrists, therefore…?

September 24, 2015

Centrist United Methodists believe that questions related to same-sex sexual behavior are not important enough to divide over. They want all sides to compromise for the sake of unity.

If I’m reading the signs correctly, however, these Methodists have settled on their best argument for convincing people like me that we’re overreacting: Regardless our personal convictions about the subject, it doesn’t rise to the level of orthodoxy or, as one writer put it this week, “core doctrine,” to which the creeds and ecumenical councils bear witness. Core doctrine relates mostly to the Trinity and the Incarnation. (I blogged about this argument in July, the last time, I think, I addressed anything pertaining to LGBT issues on this blog.)

While the main point of this blog post from “Via Media Methodists” isn’t directly related to this argument, the author, Drew McIntyre, implies that there’s something unseemly in arguing about homosexuality when we have bigger theological fish to fry. As Rev. McIntyre wrote in response to one commenter, Casey:

To answer your question, I would say that my experience with progressives and conservatives, in addition to denominational leaders, is that almost no one wants to actually talk about first things, i.e. doctrine… Progressives generally tell me that doctrine is a distraction and evangelicals regularly tell me that their arguments about sexuality are doctrinal in nature (which I reject). I’m more concerned that we have ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits than anything to do with the discussion about sexuality (where I believe there is room, unlike core doctrine, for compromise), but on that score I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

On an evangelical United Methodist Facebook page, where McIntyre linked to his post, I wrote the following:

If you’ll allow a schismatic, anti-VMM [Via Media Methodist] Methodist like myself to throw a wet blanket on this discussion, I share the concerns of your commenter, Casey, who wonders why biblical arguments over sexuality are “superficial” and somehow less important than “core doctrine.”

It’s almost as if you (and some of your fellow VMM colleagues with whom I’ve disagreed) don’t grasp what conservatives believe is at stake in the argument about sexuality. And don’t misunderstand: I’m happy for you to disagree with my (or our, if I may be so bold) interpretation of scripture.

I’m not asking you to agree, only to understand why we don’t believe compromise is possible on this issue: From our perspective, nothing less than eternity potentially hangs in the balance. I don’t know how else to read and interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, for example. The man committing sexual sin (incest in this case) without remorse or repentance is on a path, Paul believes, that leads to hell. So for the sake of the man’s soul, he urges the church to expel him at least in the short run, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Suppose the church at Corinth disobeyed Paul’s words and continued to tolerate the man’s behavior? Would Paul have been O.K. with that? Would he have said, “Sexual sin doesn’t relate to core doctrine, so we can agree to disagree”? It’s incomprehensible, given both the content and tone of his words there.

And I haven’t touched on his direct words about same-sex sexual behavior in chapter 6.

I hope you see the point. If “my side” is right about homosexuality, it can’t be a matter of indifference, or a secondary matter, or something about which we can compromise. The stakes are too high for us.

And you would say, “Yes, but ‘your side’ is wrong.” And I would say, “No, we’re not, and here’s why.” And then we’d both have to do what? Argue the Bible, our ultimate authority on this and any other question pertaining to Christian faith. What’s superficial about that?

Now, you say in response to Casey that we conservatives (along with progressives) just “assert” our vision of biblical interpretation (whatever that means), without arguing it. Speaking for myself I’m happy to argue in depth with anyone about why our particular church doctrine on this issue (such as it is) needs to remain unchanged.

I probably should have put “schismatic” in scare quotes above, although that’s what we traditionalists are often accused of being. It’s a strange schismatic who simply wants to preserve church doctrine!

To my comment, however, McIntyre reiterated his objection that core doctrine is defined by

the creeds and ecumenical councils (so, in particular, the Trinity and Incarnation). I believe these are definitive for Christian self-understanding in a unique way. Where the conservatives in our church lose me because of inconsistency is that they have never, to my knowledge, threatened schism over rampant divorce among UMC clergy and laity alike. Stand on the Bible if you like, but if you want to be a traditionalist about sex and relationships, at least be consistent. At least Rome and the Orthodox include their opposition to SSM within a coherent sexual ethic that takes divorce seriously and values celibacy.

In the first paragraph of my response below, I attempt to show that the argument about divorce is a red herring: good arguments don’t depend on the perceived consistency of the person making them. Then I argue that issues pertaining to divorce and remarriage aren’t in the same category as homosexual practice, anyway.

First, two wrongs don’t make a right, as you know. Even if we’re hypocrites, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I could be a hypocrite on marriage and divorce and yet everything I say above (and much more besides) about same-sex sexual behavior could be true. A good argument doesn’t depend on the virtue or consistency of the person making it. That’s the beauty of logic and reason.

Second, and more importantly, you know as well as I do that the New Testament, including Jesus’ own words, permits divorce (and most of us would say remarriage) in at least some cases. (Even the Catholics and Orthodox recognize this, however they define it.) And I’m unaware of Protestants arguing that even remarriage after an illicit divorce constitutes a state of continual sinning (every time, for instance, the couple has sex). Even remarriage after illicit divorce is still marriage, as Jesus himself implicitly acknowledges in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. And marriage is good.

Regardless, both of us agree that God’s grace abounds even in tragic situations in which marriages fall apart. But please notice: contrary to what progressives are saying about homosexual practice, none of us Methodists is saying that divorce is good, that it honors God, that it’s something that God blesses, that it’s something God encourages and wants to see more of! No, we recognize the tragedy of divorce; indeed, I hope, the sinfulness of it (even as we recognize that God’s grace prevails). I do. I preach against divorce. I counsel against divorce in most cases.

Finally, you say that “core doctrine” consists of creeds and ecumenical councils. I know… I’ve read you and your VMM colleagues making this argument many times. I disagree in this sense: We’re Protestants in part because we recognize that no creed or ecumenical council carries the same weight as scripture. We acknowledge creeds and councils only inasmuch as they conform to scripture and express biblical truth. Regardless, they are not our ultimate authority.

So while I share your concern about having “ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits,” we’re not Trinitarians because the Nicene Creed tells us to be: it’s because we believe that God-as-Trinity emerges from our best understanding of scripture, as the council itself recognized. Nicaea was, according to my (Catholic) History of Christian Thought professor, an exegetical debate, centered squarely on scripture, as it should have been.