Posts Tagged ‘Drew McIntyre’

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.