JAAR Book Review

January 2, 2022

The emergent Christian tradition saddled itself with the problem of evil (that threat to credibility that has ever yet haunted the faith) when it rejected the path of Marcion by claiming the Hebrew Scriptures as its Old Testament based on the identification of the God of Israel, whom those very Scriptures named the (creator, With the God of Jesus, whom he had called “Father”-the god Christians believed had raised him from the dead. Augustine Would later opine that suffering was tile just dessert of all who inherited the sinful distortedness of postlap-sarian Adam, believing in turn that God showed His mercy by so transforming some that they escaped the general perdition deserved by all. He apparently believed that if babies who died in infancy could not be shown to somehow deserve their fate, then the world could not he viewed as a just order and faith in a just and merciful creator god would be rendered vain.

It is just this theological denial of innocent suffering represented by Augustine that John Thiel refuses to accept. He is eloquent in arguing that the sense of justice involved founders on the shoals of proportionality. But it Thiel refuses the solution of premodern traditional theology, he equally rejects approaches that he labels postmodern and modern, respectively. Apparently, Lakeland, Thiel’s colleague at Fairfield, reads God’s “Where were you …?” speech to Job as justification for thinking that Good is not the kind of reality who micromanages the small-scale events of life. For Thiel, such a postmodern view seeks to separate the notions of sin and guilt, on the one hand, from natural events, on the other. Suffering caused by natural causes has nothing to do with punishment but, instead, is “statistically expected misfortune distant from the divine concern” (53). Thiel dubs Hick’s famous “Irenaean” theodicy an example of the “best-of-all-possible-worlds” option within modern theodicy, a classification shared by Leibniz, and Swinburne. For Hick, the world needs to be something like the world we inhabit lest it foil to be the vale of “soul making” that God has intended it to be. It took the evolutionary process to bring forth creatures capable of specifically moral maturity. Moreover, because virtue lies in overcoming temptation, we must have the capacity of moral error, even its we need to be vulnerable to suffering at each other’s hands so that we can learn to say no to harmful urges. Ultimately, any excess individual suffering contributes to the general awareness of the unacceptability of suffering and thereby meaningfully subserves our moral growth. Process thinking exemplifies the “best of all possible gods” option. Although some “evils” seem to be it necessary attendant of arty creation God might bring into existence because divine power is limited to persuasion, God might be responsible for the existence of a world containing the evils that it does, but He cannot be held blameworthy for what the world has made of itself. Debilitating evil is taken up into the divine memory and made a meaningful part of God’s interactivity with the world with the result that no evil is suffered in vain but, indeed, contributes to the whole even as it might destroy the individual. For Thiel, such modern approaches, in seeking to make suffering “meaningful,” ultimately undermine- as do the premodern and postmodern options-the unacceptability of such evil and the validity of protest against it.

Thiel argues that similar difficulties haunt traditional approaches to death. Classically, God allows death as punishment for sin but so contextualizes it in a providential order that it contributes to the salvation of some. At the level of piety, the recognition that God uses death to accomplish His purposes leads to speech about God “taking” those who die unto Himself. In Thiel I think we can hear an echo of the far less guarded indictment of a Camus, for whom such a God is a cosmic murderer. Explicitly Thiel charges that the idea that death is divinely sanctioned risks positing a double will in God, either by making the same divine act an act of both retribution and blessing or-in a thinker like Calvin, for whom retribution and blessing are unmixed- by making God’s treatment of different people unequal. It would seem, by either account, that God is not wholly love. Modern approaches, in their turn, seek to undermine the legitimacy of any moral protest against death by making of it a purely natural thing, the working out of the laws of nature That God established and which He does not contravene. For his part, Thiel refuses to allow natural necessity or the laws of nature to he identified with the will and law of God. Rather, he seems to want to do justice to the very old motif that death and suffering are unambiguous enemies of God.

While Thiel refuses to compromise the traditionally recognized attributes of God in the manner of process theology, his innovation is to seek to avoid the attribution of divine complicity in death and in innocent suffering entirely. He admits that the scriptural warrant for such a line of thinking might be less than“overwhelming” (79). Yet .scriptural warrant may not be as weak as Thiel implies. For example, Thiel might very well recognize an ally in Jon Levenson, whose work on the idea of creation in the Hebrew Scriptures has shown the extent to which biblical categories reflect the idea of a God engaged in trying to limit-and in apocalyptic times, Completely plaster-chaos. For his part, Thiel exploits the analogous scriptural characterization of God as the “living God” who exercises His creative power unambiguously on behalf of life and the living, drawing on the work of Ronald Thiemann in viewing revelation as promissory of a final victory over evil.

If evil does not originate with Gods, then whence? Unlike Karl Barth, who traced evil to the metaphysical drag of Das Nichtige, and unlike the contemporary thinker Gregory Boyd (whose “warfare theodicy” has some parallels wing Thiel’s approach), who ultimately appeals to the agency of a devil to account for the efficacy of evil in the world, Thiel is Content to leave the source of evil mysterious, implying that the seeming omission is more than mule up for in the gains made in rendering Christian faith coherent and commendable to morally sensitive people. Thiel insists that he does not intend to argue a dualistic perspective inconsistent with Christian faith. If evil is something unwilled by God that nevertheless haunts Creation, then evil is not necessarily something substantial. Indeed, Thiel suggests that evil might very well still be thought of as a deprivation of good, as it is in much traditional theology. But in wanting to claim that the sobering and death to which humans are vulnerable are not attributable to the direct or indirect agency of God, Thiel recognizes that he runs the risk of dualism, but he argues that it is a risk worth taking “in order to allow fin- innocent suffering to enter theological explanation and to describe cod’s saving work in such a way that remove any hint of a double will in God’s relation toward death” (98.).

Thiel admits that his hook is realty a systematic theology in nuce. Anselm famously argued that God required the death of the God-man Jesus to exhaust His anger at sinful humanity and restore His otherwise wounded sense of honor so as to free humanity horn its otherwise deserved fate. But note, says Thiel, how such a view perpetuates the idea that death is an instrument of God. Instead, Jesus-in his total innocence-should he understood as God’s innocent engagement with “precedent sin” (the evil that humans enact, the presence of which in each generation infects the succeeding one) and “precedent evil” (tile evil of human mortality and the suffering undergone because of it)-in the light of which precedent evil and sin are revealed to be the evils that they are. Jesus resurrection, in turn, is God’s pledge that life will swallow up evil and death in victory-even for those of us who are compromised by sin in ways that Jesus was not. Correspondingly, discipleship lies in the imitation of Jesus’ innocent engagement with evil on the part of his not-so-purely-innocent followers.

The brevity of this very persuasive and clearly argued book belies its weight and significance. It answers to the need to begin to speak of God in ways that avoid the attribution of divine complicity in evil and death. AS such, it deserves a place on the bookshelf of every Contemporary theologian and a place on the syllabus for every course in contemporary ideas of God and the problem of evil. Some years ago, the philosopher James Muyskens called for an authentic theology of hope. John F. Thiel has finally given us one.

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