Pro Ecclesia

January 2, 2022

John Thiel argues a challenging and complex thesis, or theses, on a crux interpretans for any theology: innocent suffering. Stated negatively, Thiel argues “that God neither permits, nor wills, nor causes any kind of suffering or death at all” (p.59) — and this requires him to deny a number of features of traditional, modern and postmodern understandings of God, evil and innocent suffering. Stated positively, the eternal God of prevenient love creates a world that has both guilty and innocent suffering a world in which God moves in the solidarity of the Innocent Sufferer, calling disciples to be authentic witnesses to both guilty and innocent suffering. The book’s prose is clear — accessible, at least in large part, to the undergraduates and lay readers for whom Thiel writes. But his argument is very complex; it will be (as Thiel hopes) of interest to theologians and even the philosophers of religion of whom he is critical (p. x).

Chapters one and two focus on but are not restricted to his negative thesis. This “majority tradition” includes the tradition of Paul and Augustine, modern “best of all possible worlds” theodicies from Leibniz to Swinburne and process theologies, and “revisionists” who affirm that God creates the world but does not act in specific ways in the world. Thiel argues that this position does not take account of disproportionate suffering, when the punishment does not fit the crime, from the death or murder of children to the Shoah and modern genocides.

It is not clear to me why Paul cannot he read in the light of the broader biblical narrative so clearly affirmed by Thiel (see below) rather than the way Thiel has read him. But Thiel’s negative thesis ultimately has to be judged in relation to the positive thesis articulated in chapters three through five. In chapter three, God is a living God and therefore a God of the living. Thiel sketches what he modestly calls “a rather traditional theological portrait” in which God is a God of prevenient grace, and his omnipotence eternal and absolutely perfect (p.78). Thiel proposes as his model Aulen’s Christus Victor, where (appropriately demythologized) God is engaged in dramatic “ongoing battle with death for the liberation of humanity” (p.91) in contrast to Anselmian or Abelardian models.

If not God, then who or what causes death and other evils? Thiel admits that he “risks dualism” by leaving evil unexplained. But this is not a Gnostic or Manichaean dualism but “productive theological ignorance” (pp.98-99) — ignorance over the origin of evil and “why God’s promise to destroy death has not been completely fulfilled in the present” (pp.98, 173). Thiel is wise indeed to build ignorance into the framework of our thinking about innocent suffering. This is not ignorance about what evil is — Thiel agrees with the traditional Augustinian description of evil as “a privation, the absence of being and so the absence of the good that everything created possesses” (p.97). And this is not an ignorance of where innocent suffering is going God will eventually emerge victorious over it. It is an ignorance over where such suffering cones from, and why God does not complete that victory now. How much ignorance over these questions is productive? The last two chapters can he read as an answer to this question.

Does Thiel’s affirmation of our abiding ignorance over the origins of innocent suffering deny original sin, particularly as canonized at the Councils of Orange and Trent (p.115)? Thiel affirms “a functionalist understanding” of the “tragic precedence of sin” (p.121) in which we find God is not the cause of death in any way and death is therefore not divine retribution (p. 124). Remove the traditional doctrine of original sin from its ties to what Thiel had called the “legal explanation” of evil as punishment for sin and we can affirm “innocent suffering in the midst of guilty suffering” (p.120). Although I would press the question of the ontological origin of the privatio boni further than Thiel, his agnosticism on this score enables him to say powerful things throughout the book about innocent sufferers, including our need for solidarity with them. The relationship between his non-functionalist account of the God of prevenient grace (chapter three) and his functionalist account of sin and evil (chapter four) becomes clear in his account of Jesus, the Innocent Sufferer (chapter five). Jesus’ powerlessness in crucifixion and death does not undo his innocence, and his Resurrection is God’s promise “to do for humanity what God has already done for Jesus” (p.146). Thiel argues that Anselmian understandings of Jesus’ death — where “Jesus willingly exchanges his uncompromised innocence for humanity’s uncompromised guilt, taking onto himself an undeserved death that is humanity’s lot” (p.153) — reinforce difficulties he has with the traditional teaching. On the other hand, he argues that a directly Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus emphasizing Jesus’ full humanity and divinity means that “humanity too possesses the quality of innocence that is its existential condition for Jesus’ innocent suffering” (pp.157-158). We should think of “Jesus’ saving work not as sacrifice but as solidarity in the Incarnation with the innocent suffering of humanity” (p.159). Here Thiel sides with what Catholics might call a more Rahnerian soteriology of solidarity rather than a Balthasarian soteriology of substitution. He does not think that Jesus solidarity with our innocent suffering eclipses the differences between each. That is, his desire to avoid monophysitism does not lead him to the Nestorianism of which “monophysites” often charge western Chalcedonians. But Thiel will need to say more about the relationship between Jesus innocence as God and as human to persuade substitutionary soteriologists. I think it is only by going through the latter that one can address the question of the incompleteness of God’s victory that is so crucial for Thiel’s case.

Thiel’s main achievement is to have located innocent suffering in relationship to faith’s thinking about God and evil and Jesus Christ, in contrast to those who seek to understand it within the limits of reason alone My question is whether the two theses with which I began are Consistent whether a God out to liberate us from evil (actual and original sin and suffering, guilty and innocent) can do so without in some sense permitting (albeit not doing) evil for the sake of the greater good of the communion of saints.

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