Chance, providence, and the justice of God

Two friends 1 Well actually one is a friend of a friend. have in different ways prompted this post. One is a technologist trained in the sciences, who in the context of dissatisfaction with understanding the how of a particular area of theology wrote: 2 In a Facebook post, so I won’t give their name.

Can someone tell me how I can learn to become more comfortable with mystery?

The other is someone who is troubled (in the context of talk about unmerited suffering and the justice of God, by me ascribing much that happens to “chance”.

The justice of God has troubled me all my life, as far back as I can remember I have been aware not only of “those less fortunate” but even of those who suffer acutely for no just cause. The book of Job is a comfort, Job does not know why he suffers, complains bitterly to God and demands a hearing for his complaint against the injustice of the creator. His judicial complaint receives no hearing, except by human judges who fail to accept his plea (the three friends, or even more Elihu, who not having actively participated before steps in in Job 32 to sum up, which he does ineptly and justifying God by failing to admit the justice of Job’s case).  However, before the book ends Job receives two responses from God which, though they do not respond to Job’s accusation, remind Job of who God is and of how wondrous it is that a creature can relate to their Creator!

The answer to (almost?) all the big questions is a deeper layer of mystery.

In responding to people who complain of the injustice of life 3 Why do really horrible things happen to good people? I point to Job, but even more to Jesus who in Luke 13:1-5 makes clear that much (all?) suffering in this world is not justice meted out by a vengeful or benevolent Creator but simply chance.

To say this, however, is not the whole story, for in Scripture there is no such thing as “chance”. When Joseph (in Gen 37) wandering aimlessly in the land around Shechem just happens to meet the one man who can tell him where his brothers have gone and so sets in motion all the rest of the events of his life, Bible readers know this is not random. When Ruth (Ruth 2:3) just happens to glean in Boaz’ field (in all the fields of Bethlehem why did you have to pick this one?) we know this “happening” is not random. And when Amos pondering war other disasters says:

Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?
(Amos 3:6)

He recognises that the bad, like the good, must be ultimately laid at the door of the Maker of All. 4 As also did Job (Job 1:21)

This chance that is not random, like the unloving injustice of the God who is love, and justice, is a mystery. It is one we cannot understand in this life. Though perhaps God on a stick, Christ crucified, points towards the resolution of this terrible paradox.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Well actually one is a friend of a friend.
2. In a Facebook post, so I won’t give their name.
3. Why do really horrible things happen to good people?
4. As also did Job (Job 1:21)

The Marcion Option

Still reconnoitering the book I was struck by this in the intro to chapter 3 (93-4), I find it difficult to see how he can defend the claim whilst reading passages like Mat 5:17ff. or Luke 16:14ff.:

[T]he NT as a whole understands Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God that culminates and supersedes all others.

The word “supersedes” seems to me Marcionite, and in direct contradiction to what Boyd has argued elsewhere. I’ll have to see what he really means when I look closer. (On similar grounds to claims that when Paul appears to deny women’s teaching ministry in church settings he cannot mean this as it contradicts his practice elsewhere, I will need to look for other ways to understand what Boyd is saying…

Marcion redivivus?

I begin to understand why Boyd has been accused of Marcionism when I read at the start of chapter 8:

The problem of relating the Old and New Testaments is as old as the church itself, and the incongruity of the OT’s violent divine portraits with the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing agape-love of God revealed in the crucified Christ represents the apex of this challenge.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, 335.
Though his subsequent remarks make clear how far such is from his intention. Such thoughts, as I continue my initial reconnaissance of the books, are beginning both to shape some questions for my review to try to answer, and yet at the same time make me impatient to see (in book two I assume) more details of his approach to a solution.

The experience of reviewing ‘The Crucifixion of the Warrior God’


Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017.

This is not a book review. I will be writing a review of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but this is not it. This post will reflect on the experience of reviewing this work, it is a sort of meta-review. Any that follow it may continue this reflection, or may address my responses to aspects of Boyd’s argument that interest me. I do not expect either of these things will appear in the review when I write it.

The book is enormous, two volumes nearly 1500 pages, seven sections six of which are themselves the size of small books. The work also addresses what is evidently one of the key “conundrums” for early 21st century Christians. Reconciling the texts of terror that appear to depict God as delighting in or commanding indiscriminate violence with the way of love revealed supremely in Christ. Extreme ‘solutions’ are sometimes proposed (at least on Facebook, but sometimes in more rarefied academic circles). Some suggest removing chunks of the Bible (most simply, but in the end not effectively, the Marcionite one Testament Bible). 1 Not effective since the NT also contains its own texts of terror. Others harmonise Scripture with their theology by the claim that, since God is God, whatever God commands is right and just. 2 Whether this is true or not, it is not helpful. Since it risks replacing a God who is wrong with one who is a monster.

The book has powerful claims made for it before we reach the contents list. A large number of prominent biblical scholars and theologians (mainly from the Evangelical end of the scholarly spectrum) endorse Boyd’s work as ground-breaking, insightful and revolutionary.

My review will probably need to offer less than one word per page, so I will not be able to give much of an overview. Better scholars than me have evaluated it as important even seminal, so my review will not be evaluative. I think what I can realistically, and I hope helpfully, aim for is to assists people to decide if this is a book they should invest the time to address. 3 It only costs US$60, so the per page or per inch of shelf-space cost is very low! But at 1445 pages 1250 if you leave off the appendices, and perhaps only some 700 if you overlook the footnotes ;) it demands a considerable investment of time. 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Not effective since the NT also contains its own texts of terror.
2. Whether this is true or not, it is not helpful. Since it risks replacing a God who is wrong with one who is a monster.
3. It only costs US$60, so the per page or per inch of shelf-space cost is very low! But at 1445 pages 1250 if you leave off the appendices, and perhaps only some 700 if you overlook the footnotes ;) it demands a considerable investment of time. 

Learn Hebrew or Greek at home

The indefatigable Jim West is offering private tuition in Hebrew and/or Greek to anyone who is interested in learning to read the Bible (and probably lots of hard work – learning languages is fun, useful and inspiring, but always hard work.

Jim is thoroughly non-accredited and does not offer any diploma or certificate so only those who want to learn need apply!

Marshall, Vanhoozer, and the Canaanite genocide

Genocide memorial by Scott Chacon

Near the heart of Marshall’s plea, for a principled way to “go beyond the Bible” biblically, is the issue of genocide. The apparent approval (or even command) from Yahweh of genocide seems incompatible with divinity. Like Marshall, many/most/all(?) who think about this issue from a time after the attempted genocides of the 20th Century, feel genocide would make the godhead a demon. The Turkish massacres of Armenians, German attempts to eradicate “the Jewish problem”, Idi Amin’s cleansing of Uganda of Asians, the frighteningly human brutality in Rwanda, the mass graves of the Balkans, the killing fields of Cambodia and other sometimes less reported horrors have sensitised us to these stories in ways which our ancestors in the Faith did not find so troublesome.

This is a key point that Vanhoozer attacks in his response to Marshall. This issue was the third Marshall raised in making his plea:

…where teaching is given, particularly in the Old Testament, that seems more like “cruder notions” to be abandoned than “the foundation for later revelation.” The divine approval (expressed or tacit) of genocide in certain situations is an obvious and disturbing example. 1 I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 30.

Vanhoozer’s critique is sharp and pointed:

Marshall wants Christians to get beyond genocide. So do I. But I’m not prepared to say that God’s judgement of the world, or of nations, is “intrinsically wrong” if it involves killing people. Marshall is doing more than “reconsidering”, it seems to me, when he says that we “can no longer think of God in that way”. Unless we are prepared to jettison significant portions of the Old Testament (or to revise their meaning in the light of contemporary sensitivities), this way of going beyond Scripture has more of Marcion than of Marshall about it. For it really is not about numbers. If Marshall is to be consistent, he should say that God does not have the right to take a single life. After all that is unacceptable human behaviour, and we cannot justify God “by saying that he is free to act differently from believers”. On the contrary, I think we must say that God is indeed free to act differently from believers. The Creator is bound not by the laws that he has imposed upon creation, but by his own nature… Finally, if we are shocked by images of judgement, what are we to make of the Cross? 2 Ibid, 85.

It seems to me that Vanhoozer’s neat sidestep here (which also seems typical of “divine command” theorists) will not work. The issue is not whether God should be held to the same standards we would use for believers, though that issue may be less cut and dried than it might seem. Rather the issue is genocide. By its nature genocide attempts (even when unsuccessful and bungled) indiscriminate killing. Or rather, it discriminates, but only on grounds of race, ethnicity, or geographical proximity, and not on any moral criterion.

The question Vanhoozer ought to be addressing is not: may God commit acts that are rightly forbidden to creatures, but rather is indiscriminate killing an attribute of Godhead. In particular (since this discussion is among Christian believers) is indiscriminate killing an attribute consistent with the godhead revealed in Christ crucified.

Notes   [ + ]

1.  I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 30.
2.  Ibid, 85.

Beyond the Bible: Biblical principles

Living in new circumstances means going beyond the Bible, biblically.

In his first two lectures Marshall set the scene for the need and possibility of “going beyond the Bible”. In particular he established that we have in fact felt the need to go beyond Scripture, and so showed the need for principled and understood ways of doing this. He also showed that there is within the Bible a development of doctrine in differing contexts.

In the third lecture he begins to really get to grips with how we may biblically go beyond the Bible. Here he shows that when doctrine develops within Scripture we can identify not merely “diversity” but also “greater maturity” 1 For this language see notably his conclusion, I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 78. (though he resists equating this as an evolution in which later texts are always more advanced).

He also shows that Scripture is in some ways “incomplete” both because the teaching is occasional (that is addressed to specific circumstances) and because far future circumstances are not directly addressed. In showing this he also shows that there is continuity in these changes. Thus, speaking of change and of continuity in change, he is very close to the metaphor of a trajectory (which requires both change and continuity). Marshall uses this metaphor in describing the development of Christology into the Pastoral Epistles as an example of such development within Scripture. 2 Ibid, 73.

Finally he claims that “[d]evelopments in doctrine and new understandings after the closing of the canon are inevitable.” 3 Ibid, 78. But in order to affirm the authority of Scripture these must be in continuity with teaching in the Bible and must be discerned in accordance with “the mind of Christ”.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For this language see notably his conclusion, I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 78.
2. Ibid, 73.
3. Ibid, 78.

Beyond the Bible? Howard Marshall’s proposed Evangelical hermeneutics (part 2)

In the second lecture, Howard Marshall continues to set the scene. First sketching a dichotomy of ways in which Christians have “gone beyond the Bible” in responding to challenges of ethics, worship, and most strikingly doctrine. Unless the importance of his dichotomous classification of these becomes clearer later, my take is that the fact of such “going beyond” is more important than his particular classification of differing ways of doing so.

By far more interesting, to me at least, is his rehearsal of the ways in which the Biblical authors, in the New Testament already model such “going beyond”. Firstly and perhaps to no one’s surprise, they go beyond the Old Testament (their Scriptures) in a number of ways. Much more striking (if only because most modern Christians have fairly Marcionite attitudes to the Old Testament) is his demonstration that the writers of the New Testament in a number of ways “go beyond” the teaching of Jesus. He begins by noting that the New Testament goes beyond presenting the teaching of Jesus to “proclaiming him as crucified, risen, and returning Saviour and Lord”. 1 I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51. Strikingly for such an icon of Evangelical scholarship, Marshall then points to the four quite different portraits of Jesus in the four gospels as evidence for this. 2 Here he relies quite heavily on Blomberg’s discussion of John’s presentation of Jesus. Marshall concludes this point saying:

It is evident that the evangelists worked creatively, either on a common pool of tradition or on a mixture of sources both oral and written, in such ways they made different selections of material to include and edited what they did include in different ways, The result is that we have for readily distinguishable portraits of Jesus that can be regarded as developments of whatever lay behind them. This is not to say that the developments are incompatible with one another, but that they are written from four different perspectives. 3 I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51-52.

Marshall’s conclusion to this lecture also seems to me important:

The church, under divine guidance, has established the Canon, and I will assume that it cannot be changed. The church believes that it’s faith and practice rest upon that collection of books and that no others can have that function. Yet the closing of the cannon did not bring the process of doctrinal development to an end. Thus, the question of the interpretation of scripture remains open. 4 I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 54.

That openness seems to me precisely the point at issue today. Is Marshall correct or not? If he is not correct, then how might one account for the evidence he offers? But if he is correct, then by what right do some choose to announce that interpretation on particular issues that concern them is now “closed”?

Notes   [ + ]

1. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51.
2. Here he relies quite heavily on Blomberg’s discussion of John’s presentation of Jesus.
3. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 51-52.
4. I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 54.

Act Four

Yet another interesting Vanhoozer quote. Here he makes very helpful corrections to N.T. Wright’s much quoted five act play (in which the fifth act is missing):

[E]ach of the five acts of the theodrama [is] set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 174.

Disciples of the Way performing the script: Vanhoozer again

When disciples find themselves in strange new territory, they Will spontaneously extend the pattern. It is but a small step from the notions of performing the world implied by the text and extending the pattern of Jesus Christ to that of improvising with a script.

Kevin Vanhoozer in Gary T. Meadors, Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Harper Collins, 2009, 172.

Vanhoozer is rapidly convincing me that his performing the text metaphor, when mixed creatively with his disciples on the Way metaphor, captures much of what is best about talk of trajectories while (perhaps) avoiding the problems with that metaphor, and also (largely) avoiding the knee-jerk responses talk of trajectories seems to provoke.