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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

In his book, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, James Crenshaw seeks to search the Bible for an adequate response to the problems of evil and “God’s perceived injustice” (p.18).  Here I wish to address the common thread which Crenshaw himself notes as unifying his work: “the abiding tension between justice and mercy” (p.18).  We shall argue that justice and mercy are harmoniously intertwined within God’s character; two parts of a whole which are not in conflict.

Before proceeding, one introductory comment is in order:  Crenshaw’s Biblical search, when subjected to the Biblical canon espoused by orthodox Protestantism, is simultaneously deficient and inflated.  Crenshaw’s search takes place almost entirely within the Old Testament Scriptures; a paucity of references are made to the New Testament (deficiency).  In addition, Crenshaw includes many extracanonical writings (e.g., 4 Ezra, Sirach, 1 & 2 Macabees) under the umbrella of the Bible (inflation).  For the purposes of this post I shall largely ignore this disagreement, save to note here that it cannot be without effect on Crenshaw’s conclusions.  A much more serious aspect of Crenshaw’s view of Scripture, and its consequences, shall be addressed later.

Crenshaw makes his view of justice and mercy clear: the two oppose each other.  The two are “in tension;” they manifest “conflicting demands,” and are even “irreconcilable” (pp.18;91).  Crenshaw opens his book with the dilemma:

Strict justice requires that I get what I deserve, no more and no less.  Mercy allows my just deserts to be set aside, my transgression overlooked or forgiven.  How can the deity perfectly embody both? (p.3).

Crenshaw sees this conflict evident in YHWH’s great self-disclosure:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex.34:6-7).

The problem, according to Crenshaw is that we have compassion “in astonishing juxtaposition” with God’s judgment (p.92).  Even more, how does one square the notion of transgenerational punishment with texts like Ezekiel 18, which seems to invalidate said punishment?

We might first ask where the “conflict” is in this text.  God is one who forgives; God is one who judges.  Are these qualities indeed mutually exclusive in a personality?  Must God be all one or the other?  A straightforward reading would simply indicate that God is revealing balance or fullness to His character: He is a God of forgiveness, but He’s no pushover.  The apparent conflict with Ezekiel 18 is resolved when one considers the different purposes of the two texts.  Where Exodus is a general and explicit revelation of God’s character; Ezekiel is a text written to a specific audience in a very specific situation purposed at stressing individual accountability.

In his fifth chapter, Crenshaw maintains that the Biblical writers struggle to depict a God of an apparent “split personality.”  He draws upon the book of Jonah and Joel in particular to stress his point.  Where Jonah grows angry with God for His compassion, Joel wrestles with the doctrine of God’s compassion while faced with circumstances that instead indicate a wrathful God.  In the end is a God characterized by “Who knows?”  Perhaps God will be merciful; perhaps He will be just.  Implicit here is that He cannot be both.

We must, or course, reject the notion that God maintains a split personality.  Crenshaw does not state so explicitly, but we can only assume that he would not adhere to such doctrine.  The Bible will not allow for such a diagnosis (c.f., Dt. 6:4; Mt. 12:25f), nor will logic: how could a perfect God withstand inner conflict?  So then, how do we answer Crenshaw’s implication that justice and mercy are conflicting aspects of God?  We might consider first his definition of justice, namely that it constitutes getting what one deserves.  We ask, then, what does one deserve?  Taking God to be the supremely holy, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect source of all that is, what is the just desert for any rebellion against Him?  Be it any sin of any magnitude, we cannot but conclude that offending an infinitely good God warrants infinite punishment.

As such, we note great mercy inherent in God’s justice: God’s justice is intrinsically merciful; in fact, He routinely underpunishes.  The two do not oppose each other, but are made manifest in concert with each other.  Even if we take an egregious villain who is bound for eternal punishment in Hell, their existence on earth will be seasoned with God’s mercy.

We could draw upon numerous Biblical examples that show these two characteristics working together in God’s personality, but space permits us to consider only the account of David and Bathsheba as a start (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24).  Crenshaw takes this account to be one of YHWH’s injustice:  David escapes (deserved) punishment while the innocent child of his affair dies, a punishment Crenshaw posits as “the ultimate penalty” (p.137).

In Crenshaw’s view, then, we have of YHWH’s mercy (thus injustice) for David and straight injustice upon his child.  Crenshaw seems to forget Nathan’s prophecy to David, however; YHWH’s punishment for his sin: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you” (2 Sam. 12:11a).  The following chapters in David’s life depict in vivid detail how much he did indeed suffer in the conflicts with his son, Absalom.  However, couched in YHWH’s justice is also mercy:  David is not stricken from the throne as an unjust king (as perhaps he ought to be), but further union with Bathsheba results in the birth of Solomon, who continues the Davidic line.

Furthermore, we might disagree that David’s child has paid the ultimate price by death.  Even if we were to ignore any notion of an afterlife and assume annihilationism, is being taken from a life that will no doubt entail much suffering not an act of mercy?  The point weighs in even heavier if an afterlife is considered (i.e., read the New Testament).  Herein is an additional example of YHWH’s mercy made manifest in justice.

As for the book of Jonah, indeed, God’s mercy is the focal point; but His wrath is not out of view.  With Joel, God’s wrath seems more clearly in view; but His mercy is present as well (Joel 2:13-14).  We have no theological dilemma here, but simply different texts of different purposes emphasizing two threads that intertwine to form God’s dealings with humankind.

Crenshaw’s journey through theodicy in the Bible is a provocative one.  Each of his chapters considers an approach to theodicy, and in the end, each is found unconvincing.  This result is inevitable, given the other common thread running through his book.  Namely, that Crenshaw holds a low view of Scripture.  Rather than taking the texts he searches to be the infallible Word of God, they are “mythical” (p.15) and “imaginative” (p.10); Moreover, Scriptural authors tend towards manipulation of God and reader (p.10).  Crenshaw views Scripture as human authors struggling to depict God; not God revealing Himself through human writers.

To take the Bible on terms other than what it claims for itself is to place oneself above Scripture and thus submit it to one’s own categories, rather than submitting to Scripture’s categories .  Crenshaw’s low view of Scripture is what allows him to posit what he calls a “fundamental tenet of theism, that God cannot be known” (p.181).  Indeed, in his view God was not known by the authors of Scripture, hence inherent in them is much struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Since Scripture is suspect to Crenshaw, his task is juxtaposed:  rather than understanding his view of justice and mercy in light of Scripture, he understands Scripture in light of his view of justice and mercy (where have I heard this before?)

In his conclusions about the book of Job, Crenshaw suggests that “God plays by different rules from those projected on the deity by human rationality” (p.189).  Here we fundamentally agree, and wonder why this statement cannot be applied to his views of justice and mercy.  Perhaps in our economy, one cannot simultaneously exhibit both qualities, but in God’s this is clearly the case.

While I stand in radical disagreement with Crenshaw’s position on Scripture, I agree with his closing remarks: the issue of theodicy cannot be resolved, given an infinite God and finite humanity.  We equally agree that this does not relieve us from the task of eagerly seeking out understanding and knowledge; or engaging with such difficult issues.  It is not a ticket to complacency.

As a final comment, our lack of understanding ought not to be construed as a deficiency in Biblical theology.  It is rather something stated positively:  We cannot fully understand God’s ways (c.f., Is. 55:8-9; Job 42:3).  This is not “dodging the bullet,” as is suggested by some (e.g., C.S.Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, p.146).  Appealing to the mysteries of God which we cannot yet comprehend enjoys a long history.  Better yet, it is indicative of a humble posture before God against which I find no good argument.

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Why did Jesus have to die?  As we observe Good Friday, and enter in to Easter weekend, this is an appropriate question.  The stock answer, of course, is that Christ died for our sins;  Jesus died to forgive us from our sins.  While I find nothing wrong about these common answers, I believe that they often assume too much of the one asking the question.

First, the answer assumes an understanding of sin, and humankind’s slavery thereto.  Christ’s death is meaningless and useless if one does not believe in the sinfulness of all humankind, and our inability to be free from it.   The hard fact of our existence is that we consistently “miss the mark” in terms of living out the life for which God created us.  We fall short of God’s moral standard through a depressingly vast, and ever increasing array of thoughts, words and deeds.

Even worse, history has shown that no amount of philosophical or technological progress, and no measure of human effort, no matter how noble, has ever been able to fix it.   If Christ died for our sins, but there is no such thing as sin, Christ died for nothing.  Moreover, if Christ died for our sin, but there is some other way for us to know freedom from sin, whether by deed, word, or personal sacrifice, Christ died for nothing (c.f., Gal. 2:21).

Secondly, the answer assumes an understanding of God’s justice.  Some years ago, I was listening to a debate some between a Muslim and a Christian about God.  When the topic of Christ’s death came up, the Muslim asked the question point blank:  Why did Jesus have to die to forgive us for our sins?  God is almighty and all-powerful; could He not just forgive us?  God can do anything and everything that He wants.  Why is Christ’s death necessary?

The answer is that Christ died because God is just.  If God were simply to let our sins go, to let us slide, then He is not a god of justice.  I’ve met people who chafe on this idea, which they (erroneously) assume paints a picture of a wrathful, angry, sadist of a god.  What we forget is that, if we’re honest about it, we all want a god of justice.  Do we not want evildoers to be punished?  Even the worst sinners among us inherently want justice when we are wronged.  A liar lied to is eager for his deceiver to be brought to justice.  If God lets us slide, then He lets Hitler, Manson and Pol Pot slide, too.  We all want evil to be brought to justice, but the hard consequence of that desire is that we too, are evil, and therefore deserve punishment.

Christ died because God is just, and God cannot do anything contrary to His nature.  As such, there must be punishment for sin; a reckoning for what humanity has done.  So, in a horrible irony, God Himself endures the punishment, which is the worst injustice the world has ever known:  God became man in Christ, and made history by being the first and only human ever to walk the earth entirely without sin.  He came to heal, to teach, to bring life and restoration to the world.  This one, this perfect God-man, was mocked, beaten, and tortured to death by the very ones He came to save.  In executing His justice, God endured history’s most egregious injustice.

Christ died to restore and redeem that which was lost due to human sinfulness.  He died for our sins.  As we reflect on this today, let’s not forget the truths that make this statement meaningful.  Moreover, as God avails us the opportunity to share the hope we have in Christ with others, let us not assume too much.  In America, sin is often a matter of human preference.  Even more, unmerited faith is placed upon our own abilities to solve deep problems, and justice is wrongly subject to our own biassed whim.  Let’s lovingly and carefully proclaim the bad news, that we are sinners answerable to a God of justice, as we joyfully proclaim the good, that “while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), and “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”  (Jn. 3:16).

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As promised in Part I, I hope to take a closer look at the theology of William P. Young’s The Shack.  As an opening remark, I do not believe Young set out to write a systematic theology, and he should not be chided for failing to do so.  Young is bringing to bear characteristics of God as they are experienced by one who is in need of emotional healing and a restored relationship to God.  As such, the focal points of God’s character are His love and His desire for relationship with us.  An emphasis on these traits is no real problem; indeed, emphases are all over the Bible.  We hardly decry the fact that there are four gospels, after all.  Each contributes in its own way to fill in the picture of Christ’s life.

 

This is one intrinsic problem with The Shack:  It has no companion(s) to balance it, and give us a more rounded picture.  As such, we must remember that overemphasis on The Shack (or any other book) to the peril of regular and thoughtful Bible study, is dangerously unwise, since we’re not getting the whole story.  (This applies to you, too, Narnians.)  If the highest heavens cannot contain God (2 Chr.2:6), we certainly should not expect The Shack to do so either. 

 

I write the above in Young’s defense.  We should expect, by the inherent nature of his project, that Young’s depiction of God will fall miles and miles short of that found in Scripture.  If that were the end of it, I could stop the review here.  Unfortunately, Young takes a project already predisposed to imbalance and heaps more stones on the heavy side of the scale.  These errors we cannot pardon as “the nature of the beast,”  especially when they go against the authorative grain of Scripture.  Let us then focus on the primary question of Part I:  Is Young’s god really God?

 

As for the Trinity, the god of The Shack is indeed triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These are presented to the main character (Mack) as “Papa,” Jesus, and “Saroyu” respectively.  Upon meeting the three in the shack, Mack asks which of them is God.  They reply in unison, “I am” (p. 87).

 

Young’s treatment of the Trinity, however, strays from the Biblical path.  His denouncement of a Trinitarian hierarchy is one example.  While Young is right to assert that each person of the Trinity is equal with the other, he makes a great fuss about there being no hierarchy among them (p. 122), and that they all submit to one another (p. 145).  This is not taught in the Bible.  Rather, there is clear functional submission within the Trinity.  The Son submits to the Father in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42), the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son (Jn. 14:6-7; 16:7).  The Son can do only what He sees The Father do (Jn. 5:19).  Never do we see The Father submitting to the Son, nor the Son to the Spirit, nor the Spirit sending the Father.

 

Young seems to base much of his anti-hierarchy polemic on the unsubstantiated claim that hierarchy is antithetical to true love and relationship, because it demands rules (pp.122-3).  If Young is right, then my relationship with my son Henry is doomed, and I can also write off my relationship with my earthly father as less than authentic.  Obedience to commands is no detriment to love, either.  As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15).  Neither is the giving of commands less than loving.  When I got my driver’s license, my father was plenty loving and relational by frequently issuing the command, “Drive safely.”

 

Young twists submission even further by suggesting that God submits to Mack per the requirements of a genuine “circle of relationship” (p. 145).  Again, this enjoys no Biblical basis.  It could be argued that Jesus submitted to the ruling authorities in His day (e.g., by paying taxes as in Mt. 17:27), but we never see God the Father or Holy Spirit in submission to any human.

 

Young blurs the distinctiveness of the Trinity by also stating that all persons suffered when Christ was killed on the cross.  Indeed, even Papa has scars on his wrists (pp. 99, 164).  The lines continue to blur as Young describes the Incarnation: “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.  We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed.” (p. 98 ).

 

In Young’s god, then, we have an anti-hierarchical portrayal of the Trinity, with each person in a circle of submission to the other, and all of them being “one,” all of them experiencing what the other experiences; indeed, all of them became human in Christ.  This is actually an ancient heresy known as Sabellianism (or modalism, or patripassionism; a flavor of monarchianism, for those who want the words I had to lookup in my church history notes).  The error of this heresy is that it loses the distinction of the persons in the Trinity.  Only Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  Only Jesus became man, not the Father.  Jesus is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Father or Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles in Acts 2.  The Holy Spirit is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Son or Father.

 

Of course, it is fair to ask if this really matters.  After all, who among us thought (or will think) “Sabellianism!” when reading The Shack?  It took me a second reading; I even had to look up the terms.  So why make a fuss about a theological nuance?  Is Young’s error tantamount to saying that Jesus is a now-deceased moral teacher?  Of course not.  However, making a claim about God that contradicts Scripture is no small matter, and I hesitate to draw some arbitrary line of severity to determine what constitutes a “big” problem and a “small” problem.  For now, I posit that no error should remain unchecked, no matter the “size.”  Any misconception about a matter of infinite import (i.e., God) has the potential to grow, especially when combined with other misconceptions, into something far more troubling, often with unanticipated consequences.  I will for now defer a deeper discussion to another post.

 

The Shack also has some awkward Trinitarian moments, like Jesus giving Papa a foot massage, Saroyu collecting Mack’s tears, and a spilled bowl in the kitchen caused by Jesus’ slippery fingers.  Corny?  Cheesy?  Syrupy?  The proper food-based adjective eludes me.  These episodes are more awkward than anything else, and we can give Young some grace here, as I believe he’s just trying to show the intimacy and loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity.  We could just as well forgive me for my cynical reaction to his efforts.

 

Papa’s portrayal as a large African-American woman will no doubt ruffle feathers.  Aside from eye-rolling (okay, we get it, you’re trying to break paradigms), I found Young’s choice more ironic than anything else, since he’s just swapping stereotypes: the stereotypical sassy African-American woman is chosen over the stereotypical “Gandalf” depiction of God.  So in an effort to avoid pig’s meat, Young chooses bacon instead of ham.   In so doing, we could even argue that Young breaks the second commandment, and creates an idol.

 

Papa explains his (her?) appearance to Mack saying, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature.  If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you” (p. 93).  The ostensible reason for Papa’s choosing a woman is because Mack still has issues with his earthly father.

 

Young’s assertion that “both genders are derived from [God’s] nature” is valid, since man and woman are both created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  I am skeptical of the premise of an embodied Father, however.  God the Father never appears vis-à-vis with anyone in Scripture, although Moses comes close (e.g., Ex. 33).  The reason is because “No one can see [God’s] face and live” (Ex. 33:20).  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that “no one has seen the Father,” (Jn. 6:46).  Indeed, every appearance of the Father (fancy word: theophany) is marked by stormy language, and terrifying fear on the part of the observer (e.g., Sinai, Mt. 17:5-6).

 

Really what we have in Young’s trinity is just three copies of Jesus: three versions of God incarnate.  We could play the “God can do anything” card in Young’s defense, and claim that it is within God’s power to appear however He wants to whomever He wants.  Indeed, God can do anything, but only that which is consistent with His nature and character.  (So to answer the childhood riddle, no, God cannot create a rock that he cannot lift anymore than a circle can be a square).  Given the testimony of Scripture, it does not appear to be in God’s nature or character to reveal Himself as three incarnate persons, let alone two women (Papa and Sarayu) and one man (Jesus).

 

The Shack also tends to diminish God’s justice, especially in the area of punishment for sins.  Papa states that he does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, which is fair enough, but Young goes on to say that God does not punish sin, since sin is punishment enough (p. 120).  For sure, sin is punishment in itself; it is not the best for us, nor were we created for sin.  But the Bible clearly teaches that God punishes sinners for their sin.  From the third chapter of Genesis onward, we read of a God who, while he may not delight in punishment, punishes sinners none the less. 

 

Young shows great concern for preserving human free will, (indeed, it is the crux of his theodicy). Young’s god “submits” to human choices, even when they are harmful, so as not to violate our will (pp. 145-6). Also, Young’s god uses our choices to work into his purposes (p. 192). In isolation, statements like these don’t give me great alarm, but they contribute to an overall flavor of Young’s god that tends to soften God’s activity in history. God is portrayed more as a healer, one who fixes the messes, rather than one who is proactive in bringing about his will.  The Bible testifies that God comes on the scene, often without our permission or consent, and makes things happen.

 

So, is Young’s god really God?  There is much we can take away from Young’s god, and much I appreciate about the way Young creatively explores his character.  He is indeed more loving than we can imagine, and wishes to be in loving relationship with us so much that He sent His Son to die to bring about our reconciliation.  I doubt we’ll ever comprehend “how deep and how wide” runs the river of God’s love.

 

On the other hand, Young’s god is not God as He is revealed in the Bible.  What I struggle to record here, is an overarching feeling throughout The Shack of a watered-down god.  All that I mention above combines with an unrelenting emphasis on love and relationship.  This is all couched in a narrative where the main character chums around with the God of the universe.  Scripture might allow chumming around with Jesus, but not the Father or Holy Spirit.  The net result is a god much diminished from that of Scripture.  Yes, “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8,16; c.f., p. 101), but God is also a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24).  As He is loving, He is also holy, just, righteous, fearful, awesome, compassionate, mighty, majestic and merciful.  He is personal, but that doesn’t mean we would ever be able to curse in his presence (p. 224), or snap at him in anger (p. 96).  Just ask Job.

 

I have just been able to scratch the surface in this theological review.  There are other issues in The Shack.  Time and space limit me to highlighting a few problems that are exemplar of the kinds of subtle distortions Young makes, however well-intentioned.  Similar warnings could be made about Young’s take on salvation, the Church, Scripture, sin, and evil.  As such, below are some other reviews of The Shack that might fill in some of the gaps I’ve missed, and provide some more food for thought.

 

Ben Witherington’s review:

http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/07/shacking-up-with-godwilliam-p-youngs.html

 

Tim Challies’ review:

http://www.challies.com/media/The_Shack.pdf

 

James B. DeYoung shines a harsh light on The Shack (long):

http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf

 

A shorter version of DeYoung’s review:

http://theshackreview.com/content/TheShackReview2Page.pdf

 

A collection of links to several different reviews; scroll down to catch them all:

http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2008/05/four-church-lea.html

   

Wayne Elliot’s review:

http://hereiblog.com/2008/08/08/the-shack-review/

 

Wayne Jacobsen (the publisher of The Shack) responds to various criticisms:

http://www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

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