Friday 17 February 2006

Cancer and the will of God

Tyler Williams points to an article entitled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” by the popular Reformed writer John Piper. Piper, who is himself currently battling cancer, tries to emphasise God’s sovereignty by describing cancer as a “gift” and “blessing” which is “designed for you by God.” But as Tyler points out, language like this is offensive: it is offensive to a Christian understanding of God, and it is offensive to the real experience of human suffering.

In contrast to John Piper, here’s what Karl Barth had to say: “[Sickness] is opposed to [God’s] good will as the Creator and has existence and power only under his mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what man ought to will in face of this whole realm ... and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance” (CD III/4, pp. 367-68).

Cancer is related to God’s will only as that which God rejects and negates—it is an expression of the threatening power of chaos which God has set himself against. Those suffering with cancer may therefore be comforted not by trying to convince themselves that all this is somehow God’s bitter “gift,” but by recalling that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has forever said No to darkness and death, and Yes to light and life. God’s “sovereignty” is not an abstract principle of determinism, but it is the fatherly Lordship of God’s grace, as revealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

Amen to that. I'm an admirer of Piper's godliness (though less enamoured with his theology) but I think he misunderstands the idea of God's sovereignty on many occasions.

I think he fails to distinguish carefully enough between God's sovereignty and causality, and they are not the same thing.

It's an important issue of course, because if God is the source of both good and evil then we're in a rather big mess, to say the least.

Guy Davies said...

I'm sure that Piper would agree that suffering and sickness are a result of the fall rather than a direct creation or gift of God. But at the same time, God in his sovreignty does assign suffering and sickness to his people. We should see God's loving providence at work when we fall ill or suffer. Piper's attitude to his cancer (for which he is receiving medical treatment) is similar to that of the Psalmist: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted,that I may learn Your statutes". "I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me". (Ps 119:71 & 75.) God may not be the immediate cause of suffering and sickness, but as believers we may be called to "suffer according to the will of God." (1 Peter 4:19.) It could be argued that Piper is endevouring to fulfill the injunction of James 1:2, "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials". Of couse, it is ultimateley true that sickness and death shall have no dominion over belivers when our mortal bodies put on immortality at the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

exiled preacher, one needs to distinguish between God's capacity to work good through suffering and God's willing of evil. The psalmist, Peter and Paul certainly want to encouarge christlike embrace of suffering, but that is wholly different than claiming God is causing or worse gifting it to humans.

metalepsis said...

Thanks Ben I didn't like what Piper said, but I didn't know why until Barth opened my mind.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that all those who have expressed disagreement with Piper have not done so with Scripture. But, those who have supported Him have done so with Scripture. It is important that our understanding of God is not influenced by faulty human logic/philosophy (camoflauged as good theology) and not pure exegesis of Scripture (i.e., Biblical Theology; not the discipline of - but the description of proper theological positioning). Scripture read plainly (as normal language) speaks clearly to the sovereignty of God in all things - which speaks of Gods rulership, control, and ordination of all things - whether we understand it or want to accept it.

It would behoove those who take issue with Pipers position on God's sovereignty to spend time reading the prophets - particularly tracing the word calamity. You'll be interested to note the cause (see example below).

"I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God
I will gird you, though you have not known Me; That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these." Isaiah 45:5-8

God is God all by Himself and He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). For Him to not do so is to cease to be God. If He desires to bring affliction (calamity) it is His very right to do so and He would be completely just.

The issue of causality can be discussed to lengths, understanding that God Himself is not always the immediate causal agent of the affliction, calamity, etc. - but in the final analysis it is God who is the ultimate cause. ("The LORD has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom." Prov 16:4)

As Piper pointed out - while Jobs affliction, as seen in Job 2:7, was from Satan - but yet ultimately he attributed his trouble to God (2:10). And the beginning of the account of Job affirms this - where God had to give His permission for Satan to afflict Job.

You may find it hard to accept "this kind of God" - but we cannot serve a God of our own making but we must submit our minds to the God who has revealed Himself - His character, work, and glory in history preserved for us in Holy Scripture.

When we see God for who He is - it is then we see ourselves (humanity) for who we really are and truly become those whom God will look upon...those who are "humble and of a contrite spirit and who tremble at (His) word." (Isaiah 66:2)

Ben Myers said...

Hi Quincy -- it's nice to hear from you, and thanks for your point of view. Although I didn't quote any Bible verses in this post, the post by Tyler which I referred to does offer some exegetical comments. And as Tyler points out, the question can't be resolved simply by piling up proof-texts.

In any case, I'm not sure it's helpful to think of the Bible as a repository of proof-texts. Instead, the biblical writings are historical documents which bear witness to the saving act of Israel's God in Jesus of Nazareth. God has revealed his own nature and being in Jesus -- so we should look at Jesus (through the biblical witnesses) to discover who God is, and what God's "sovereignty" is all about. This "looking at Jesus" is the important thing, and this involves an interpretation of the whole biblical witness; whether or not we quote any specific words and phrases from the Bible is of no importance.

That's how it seems to me, anyway.

Guy Davies said...

Hi Ben, why is quoting the Bible labelled "proof texting". The Lord Jesus quoted Scripture as did the apostles. Were they mindless proof texters? Surely, our theology should arise from reflection on all the relevant Biblical materials, not just general principles. The death and resurrection of Christ are God's final "no" to suffering, disease and death. But the Bible also teaches that God afflicts suffering upon his people as Quincy and I tried to show. Piper is right to see God's sovereign hand in his suffering. It could be argued that you did proof text in your original post, it is just that your proof text was from Bart and mine (and Quincy's were from the Bible!

Anonymous said...

It is true that Jesus and the Apostles cite scripture, but that's not the same as constructing a theology simply by assembling proof-texts. God has not given us a book of proof-texts to simply reassemble into doctrine like some kind of theological jigsaw. To treat the Bible as such is implying that God has, after all, given us the wrong kind of book.

It is profoundly difficult to suggest that God is the source of illness and death. Aside from anything else, we have to then ask why Jesus heals peopel, why he defeats evil, and why he conquers death.

God's stated plan for creation is to make it anew, and to create a world where there is no more death or suffering, a process he has begun by raising Jesus from the dead. We make a nonsense of this if we believe that God is the author of evil and death, and it means that ultimately we have no hope.

There is a major difference between God using evil to accomplish good and God actually creating evil and death.

Anonymous said...

That cancer might be a gift, a blessing, divinedly designed - I find this whole line of thinking morally repugnant. It may have a prima facie plausibility in a case like Piper's, but it quickly shipwrecks on the vast and unfathomable sea of horrendous human suffering. Theologically, it's a short step from a cancer ward to the death camps.

Rush Rhees once asked, angrily: "What is the value of suffering like that in King Lear?
What was the value of the degradation that belonged to the sufferings in the concentration camps? When, for instance, a man is going to pieces morally and knows it. 'Joyful acceptance'???. . . If I could put my questions more strongly, I should do so. For I think that religious apologists have generally been irresponsible and frivolous in writing about this mater. They have deceived both themselves and others by such phrases as 'suffering for Christ', 'joyful scarifice', etc.

Of course ther are inspiring examples of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering. The Holocaust survivor Primo Levi comes to mind. But imagine Levi (who, as a result of his experiences, eventually took his own life) speaking of Auschwitz as "divinely designed", or as a heaven-sent opportunity to grow in faith or to bear our wriness, or whatever. Who in their right mind would say such things?

That sufferings might be explained - let alone explained away; that suffering might be for soemthing, e.g. our character developmemt; that one might even dare some kind of cost-benefit analysis to square the moral circle - God keep us from well-intended theodicists!

Guy Davies said...

Hi Steven, who said that we should construct a theology by amassing proof texts? But when the Psalmist says to God "in faithfulness you have afflicted me", that suggests that God activley afflicts his people. When Paul struggled with his "thorn in the flesh", even though he described it as a "messanger of Satan", he saw that the Lord gave him this painful experence (whatever it was) to keep him from being exalted by the abundance of revelations. (2 Cor 12:7-9). Suffering is meant to produce spiritual fruit in believers. I may be risking accusations of proof texting for quoting Scripture again, but consider Romans 5:1-5 "we glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance...".

Now, I would not suggest that all suffering in this fallen world can be explained as character building. But we should not screen out this paticular aspect of the Bible's teaching on suffering.

Yes, it is God's purpose to redeem his people from the evils of sin, suffering and death. But it is also his purpose that we endure suffering of differnt kinds in this fallen world. Jesus heals, defeats sin and death, yet Paul's desire was that, "I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformed to his death" (Philippians 3:10).

It is God's sovreign purpose that his people suffer in this life. Our afflications are not meaningless, or outside of God's will for us. We suffer in the light of etenity, "For our light affliction which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding weight of glory." (2 Corinthians 4:16.)

Anonymous said...

i can understand your interpretation exiled preacher, especially when you say that suffering can produce good, but i simply cannot read those psalms as statements of sovereignty. instead i see them as human confidence in God's power to work through the situation. Do you read Paul in Romans as saying God caused all this evil or that God will work good (Christlikeness) through it? additionally, is paul's desire to know Christ's suffering mean any type of suffering, like cancer? or the suffering Christ undertook on behalf of others and for the sake of the gospel? Or to turn back to the prophets, aren't you overly simplifying complex situations? take Habakkuk, God is seen as using the Chalcedonians, but also judging them, and in the end, no answer or solution is given, just like in Job. (us Barthian's can quote scripture too!). i think the more important question is what has God done and what is God calling us through the Spirit now to do about suffering. For some questions about that you can go look here

Guy Davies said...


I'm glad that we've got beyond accusations of "proof texting" to engage with the text of Scripture

When the Psalmist says to God, "in faithfulness you have afflicted me". He believes that God has afflcted him, not just that God is using affliction for his good. Paul saw that God was behind the "messanger of Satan" to keep him humble. In Romans, yes, God is not described as the cause of the tribulations. But the tribulations of belivers in Rome (and ours) are sent for our good (Romans 8:28).

In Philippians 3, Paul was thinking in terms of suffering for Christ's sake. But he saw that suffering as part of God's will for his life. Being flogged, shipwreked, falsely imprisoned etc. was God's will for him. I quoted that passage to show that God's will for us includes both resurrection life and afflictions.

Job teaches that suffering is is a great mystery. He was given no explanation for his sufferings besides, "I am God and I rule the world". God, not Satan was the ultimate cause of Job's afflictions, "They consoled him for all the adversity the Lord brought upon him." (Job 42:11.)

All suffering is a result of the fall. Some suffer through no fault of their own like the man born blind that the works of God might be revealed in him (John 9:1-3), others as a result of their sinful actions like Herod (Acts 12:13) and even members of the Church at Corinth (1 Cor 11:29 & 30). The widsom literature recognises that the wicked seem live pain free lives and that the righteous suffer and are oppressed. Why? I don't know? But the judge of all the earth will do right.

I think that Piper is right to see God's hand in his suffering. The Lord could have prevented Piper contracting cancer, but he did not. Yes, Piper used provocative language, but he is right to say to believers...

"What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose".


T.B. Vick said...

Piper has some interestingly bizarre views regarding suffering (as described in this post) and evil.

I do not agree with Piper on his views of evil (e.g. Piper asserts that God created evil or that God is the author of evil). This wrought with problems.

But I am not so sure I agree with Barth here - "To capitulate before it [cancer], to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God."

It seems that Barth is saying that we get cancer (or allow it to happen) out of disobedience to God (unless I am misunderstanding this out of its complete context). This is also problematic in various ways.

Could it be that cancer is merely a result of the fall of mankind, it is a part of the curse of Adam's sin upon us, and the only reason we get it is because our bodies merely fail to combat it away due to the curse we are all under? Just throwing that out there.

Weekend Fisher said...

One of my prime complaints against most theodicies is that they never come squarely to terms with this: God wills that we all die. Take Genesis' opening chapters as figurative or literal and you still get the same message: God wills that we die ... not as the end, but as the beginning of re-creation. I think Piper (or the quotes of his that I've seen around the 'net this week) misses the mark in that Jesus, when faced with a horrible death, begged on his knees for it to pass; that despising of death will always be within the acceptable range of Godly reactions, probably even the ultimate example of Godly reaction to death. But you can't stop there. Christ's death comes anyway. God's will is accomplished through it. The enemy's territory reclaimed from him. Piper wants the glories of heaven without acknowledging the horrors of death. Some others want God insulated from any blame for the fact that we're mortal. As someone was saying, look at Christ if you want to understand God.

Bryan L said...

I’m confused why permit automatically equates to ordain.
I think the only thing we can say about God permitting something is that he permitted creatures, human and spiritual, to have freedom and that it is genuine freedom that he allows to exist even when those free being don’t use it the way he would like them to. The world is far more complex than people just getting a disease or not, like the flip of a coin. Cancer is the result of a many factors that we can’t see like radiation and environment and diet and many other unknowns. These factors are often the result of thousands of years of free being using their freedom that God permitted them to have in ways he doesn’t approve of but still allows to happen. And these actions unfortunately sometimes culminate in people getting cancer.

If someone goes to have a gift removed or asks for a gift to be prayed for, although in word they call it a gift, it seems like their actions show a quite different view of their gift. It seems like lip service to me. I’ve never prayed to have my wife removed or our child or any of the other things in my life that I consider a gift from God. I'm thankful for those things and want to keep them.
I tried to imagine God giving me a gift and me opening it expectantly and finding a disease like cancer and going, “Thanks God it’s exactly what I wanted.” It just seemed crazy. Why? Because it is! It’d be like a father giving a child a snake or a stone as a gift.

I think it’s important to keep in mind when people talk about the difference between God finding a way to bring good out of the evil circumstances that happen, and God causing evil.
When we commit any circumstances in our life to God no matter how bad, through his Spirit he can bring good out of it. Doesn’t mean he’ll make the circumstance good, but he can bring good out of it. But at the same time there are plenty of things that are never commited to God’s hands and no good ever comes out of it. That’s why I believe through all of this it’s important for us to continue praying for people like Piper who are undergoing what they are. It’s part of the way that God will bring some good out of this.

Bryan L said...

I think the reason people are protesting to just pulling a verse out for support, or “proof texting” is that we all know that often what a passage seems to be saying, we find out it actually is not, especially when you take a passage out of it’s context (chapter, book, genre, author). And to just point to Jesus as one who does proof texting, is to fail to take seriously some of the research coming out on the use of the OT in the NT, which is showing us how much more complicated that area is and how it’s not as simple as we once thought it was. And that often even the NT writers and Jesus had a larger context in mind (influenced by many different things such as current understandings and uses of the OT that were around in their day that we wouldn’t be aware of by just reading the OT) when quoting the passage that they did.
And so if people aren’t answering objections with verses or trying to support their positions with verses, it’s probably because they realize that it would take a lot more exegetical argument and time than what is available in the comments section of a blog, to show that a particular passage is supporting their use.

Anonymous said...


Your analysis of the present debate on the first paragraph of your page is very astute.

On the matter of the heart of the debate: To offer a disclaimer to my earlier comments - I do not claim that God has revealed to us in history (preserved in Scripture) that He is the author SIN or EVIL in the biblical understanding of evil (i.,e., SIN – disobedience to God – lawlessness). However, God is the author of death - trouble - calamity - pain - the judgment for original sin. But, the judgment is just..."in the day that you eat of it you will surely DIE." Adam sinned and we were seminally in him and so we sinned and died in Him (Romans 5:12 - which I am sure you will say is a Reformed interpretation of that passage - however...while Scripture affirms the universal effects of sin have affected all mankind - I am not saying that an individual who has a disease has it because of their own personal sin.)

And while God has justly judged humanity in this way (and will do so ultimately in the resurrection) - in the matchless beauty of His holiness - we see the fullness of His character revealed in Christ - being the just and the justifier, the judge and the acquitter, and causing suffering but yet suffering on our behalf. And praise God - because of this suffering - ultimately, true believers will be healed/saved/delivered from the awful effects of the just judgment (i.e., pain/illness/death/suffering)! And ironically - while the immediate cause of Christ suffering were the Jews/Romans who had him crucified (and our sin) - it was ultimately the sufferings of Christ that were of the Father's doing (Isaiah 53; Acts 2:23, 3:18). And although God has offered an eternal solution to the issue of suffering...there is still yet a place of utter perpetual/conscious suffering-torment (created by God -originally intended for the Devil and his angels, the proto-sinners/inventers of evil but then applied to the sons of disobedience in Adam who follow after the ways of Satan).

while it is profoundly difficult to suggest that God is the author of illness and death - it is evident that illness and death our judgments upon humanity -
But, it is a faulty hamartiology that causes us to miss this. Which leads to the next issue…

On the matter of proof-texting - and interpretation – I now go on the offensive. I would like to present "exhibit A" - which I would like to call: “The essence of the contemporary neo-orthodox/emergent hermeneutic" as quoted eloquently by our friend Ben (emphasis are mine): - "In any case, I'm not sure it's helpful to think of the Bible as a repository of proof-texts. Instead, the biblical writings are historical documents which bear witness to the saving act of Israel's God in Jesus of Nazareth. God has revealed his own nature and being in Jesus -- so we should look at Jesus (through the biblical witnesses) to discover who God is, and what God's 'sovereignty' is all about. This 'looking at Jesus' is the important thing, and this involves an interpretation of the whole biblical witness; whether or not we quote any specific words and phrases from the Bible is of no importance.

In short – your statement is full of contradictions. First, the very thing you argue against (i.e., proof-texting) – you are claiming we must do (i.e., interpret the whole biblical witness). A witness is one who bears proof through evidential testimony. What is the Biblical witness? – textual proof of the certainty, existence, intimate activity, character, power, personality, presence, and promises of God. What is an interpretation (of the Biblical witness)? - meaning of the text. This meaning or significance – to be understood – must be conveyed, communicated, testified to, or given proof. Anyone who proclaims the biblical witness – gives testimony to it or bears proof of it. In the very ideas you are postulating you are trying to “bear proof” of Scripture – but – without quoting Scripture. How can you NOT proof-text to ensure that your ideas are the very ideas of God (that doesn’t mean that everyone who “proof-texts” has/gives a proper understanding of the text – but at least there is effort to give evidence of a position). I’m not going to listen to any preacher/pastor/theologian who doesn’t proof text – but only pontificates a philosophy about God based upon an interpretation without proof. So, to say “whether or not we quote any specific words and phrases from the Bible is of no importance” is a contradiction of the very thing you are trying to do: interpretation the Biblical witness. How can you seek to interpret the biblical witness without quoting it or “any specific words and phrases”? Interpreting words and phrases (and contextualizing them to see them as the whole) is the very essence of exegesis. The goal/heart of the literal-historical-grammatical approach to exegesis – is to give proof to/of the text. So, how could young Timothy “preach the Word” without proof-texting? How can you postulate a position of Scripture without providing proof of Scripture. How can we look into Jesus without quoting what Jesus did, said, or what He was like. Your statement, with all respect, is nonsensical. But, this is the very idea that the rest are claiming. Such as: “Jesus and the Apostles cite scripture, but that's not the same as constructing a theology simply by assembling proof-texts.” Did Jesus and the Apostles not construct a theology from assembled teachings of the OT and Christ: “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3), or “we must pay closer attention to twhat we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1), or What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, (2 Tim 1:13).

In conclusion, Ben says we must “look at Jesus” and Josh says, “Does God’s suffering with us, really heal or better interpret the situation? Or is this merely human conjecture on to a God we want or need? Is it heretical to claim God suffers? Does the cross of God help make sense, not only of cancer, but the vast human suffering and evil experienced throughout history and continuing today? How does worshipping a crucified God encourage us to imitate God’s love for the godforsaken and suffering? In other words does our discipleship look any different bc of the death of Jesus?”

What we see in Christ is a suffering to alleviate our suffering. No matter how we try to proof the biblical witness – we can’t escape the truth that suffering is the will of God for believers (see 1 Peter 4) and Christ is our ultimate example (Heb 12:1-3).

Respectfully submitted,

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add something to my last comment:

Seeing Christ's suffering shows us not only that God has sought to alleviate our suffering - but that suffering is from Him and in Christ we see the judgment of suffering and the blessing of suffering.

Anonymous said...

i'm a bit confused by your lengthy and thoughtful post. i never mentioned anything against quoting scripture, in fact i did it ealier in this very thread. i think you might be talking about ben on that one. i grant your distinction about my rendering of calvinism, which i too am an heir.
as for my questions about a suffering God, it is important to note those are not mine but Moltmann's statements concerning what goes on with between God and God on the cross. I am not yet willing to go to the defense of Moltmann on that. my question come out of moltmann's interpretation of jesus' cry. just to be clear.
oh yeah, what do those who on the piper side do about isaiah 45 and the claim that god is in fact the source of evil? just to continue to stir it up

Anonymous said...

"This judgement and counter-judgement is exactly what we have seen in the reasonings that constitute theodicies: 'That looks pretty rough, why did God allow that?' - 'Well, he did it for such-and-such reasons.' -'Alright, but did he have to go to such lengths?' - 'I understand your concern, but he wanted to achieve these ends, and unfortunately, there's no other way to get there.' And so on. God is part of a community of criticism and counter-criticism. It is almost as though an end-of-term report were being compiled on God's performance."
-- D.Z. Phillips

The whole misconceived enterprise of theodicy founders on the mistaken notion that God has a personal psychology and a moral agency like ours, only bigger and better, and that we can establish standards of judgement with which all can agree and which make everybody happy - God included! And the same goes for the endless discussions of God's causative vs. permissive will, divine predestination vs. human freedom, etc., etc., as if all were engaged in a competition for theological space.

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2)
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding" (Job 38:4).

"Well, Lord, we might not have been there, but we've got a pretty good idea what it must have been like. After all, we've got the Bible. And what do you mean 'words without knowledge'? Hey, we've all got theological degrees - and haven't you heard of 'hermeneutics'?"

Whenever I enter a discussion like this, I feel like one of Job's "friends". Doesn't anyone feel the same?

Ben Myers said...

Just to offer a quick response to TB's question about Barth: No, Barth definitely isn't saying that we get sickness as a result of disobedience to God. The passage I quoted comes from Barth's section on ethics, so he is not discussing the "cause" of sickness, but the ethics of sickness: i.e., what does God require of us in sickness? Barth's answer is that God does not require us to submit to sickness with Stoic resignation, but rather God requires us to struggle against sickness (via medical intervention, etc). A mere resignation to sickness, Barth says, would be "disobedience" to God, since God commands us to resist. (Obviously, as in all ethical questions, there are definite exceptions here: in certain cases a person may choose not to prolong his or her suffering through medical intervention.)

Anyway, I hope this clarifies Barth's view. Barth would never have anything to do with simplistic notions about sickness resulting from disobedience, or from "the fall", etc.

T.B. Vick said...

That helps very much. I have posted on my blog my concern with the Barth's comment, so I'll include your response to my comments in the comments at my blog to help clarify the point over there as well.

Thank you much for the response.

Anonymous said...

Josh, yes I was addressing Ben's statement about "proof-texting" - I should've made that clear. My comments were really addressed to everyone but my first sentence to you. My apologies for any confusion. My use of your quote (and should have been clear it was your quote of on Multmann) was a bit of irony - that here we're arguing whether God is the author of suffering but yet saying that we should look at Christ to find our answer.

*************, what are you suggesting based on your last comments? How do we come to consensus or move forward in an understanding of God and His ways? How/where do you determine God's personality inorder to deconstruct our "enterprise of theodicy"? Where else do you suggest we go except to the Bible? Although you attempt to deal with the issues - you slant the discussion by essentially failing to deal with the biblical text but rather show an over-reliance on authorities that really don't matter. And sadly, you continue to divert from the real issue (i.e., What does the Word of God say on the issue?) and resort to subtle personal attacks through sarcasm to make your point. Who is it then that really darkens (God's) counsel without (His) knowledge?

Al said...

I have just posted some thoughts on my blog that are relevant to this issue.

Anonymous said...

Steven Harris: "It's an important issue of course, because if God is the source of both good and evil then we're in a rather big mess, to say the least."

Given the fact that God is the source of all creations and things we must assume that the evil was included in His will. Maybe kind of weird thing to say so...but the existence of the evil (defined as separation from god) is needed to make a total freedom possible for human.

Anonymous said...

alastair...i just skimmed your page and it looks like good fodder for discussion regarding the biblical doctrine of sovereignty. I'll take some time to read it and try to respond by tomorrow Sunday 2/19 (EST USA).

Anonymous said...

Just as an observer on this thread without a theological commitment one way or the other, I think it's worth observing that only "exiled preacher" has really produced an argument grounded in Scripture. Those speaking on the other side of the issue are expressing their personal moral outrage at the idea and are making assertions but little more. Moreover, I don't think Kim's rebuttal on theodicy applies to exiled preacher's argument. Exiled preacher is not developing a theodicy... indeed, his argument really says nothing about God's personal psychology or moral agency; instead, he has simply searched Scripture and found an answer to the question at hand: Men like Paul, the Psalmist(s), and the Prophets appear to have believed and testified that God afflicted them. I'd like Kim or Ben or others who disagree with that to refute it.

Ben Myers said...

I've just read your post, Alastair, and it really is excellent. I appreciate everything you say here, especially the emphasis on "divine sovereignty as an eschatological achievement or victory". Something like this is essential if we're to move from an abstract philosophical notion of sovereignty to a biblical and historical conception of God's sovereign activity in history, and definitively in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Of course I am "slanting the discussion", QAJ - some lateral thinking (if you like) to subvert the mug's game of theodicy with its futile attempts to square the circle of divine power on the one hand and the divine love on the other. (I don't mean to make any "personal" attacks, it's just that the whole enterprise strikes me as Pythonesque!)

I'm trying to look at the actual religious contexts in which these terms - divine power and love - are used, and above all to look to the paradigm case of Christ crucified (there's my BIG biblical text), dogmatically tracked. And what I'd suggest is that that at the cross we discover that God does not have two separate and competing attributes, power and love; rather God is love and his only power is the power of love. In God love goes all the way down. His nature (it's been well put) is the grammar of his will.
As Rowan Williams observes: "God's action has been held, in orthodox Christian thought, to be identical with God's being - that is, what God does is nothing other than God's being actively real."

And if Goglotha is anything to go by, I'd also suggest that in the face of horrendous evils love silently suffers. The very grammar of God entails that Love has no power to guanante its success, nor can love intervene amidst suffering and evil without denying its nature.

I think that his is what our great theologians of the cross like Luther and Moltmann are really getting at.

Anonymous said...

"Given the fact that God is the source of all creations and things we must assume that the evil was included in His will. Maybe kind of weird thing to say so...but the existence of the evil (defined as separation from god) is needed to make a total freedom possible for human."

Because there is evil, this does not mean that God is the source of it. He permits evil for a time, but ultimately he will destroy it. God is good and rightoues, evil and sin are the negation of that which is good and of God. There is sin in creation, but we would not think to charge God with sin, and likewise it is not necessary to conclude that because there is evil in creation, God is the author of it. Jesus came to destroy the work of the evil one, to forgive sins and to heal the sick, not to uphold and affirm these things which are contrary to the will and purpose of God.

Guy Davies said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Guy Davies said...

From Guy Davies:

Hi Ben,

If your Barth proof text is saying that we should struggle against illness and seek to be cured, I would agree. Piper is doing just that. I understand that he had an operation last week.

Belief in the sovereignty of God (as understood by the Reformed Tradition) is not the same as falatism.

Anonymous said...


Ah yes...let's (simply) "look to the paradigm case of Christ crucified - (the) BIG biblical text." (Yes, this is good) And let's recall the original question that started the discussion (what Piper was saying): Is God the cause of suffering?

In the paradigm case of Christ - YES! And was it done in both His sovereign pre-determined will and His infinite love? YES!

Remember Jesus in the garden and His prayer? What did Christ say? O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as YOU WILL....again, a second time He went away and prayed...O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, YOUR WILL BE DONE." (Matt 26:39, 42)

Remember Paul's exhortation to imitate Christ's humiility:

"He humbled Himself and became OBEDIENT TO THE POINT OF DEATH, EVEN THE DEATH OF THE CROSS." (Philippians 2:8)

Christ did what the Father WANTED Him to do. His death was a premeditated INTENTIONAL murder.

Let me ask you...If I told my child to walk into a burning building and die - where would the authorities place BLAME for the suffering and death of my child? Me or the buring building?

Remember Peter's sermon (Peter who walked with Jesus, was one of His closest disciples): "Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;" (see my second post - 3rd para - for thoughts on this text).

Christ death was the cause of God and Christ Himself (he laid down His life voluntarily) - for His people.

Remember the prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53?

Surely He Has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted...and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted...He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, [...] For the transgression of My people He was stricken. [...] Yet IT PLEASED THE LORD TO BRUISE HIM; HE HAS PUT HIM TO GRIEF."

Yet this suffering was in love (as His life was laid down): "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

In this is love, not that we loved God, but He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

Christ suffering was beneficial - for our blessing and for His glory.

Blessing for us/glory for Christ:
"He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. [...] Therefore I will divide Him a portion with great, and He shall dive the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:10, 11, 12)

Glory for Christ:

Jesus' own words (high priestly prayer John 17:1): "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You," and

Philippians 2 continued..."Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and ever tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

The Conclusion: In the paradigm case of Christ He suffers by the hand of God because of the love of God for the blessing of His people and the glory of Christ. And, so, if Christ is our example then Piper's cancer is the cause of God, because of the love of God (see Hebrews 12:3-11), for Piper's blessing and for the glory of Christ! Case closed!

(This isn't to oversimpflify the human aspect of dealing with suffering - but it is the truth we must come back to over and over and over and over to comfort us that we have a God that truly does love us and has a plan to work all these things for my good. This is our comfort and God's glory - not to "establish standards of judgement with which all can agree and which make everybody happy - God included!" I'd rather theodicize than humanize and demand that my understanding of God's actions reside comfortably within my intellect rather than uncomfortably - but willingly -conform to the confines of His own very words and actions.

The Rest,

And for those who seek to do theology without letting the biblical text (God's Word) speak for itself (Himself) and their theology be controlled by the text - I'd like to challenge you with the words of 2 Timothy 4:1-5:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead, by His appearing and His Kingdom: Preach the word! [...] Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministy.

Thank you for allowing me to discuss these matters with you (and be longwinded) I truly enjoy these kinds of discussions. May the Lord add a blessing to the reading (and discussion) of His Word.

Q - signing off (some of you may be smiling about that :-).

Rory Shiner said...

I may have missed this (I'll look back throught the discussion tonight to see it it's addressed--if it is, don't worry about posting a reply) but what is the problem with referring to the fall in a theological understanding of sickness. I'm with you (and Barth) on it being something to fight etc., but I don't follow why the fall isn't a part (a big part) of the theological resources necessary to understand it.

Anonymous said...

Christ did what the Father WANTED him to do. His death was a premeditade INTENDED murder
-- Q. A. Jones

For all your asiduous proof-testing, I can't buy it, not least because the biblical understanding of divive intent, purpose and providence is not as straightforward as you make out, it is much more textured and nuanced, while your soteriology of the Father's paedocide I find theologically repugnant.

Herbert McCabe gets the gist of it for me (taking up your parent metaphor):

"Well, the, did the Fathet want Jesus to be crucified? And, if so, why? The answer as I see it is again: No. The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human. Any minimally intelligent people who are proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering abd disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they want is that they should be alive, be human. And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human; the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Fathet has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering."

A fortiori when that human being is a human being of pure love: for when sinful human beings confront pure love, there can be only one result: they kill it.

Premediated intentional murder? No, Jesus died because he was the Man - within God's providence, but not an act of the divine will.

Ben Myers said...

A response to Rory's question:

I suppose this all boils down to how much theological weight you place on the story of "the Fall". If the Fall is a basic category in your doctrine of sin and humanity, then naturally you'll also use this category to understand sickness. Some people still do use the Fall as a major theological category. N. T. Wright, for instance, divides the drama of history into five "acts", beginning with (1) creation and (2) Fall.

The important question, though, is whether the Genesis 3 narrative can really bear this kind of interpretive weight. Was the narrative itself intended to function like this, as a sort of hermeneutical key that unlocks the whole of Israel's history? (And Wright has justly been criticised on exactly this point.)

It seems to me that the story of the Fall wasn't intended to be used like this, and that it really can't bear the massive interpretive weight that has often been placed on it (most notably in Augustine's influential doctrine of original sin). Certainly the story has its own aetiological and theological significance within the structure of Genesis 1-11. But it's notable that this story plays virtually no role in the rest of the theology of the OT, and the only significant role it plays in the NT is in Paul's Christ-Adam analogy (and even here, Paul speaks of Adam not in order to develop a systematic-theological principle, but he simply uses it as an illustrative analogy -- the point of his analogy is not Adam, but Christ).

So even though I think Genesis 3 is an interesting and theologically significant narrative, I myself would avoid using it in the old Augustinian way, as a basic category through which the rest of the biblical narrative should be interpreted. The Bible has many different ways of describing the reality of sin and evil -- Genesis 3 is one of these ways, but it seems to me that the whole biblical narrative is distorted when Genesis 3 is turned into some kind of theological meta-narrative (just as it would be a distortion to turn the story of Cain and Abel, or the story of the Flood, or the story of the Tower of Babel, into a theological meta-narrative).

Sorry to be so long-winded -- but I hope this is helpful!

Bryan L said...

Some thoughts.

There needs to be a point made between two different wills of God.
1. God's will in the sense of making/ordaining someone to do something in a way where a person doesn’t have a say so in it and God overrides their freedom and they have no control
2. God's will in the sense of desiring someone to do something and giving them the free will to choose yes or no.

In all of these verse having to do with Jesus suffering and our imitating him, they aren’t saying that God wills/ordains in the first sense. They are saying that God wills in the second sense of “desires”. There’s a reason why this is God's will in the second sense and not the first sense. That reason is because God wills (desires) not that people suffer, but that people love others even above themselves. And this love is worked out in different ways; sometimes through actions that brings mutual joy and comfort, or having to go so far as to suffer for the other person. And for that kind of love to happen people can’t be forced to do it (as in the first sense of God's will) having no say so in it and against their free will. Instead they must choose to love (even if it means suffering) out of their own free will, which is what God wills (desires) of them.

God didn’t desire that Jesus suffer but that Jesus loved even to the point of suffering. If there were another way that didn’t have to go the route of suffering then I’m sure God would have chosen it. When Jesus is asking not to have to go to the cross or for God to give him another way, he’s not asking the Father to not have to love humanity (He does love humanity and is willing to do anything for it), he’s asking the Father if there’s another way to accomplish this love for humanity (that brings redemption) without going through the route of suffering, because even Jesus didn’t want to have to suffer (neither should we, if there is another way). But he loved humanity so much that he was willing to do whatever it took, and if the Father said there was no other way then Jesus wanted to submit to what the father desired, and unfortunately it wasn’t a route that was free from suffering. So in the end Jesus’ love overrided his desire to not have to suffer.

In Philippians this idea of love is what Paul is talking about when he’s admonishing them to imitate Christ (and himself). The point is that Paul wants the Philippians to imitate Christ in the sense of loving others in a way that doesn’t look to your own needs first but puts the needs of others first, even if it means going through suffering, but he doesn’t necessarily want them to suffer if there’s another way. In fact I’m sure if there’s a way to love others and put the welfare of others first without having to suffer (maybe some inconvenience) then Paul would be all for that.

Sending your young child into a burning building because you don’t want to go is not the same as you teaching your adult child to love others and to put the needs of others first even if (barring there is no other way) it means death. And then your adult child taking that teaching and deciding to live it out and one day rushing into a burning building to sacrifice his life to save another. Now if there was another way to save that person without having to sacrifice his life, like hosing the building down with water, then he would gladly do it, but in this situation there is no other way. There is no blame there, just love.

You said “Christ death was the cause of God and Christ Himself (he laid down His life voluntarily) - for His people.”
Notice you said Christ laid down his life voluntarily for his people. He had a choice and his choice was to do so or not. And the choice he made was decided by love and this love worked itself out in death, when there was no other way. This is different from a person having to suffer when they don’t want to and having no choice in the matter. That’s not voluntarily and that’s not love, it’s just suffering.

In all of these verses you are quoting they have to do with love. Love is voluntary and freely chosen and not the result of God giving you no other choice. Read them again and when you see love, define it as love that would do anything, even suffer if there was no other way.

Now why was there no other way? Because that’s the nature of sin and what it cost for it to be forgiven. That’s why God didn’t want it introduced into the picture, and why he told Adam and Eve to not eat of the tree of knowledge. Because when they did, all of the sudden it introduced sin into the mix and since sin demands such a heavy price to be forgiven, then love has to suffer to pay that price. But before creation love existed and in eternity love will exist once again with out the option of having to suffer, since there will no longer be any sin to deal with.

This all amount to God’s glory not because Jesus suffered, but because he loved even to the point of suffering.

This is the reason why a situation like Piper’s isn’t the same as Jesus and imitating him. Piper had no choice in getting cancer and he doesn’t want it and is doing what he can to have it removed. He’s not freely choosing to take someone else’s cancer on himself because he loves them so much and that’s the only way to relieve them of it.

In the paradigm of Christ crucified, God isn’t the cause of suffering, sin is. God is the cause/source of the love that pays the heavy price of sin.

Anyway, I could be wrong and I’m sure you could come up with some other verses to support your views but these are just my thoughts and how I interpret the texts you site in your last post and my answer to the points made. Sorry if it’s confusing and jumps around a lot. I tried to follow the flow of your post.
And sorry if this is long and so much of this is redundant and repetitive but that’s what happens when you have to respond to a bunch of verse quotations.

Anonymous said...

Kim Fabricius: I am curious as to whether Herbert McCabe (and those who share his interpretation) are familiar with the following passages:

Isaiah 53:10 "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush Him; He has put Him to grief..."

Acts 2:23 "[T]his Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men."

Acts 4:27-28 "[F]or truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."

May I also point out (because this has been bugging me) that "the cup" that Jesus prayed might be removed from Him was not merely His physical death. If that were the case, Jesus was more of a coward than Socrates, who drank the poison hemlock, perfectly calm. The cup which Jesus drank was the cup of the wrath of God against sin... Something entirely beyond cancer, tsunamis, and physical agony.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Oneoranother, I think we may safely assume that Father Herbert McCabe OP, one of the outstanding Catholic theologians of the second half of last century, knew the verses to which you refer. It's just that when McCabe sat down with the scriptures, he listened to a symphony, not to a collection of notes.

That there are statements in the Bible about God's direct causation in human suffering - well, duh! But they are part of a rich fabric of scriptural reflection and development (and regression) that weaves together several strands of thinking: God as the fons omnium bonorum (Calvin); God as the providential guide and director of cosmic affairs; the intrusion of the surd - human sin - sheer negation, the impossible possibility that God denies even as he "permits", and that can be known only as it is forgiven and defeated - by God; and, of course, the mixed blessing human responsibility.

So, e.g., on Isaiah 53:10 . . .
Here is certainly a hands-on God engineering an unpleasant event. However, there is clear reference to human agency in the Song as well, nor may we deny that evil is having its hour (cf. Luke 22:53). Finally, that God's efficient causality must be seen in the overarching context of his teleological causality might also give us pause before making tabloid theological headlines about divine premeditated murder.

Finally (with Brevard Childs), I am sure that in wrestling with texts like Isaiah 53, we need to maintain a creative tension between respecting its place in the self-understanding of Isrel and reading it through the prism of cross and resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Kim, are you really saying that the Father willed only the incarnaton of Christ and not his death? In that case, what was the purpose of his becoming human? Hebrews tells us that Jesus was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death. (2:9). Hebrews also quotes Psalm 40 (10:5-7) to the effect that God prepared a body for Christ, who says "I have do your will O God." What is that divine will? "By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus once and for all." (2:10).

As for Herbert McCabe, surely it is the collection of notes that make a sympony! That Christ died in accordance with the Father's will is one of the key motifs of the Bible's great "sympnony". The texts quoted by Quincy and "oneortheother" are an essenital part of the melody of Scripture. Are we listening to the same piece of music?

Anonymous said...

Kim... Hermeneutically I am quite sensitive to your argument and appreciate what you are saying. But, your hermeneutics do not exempt you from defending your teachings on this subject and showing that you are in fact scriptural. If Christ's death was not willed by the Father, please demonstrate that this is so according to Scriptures. Also, if Scripture testifies "about God's direct causation in human suffering" as you accept, on what basis do you nullify these "notes" in your hearing of the "symphony"?

Alternatively Kim, is it your moral outrage for these notes that forces you to your point of view? I still can't help but observe that this is really the foundation of your argument in this thread. It seems you are really asking your audience here to accept your moral outrage as the interpretive key to unlocking Scripture's symphony on this issue.

Anonymous said...

I would echo the arguments in the previous two comments, Kim. A symphony is a collection of individual notes. Thus far, it would seem that the symphony of Scripture is made up of notes that affirm God's sovereignty over all things, including our suffering.

Anonymous said...

Let me ask another question: Did God will Auschwitz? I do not see how anyone in his right mind could answer "Yes". This is certainly moral outrage talking - but I think a theologically appropriate moral outrage. To will Auschwitz would be to will evil. God, however, cannot will evil. If you want to call this a divine restriction, I would counter that this is a divine self-restriction. God is free, yes, from the constraints of freedom (Barth). Again, God's nature is the grammar of God's will, not the reverse. So too to speak of the crucifixion as divinely willed premeditated murder is, for me, quite simply a theological solecism. Nor does a calculus of providential cost-effectiveness (e.g. on balance, Auschwitz will finally be seen to have been worth the suffering) do anything but leave me as cold as Dante's inferno.

I can see how people - particularly those within the Reformed traditon (I am one of them!)- may make the claim that everything that happens happens according to God's will. I can also appreciate the move taken by those who anxiously anticipate where the logic of such a position may take them (i.e. to God as the author of evil): viz. to introduce various distinctions about the divine volition (e.g. active/permissive will). Me, I am content to say that while not everything that happens is determined by God's will, eveything that happens is indeed embraced by his purposes of goodness and love. "Thy will be done!"

By the way, our conversation confirms, for me, that theodicies inevitably break down within the (implicit) moral framework in which the discussion takes place: either God is a monster, the author of terrible evils, or human suffering, in being explained, is explained away and the world's woes are unacceptably trivialised. In her groundbreaking Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Marilyn McCord Adams, with some deft lateral thinking of her own, tries to negotiate a way between Scylla and Charybdis. Not altogether successfully, however, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Kim, I sypmathize with your outrage, but we must not create a God based upon our own thoughts and feelings, but rather based upon that which is revealed in Scripture.

We must also remember that, incomprehensively horrific as Aushwitz was, the crucifixion of Christ, in which He bore the weight of the wrath of God for sin, was incomprehensively more horrific. Even so, Scripture is clear that Christ's crucifixion and death was predestined and planned by God. What is more, we see the incredible victory and good that God wrought through His Son's obedience and suffering.

Much of the "outrage" at these truths can be attributed to a over-emphasis on this present world, and a forgetfulness of the world to come. Christ suffered and died "for the joy set before Him," and indeed, has been raised and exalted for the glory of God. On the other side of the coin, those responsible for His death will receive God's righteous judgement and damnation.

In the same way, will the victims of the Holocaust be given justice? Will those responsible for their torture and death receive judgement? Undeniably, yes. We serve a just and righteous God, the Bible is clear.

God's sovereignty and eternal plan extends beyond this present life.

Anonymous said...

I am content to say that while not everything that happens is determined by God's will, eveything that happens is indeed embraced by his purposes of goodness and love.

It appears to me then, Kim, that you are taking the position that God may will some suffering but certainly not all suffering. Would that be an accurate assessment? If so, then why should Piper's view be morally repugnant? Would he not simply be testifying to his own experience with his cancer? Why is it repugnant to think that God might actually will the death or injury of someone whom he knows will benefit or will benefit others by the experience? Is this not what he does through Jesus Christ, a question I note you sidestepped by returning to the issue of Auschwitz?

Anonymous said...

Kim, the crucifixion of the Son of God was the greatest evil ever comitted by human beings. Yet it was God's will. Peter held both aspects of the cross together in Acts 2:23 "Him being delivered by the derermined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by wicked hands, have crucified and slain." The Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Those who crucified Christ were guilty of great sin. Yet it was God's will that human beings are redeemed from sin by the death of Christ.

The Westminster Confession (3:1) sums up the point admirably,

God from all eternity did by the most and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

May I commend Don Carson's How Long O Lord? IVP?

Anonymous said...

I sense from Ken's cost-benefit analysis of suffering a John Hick-like "vale of soul making" theodicy - the outward-bound school of theology (as it's been called). I can't go there.

As for a final divine reckoning putting everything to rights, well, yes - but a lot more needs to be said - and, pace Westminster - perhaps unsaid about the Last Things, particularly when it comes to eternal damnation (I'm pretty Barthian on this one).

And that God wills some suffering but not all suffering, well, certainly insofar as suffering entails any evil, or is entailed by any evil, I would say not only that God does not will any suffering, but also that God cannot will any suffering. God inflicts no suffering, God suffers all suffering.

Ben Myers said...

Just a comment on all this discussion of God's "will". I think part of the problem here is that the very word/concept of "willing" is basically unsuitable. The concept itself does not belong to the inner grammar of the biblical narrative, so that when we start raising questions about God's "will" in relation to suffering and the death of Jesus, we find that we have created questions which it is impossible to answer properly.

In Robert Pirsig's famous novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), the Japanese word "Mu" is used as a response to questions which cannot be answered with either a Yes or a No; instead of responding with a Yes or a No, the only response to some questions is: "un-ask the question" (Mu).

I think that's the way I would also respond to some of the questions that have been raised here: the answer is neither Yes nor No -- the only proper response is to "un-ask the question", and to find new questions that are better suited to the biblical narrative itself.

In both exegesis and theology, no tool is more important than the well-formulated question. And one of the central tasks of theological thinking is to try to let our questions be shaped by the biblical narrative itself, so that in turn these questions can really be answered.

Anonymous said...

Kim you've misread if you think I've put a cost-benefit analysis on suffering; indeed, you've misread if you think I've taken a position on this issue beyond observing that one side of this debate is arguing well while you keep ducking and evading. If God does not will / purpose / intend / cause / ordain suffering, why do the biblical writers and Jesus himself claim that he has done so in the past? Why also does God apparently assume responsibility for good and evil things in books like Job and Isaiah? To date, you have not even begun to respond with anything other than assertions and expressions of your moral outrage. The sad part is that I really expected an interesting debate from you and Ben on this point because both of you seem so well-versed in theology. I was looking forward to further developing my own views through such reading. Oh well...

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm not being fair... you came to close to actually responding with a developed argument when you wrote, "So, e.g., on Isaiah 53:10 . . .
Here is certainly a hands-on God engineering an unpleasant event. However, there is clear reference to human agency in the Song as well, nor may we deny that evil is having its hour (cf. Luke 22:53)." That start, however, did not materialize into something more developed...

pilgrim said...

I am glad Piper posted that article--it is Biblical and points to God's sovereignty.

Suffering and disease are a result of sin, and one day will be banished (In eternity)

BUT--God is in control of suffering and disease--it can not thwart Him. HE uses it for His own purposes, and His own glory.

I have not had cancer, but Piper's comments are true of all suffering, and the past year has seen much suffering in my life-(mostly the earlier part of the last 12 months.) and Piper's words resonate with me.

I thank God He gave Piper those words and His glory will be seen from it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, I don't get your point that God "willing" the suffering and death of Jesus does not belong to the inner grammar of Scripture. Jesus wrestled with God's will that he drink the cup of suffering in Gethsemane. Hebrews 10 uses the grammar of God's will in the context of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. After his resurrection, Jesus showed the disciples that his suffering, resurrection and glorification fulfilled God's will as releaved in the Old Testament (Luke 24:45-46). God willing the atoning death of Christ is part of the essential grammar of the Bible.

Anonymous said...

Why is it repugnant to think that God might actually will the death or injury of someone whom he knows will benefit or will benefit others by the experience?

Ken, if that isn't cost-benefit analysis I don't what is.

But your major point would seem to come down to this: This is the way I play theology and these are my rules, but you guys are playing by different rules and spoiling my game; so now (your penultimate post implies) I guess I'll have to take my ball and go home.

In any case, I'm sure it is time we had a breather, go away and ponder what we've all said - I'll certainly be thinking about what you've said - and re-engage on another topic on another day - perhaps even in a mutually aceptable ballpark!

In Christ,

Anonymous said...

I am truly disappointed... Indeed, I expect theology to be played with Scriptures but I don't think that is unremarkable for the discipline. To play without Scriptures is not worth the game... to use your rather crass and condescending metaphor! Assertion and your own moral outrage are simply not authorities that I can ever respect, especially as I've not met you personally. I guess I just was am one of those kids who finds a sport boring if the other side is consequently reinventing the rules.

Anonymous said...

Ken, if that isn't cost-benefit analysis I don't what is.

Well... to me a cost-benefit analysis implies a financial accounting procedure and something cold... my question is not something cold in my opinion. It is deeply personal. If I knew that my death or injury might have substantial benefits to others would I willing submit myself to death or injury... if I could save my daughter with my own life? You bet I would... If that's a cost-benefit analysis by your standards... very well then... but your condescending attitude towards such a motive for some of death and suffering would obviously beg a question.

Anonymous said...

In any case, I'm sure it is time we had a breather, go away and ponder what we've all said

If you need a timeout that is up to you but I'm not at all heated about this discussion. I am simply disappointed by the lack of engagement from you and Ben. I unfortunately have nothing to go away and ponder on. That's indeed my problem. You haven't really contributed anything but some assertions, a few methodological observations with which I don't disagree, and your moral outrage. I was hoping for a biblically rooted argument concerning evil and suffering from a perspective I had not met before and upon which I could ponder.

Bryan L said...

I don't understand why Kim is being criticized for her moral outrage at the idea of God causing suffering and reading the Bible from that perspective. The criticisms make it seem like she is the only one coming here and reading the Bible from her experiences and emotions. I wonder how many of you can read the Bible and say God causes suffering and feel fine about it because you're behind your computer in your safe air conditioned house drinking your tea or coffee with your family in the other room watching TV, and you're only concerned with blog discussions or sermon preparations or whatever it may be. I wonder if you would read the Bible differently if you lived in poverty with no hope of ever getting out and you feared for your safety daily. If you lived in a war torn country where you saw people dying everyday and your family being wiped out because of something stupid like a military mistake. She brought up Auschwitz, but you just wanted to look at it objectively with no feeling. None of you really wanted to ask your self what that experience must have been like and who benefited from all that suffering and how could God be behind that. It's easy to say God causes suffering when you live a pretty easy life day to day. When tragedies and real suffering are so few and far between that when they do happen in your life it's a whole lot easier to see the good that may come out of them. But what happens when you live in a world where it's tragedy after tragedy and you never stop suffering and you never see any good around you or coming out of your tragedies and suffering and neither do the other people living around you. Then tell me how easily you can read the Bible objectively without feeling and then say God causes all suffering for good.
When you can easily say God causes all suffering then you become resigned to it and just accept it, not only in your own life but in the larger world, because how do you fight against something you believe God is causing for some secret good purpose he has.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken -

I am glad to know that you are "not at all heated by this discussion." You had me worried there for a minute!

And I am sorry that what you hear me say is simply unsubstantiated assertion driven by moral outrage. I don't think that's fair, but of course it's not for me to decide. You want to do theology with the Bible. Of course! So do Ben and I. But not only with the Bible - the Bible "neat" as it were - and certainly not with the Bible as a a sourcebook.

Serendipitously, I have just been reading Gerhard Sauter's judicious reflections on dogmatics Gateway to Dogmatics: Reasoning Theologically for the Life of the Church (2003). Sauter says (p. 218):

"The meaning of sola scriptura changes fundamentally if everything the church claims as valid has to be derived from biblical texts. In cases like this the Bible becomes a 'source'; but it is a source in an entirely different sense from the sola scriptura of the Reformation . . . a supply of truths on which one may fall back as needed, or an information desk that can be resorted to. If claim is laid to the Bible in this way, then it becomes a formal principle, an ecclesiastically sealed document of its own self-assertion, rather than the primary proclamation in which God addresses us.

"No sentence in the Bible is actually a final court of appeal in and by itself, as if it were a matter of 'this is the way it is, just as it says.' Only in one place in the Bible is there an explicit appeal to the principle 'it is written' - in the story of the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)."

You don't have to cite scripture to be scriptural - as even a cursory glance at the great Christian poets should convince you.

Your way of doing theology strikes me like Nietzsche's way of doing philosophy - relentlessly, impatiently, "with a hammer". But to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Anonymous said...

You don't have to cite scripture to be scriptural - as even a cursory glance at the great Christian poets should convince you.

I don't disagree Kim but you do have show that your ideas are indeed consonant with Scripture and to that end Scripture must enter the discussion. I'm not interested in proof-texts but I am interested in a scriptural defense--as you define it--that takes into account the manifest texts of the Bible that attest to God as origin or cause of suffering. From my reading, perhaps simple as it is, this is the testimony of Isaiah; this is the testimony concerning the suffering of Christ in the Gospels and in the Pauline epistles. So, instead of trying to further elucidate your methodological approach to theology, I would appreciate if you would articulate why this is not so. The church has a very long tradition of recognizing the value of suffering, its God-givenness, and the importance of endurance in the midst of it. You are challenging that tradition in several ways. I'm open to the challenge if you would but articulate this theology in a way that is recognizably scriptural.

Anonymous said...

Bryan... I am not criticizing Kim for his moral outrage... I am criticizing Kim for using that as the bulwark of his position against other commenters.

Anonymous said...


Your quoted definition of Sola Scriptura is a caricature of the Reformation principle. It is precisely because God adresses us in the Bible that we recognise its supreem authority. Only this book has been breathed out by God to be profitable for doctrine etc.

Jesus words to Satan are not the only place in Scripture when the Bible is quoted as "it is written". What about Luke 24:46 on how Jesus fulfilled what is written in the OT? Or Paul quoting Psalm 2, "as it is also written" Acts 13:33, to show that Scripture foretold the resurrection of Christ? Or James summing up the coincil of Jerusalem with an appeal to Amos 9:10 & 12 in Acts 15:15, "just as it is written". Jesus and the apostles habitually appealed to Scripture. "It is written" is not the only formula that the NT uses when quoting Scripture. Consider: "But to the Son He [God] says" followed a quote from Psalm 45 in Hebrews 1:8. "As the Holy Spirit says", followed by a quote from Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7. What Scripture says, the Spirit says, God says. That is why the Bible is the sole authority for Theology.

Evangelical Theology respects the creeds, values historical Theology and contemporary Biblical scholarship. But the radical principle of Sola Scriptura drives us to judge all things by the Word. "To the law and the testimony, if they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." Isaiah 8:20.

Anonymous said...

Great post...I appreciate the Karl Barth reference..I was offended by Piper's piece, and made several comments at my blog, and received a lot of heat back because of it. I just disagree with Piper about who is the cause of sin, disease and suffering in this world.


Anonymous said...

Yes, suffering, sickness and death are not a part of God's original plan for us. Yet God uses them for our good.

And that's the problem for many American Christians, including, it appears, Karl Barth. We want to be cured, we demand a miracle. And we're convinced that's God's plan, too.

But sometimes it isn't, as in my case. When my late husband was first diagnosed, at age 47, with Stage IV colon cancer, we knew that barring a miracle, he would die. In fact, Steve was given 3 choices: 1) Do nothing, be dead in a few days; 2) Have colo-rectal surgery (for a colostomy; they couldn't get the tumor), get a few months; 3) Have surgery & chemo, 16 months.

To do nothing was tantamount to suicide. So Steve took the 3rd option and he fought his hardest, battling for nearly 2 1/2 years.

Yet we primarily took the attitude of the three in the fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:16-18). Why? Because God is not just our "Abba," but He is also our "El Shaddai" and our "Adoni." He is sovereign.

Although Steve died, we were victorious, even in this life. Because we learned so much, our Christian faith was strengthened, we were transformed and we lived fully, with joy. We were victorious over cancer.

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis likens God's use of suffering to the pain imposed upon us by a skilled surgeon. He deduces that the more conscientious the surgeon, the more he must cut, the more pain inflict. To stop halfway because of the pain is to be cruel. The surgeon (and God) must finish the job.

It appears that this lesson Karl Barth has forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Sandra Eggers, you appear not to know who Karl Barth is, as you describe him as an "American Christian". Karl Barth was a great 20th century theologian and everyone remotely interested in theology should know a little about him. He was not American.

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