Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bart Ehrman's New Book-- God's Problem

Well its Holy Week, and of course we have come to expect bombshells lobbed at the church by various pundits during this week, and right on cue we have a new book by Bart Ehrman that suggests "we can't believe a good all powerful God exists because there is suffering in the world." My friend Dr James Howell, the senior minister at Myers Park UMC in Charlotte has now reviewed an advance copy of the book, and here is his review (see link below)--- right on target. (N.B. Howell has a PhD in theology from Princeton and a top drawer degree from Duke as well. He is not your average minister).

This book is sad in many ways, not the least of which is, it doesn't even meaningfully interact with any of the great scholars and theologians over the past 2,000 who had wrestled with the issue of God and suffering. It is as if Ehrman discovered there are issues in regard to suffering for a belief in God.

In one sense of course, Bart Ehrman's views are understandable. If you are raised to believe that a good sovereign God before the beginning of time pre-determined all things that have happen in this world, then indeed you have a severe problem of logic when it comes to both sin and suffering, both misery and mayhem. But in fact the God of fatalism with all things predetermined is not the God of the Bible. That is the God of Islam, but not Christianity at its best.

The Bible teaches that most of human suffering is of our own making, not predestined by God. There is this little doctrine called the Fall, and also the matter of humans being created with wills of their own. Both the Fall and at least the power of contrary choice in fallen persons more than adequately explains most of the wickedness we see in the world--- it is, as Tennyson used to say "a case of man's inhumanity to man". Read Jame's review and see what whether you think you need to read Ehrman's polemic or not.


FrankDG said...

Hi Ben
I reviewed the book recently myself. I found it to be a sad book with real straw man arguments. Ehrman's real problem is not that the Bible doesn't address suffering it is that Ehrman doesn't like the way the Bible addresses it.


Unknown said...

If our Heavenly Father truly is Omniscient: would not even what is completely our fault be predetermined??? On the other hand: there is a way around that; and that would be denial of His Sovereignty over all that He has created. For He surely would have done something about everything going so horribly wrong in the Garden of Eden if He could have: right??? There is, of course, even a way around that. For He surely must not be as Omnipotent as He says that He is; and that would make Him out to be liar, which would mean that He is really not Holy. Alas, what a slippery slope.

SteveJ said...

> But in fact the God of fatalism with all things predetermined is not the God of the Bible.

Ben, I realize Christians don't WANT the God of fatalism (as you call it) to be the God of the Bible. But the evidence certainly contradicts their preferences here. Predestination is all over the sacred volume. For example: "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." (Acts 17:26)

In light of the many texts arrayed against your fatalism assertion, I would expect something like, "Yes, much of the Bible appears to teach fatalism and predetermination, but we believe that on balance that's not the best way of understanding the doctrine of God." But no, evangelicals rarely talk that way. Instead, it's all cut and dried, absolute, devoid of difficulty. If I've heard it once from evangelicals, I've heard it ten thousand times: "There's NO EVIDENCE for [insert opposing doctrine here]. NONE."

Also, you're very dismissive of the problem of evil, a problem I consider daunting in the extreme. (I say this as a believer in God.) This is my beef with evangelicalism and why I left, never to return. Everything is so simple for you folks. The other side never has a valid point. But the problem of evil is philosophically perplexing. I can easily imagine someone surveying horrible natural disasters around the world, children born terminally ill and even the grievous suffering among animals (who have never sinned). Then I can imagine that person concluding that there is no benevolent God in charge of the universe. I don't agree with that sentiment, but I understand it. I would NEVER glibly blow off the difficulty.

I'm afraid the Fall does not so easily explain the random evil in the world. A tsunami that kills thousands of people has nothing to do with wicked men making bad choices of their own free will. And by the way, free will itself doesn't provide much of a theodicy, either. If I stood by while several teenage boys beat an old man to death, I could never exonerate myself by saying, "It was the wicked choices of the teenage boys. Don't blame me." I had the ability to stop it, but did not. God has the ability to stop evil, but does not. You don't see that as a problem?? I do.

The Fall explains it all? So God let a serpent into the garden, knowing that serpent would tempt the first humans (who still didn't know right from wrong), and He did this KNOWING the untold misery this would bring upon our race. No problem here???

Evangelicalism has huge credibility problems. And this is a perfect example of why.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve:

Thanks for these remarks. I am quite aware of the large and complex problems involved when we are dealing with evil in the world, but this brief allusion to James' book review is no place to deal with such problems at length. The point was, and is, that Bart Ehrman accounts for neither the effects of the Fall as part of the explanation, nor human will, and this is because of the distorted view of God he got in fundamentalism.

And as for that verse in Acts 17, it says nothing about predetermining persons to be saved or lost, which is the point. The issue is not whether God has determined some things in the world. Of course the Bible says he has! The issue is whether he has determined EVERYTHING, including human salvation.

I am unsatisfied with your stated explanation as to why you left Evangelicalism. You can hardly have encountered it at its best I guess, and I am sorry for that. But no, it is not the case that for Evangelicals everything is black and white and cut and dried-- that would be Fundamentalists, but not Evangelicals, but perhaps you were making no distinction between the two.

In any case, I would encourage you to rethink, and especially to think better of some of the finest Christians in the world, and some of the greatest minds and spirits in the Christian communion who are Evangelicals.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Fishhawk: The answer to your question is no. Foreknowledge and predestination are not co-entailed. Paul can even ask -- has God forsaken and broken off his people whom he foreknew? The prophets foreknow many things, but this not mean that they have pre-determined anything. My point is simply this-- what one knows and what one wills are two different things, and that is true not only in human beings, but also in God. God is not the author of sin, and as James says in James 1 God is neither tempted nor does God tempt anyone. But clearly the Devil does, and so a distinction can be made between what God wills, and what he knows.


Ben W.

Derrick said...

Perhaps it's just me, but most popular atheist polemics these days seem to approach the issues that surround religious belief as if they're the first people that have ever thought about it. Dawkins, Harris, et al seem to think that what they're saying is something that no one within religious traditions have ever thought about, or if they have, they strawman them. (I guess one of the perks of religious/anti-religious fundamentalism is that you can pretend that your opponents are just unthinking idiots). What makes Ehrman's case so odd is that Ehrman makes his living by discussing religious history. You'd think he'd know better.

SteveJ said...

> The issue is whether he has determined EVERYTHING, including human salvation.

Thanks for your reply, Ben.

I'd have to say that the Scripture has no shortage of references to predetermined salvation (as our Calvinist friends are happy to point out). I can't imagine the idea stated more plainly than this:

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed."

"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. ... Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden."

"What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.'"

"They stumble because they disobey the message — which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people ..."

I don't happen to support those ideas, but they certainly are in the New Testament.

And maybe I am too cranky about evangelicalism. I'll grant that some of the finest people I've ever met have been of that stripe. If my last post gave an opposite impression, I apologize. The problem is that evangelicals are committed to defending and harmonizing every word of an ancient, imperfect document. In order to accomplish that (impossible) task, they're forced into so many mental contortions that it makes them look silly at times. And they're backed into a corner so often that they've learned to compensate with sweeping, dogmatic (and sometimes condemning) statements that are far too simplistic.

Ben Witherington said...

Well, Steve read my Romans commentary and see what you think. Those very same Rom. 9-11 chapters speak of God breaking people off from the elect group, and grafting others in. Election in the OT and the NT has to do with groups, being in Israel and being in Christ. What happens with individuals is a more complex matter.


Bill Barnwell said...

Hi Ben, this afternoon I decided to read the first 150 pages of Ehrman's new book. It's quite unimpressive so far, I was expecting to be more challenged, and even though he's writing for a popular and not scholastic audience, I was offended by some of the simplistic side arguments he passed on in various sections (e.g. "The Law says homosexuality is wrong but it also says to stone your kids and not wear clothes made out of two different types of fiber, and the simple-minded Christians pick and choose what they want to follow in the Bible, etc, etc.")

But perhaps one of the more interesting statements he put forth, at least so far in what I've read, is a minor point he put forth on thanking God for our food and His provisions, etc. He basically asks, does doing this imply that God is purposely overlooking the poor or playing favorites with us who do not go without? Right after that he invokes the often-quoted stories of survivors of accidents thanking God for His protection. Does this imply that He purposely did not protect the others?

Basically, I think it's a valid point to critique the perception that God is the ultimate politician: taking credit for the good but not taking credit for the bad. At least the strict determinists are consistent and say God is the source of everything, but that of course presents a host of other problems. But take the mine disaster a couple years ago when those 11 or so men were trapped below. There were initial reports that the men survived, and immediately family members started thanking God and crying tears of joy. Soon after, however, it was clear that only one man had survived. These same individuals went from thanking God, to cursing Him, and even outright denying Him. Of course, much of this can be assigned to understandable human shock, and the wave of emotion that these folks were going through. It does illustrate however how we often casually give God credit for the good, but not for the bad.

I know how I respond to such arguments, but I was curious what your response is to such objections.


Drew Tatusko said...

I would imagine that this book makes over-zealous purchases on determinism and fails to recognize human free will as a conspirator along with natural physical processes in the process of suffering.

People can hate, and nature does not really care if we build our homes on fault lines or in the middle of regular tornado activity. Cranes will fall, political warmongering will always occur. One can either hold God culpable or recognize human agency.

The title of the book itself contains assumptions which are very difficult to assert since the bible does not really function the way that the title itself seems to intend. In short, as another commentator here said, it looks like a strawman without even getting into the content of the book. I say this for the same reason that Same Harris' book "The End of Faith" seems to have missed the memo that secularization theory never did pan out very well did it...

Peter Gurry said...

Am I misreading the review by James Howell you linked to?

Howell says, "In reply to Christians who rightly say quite a few bad things happen because people have free will, he [Ehrman] fires back, 'What about tornadoes?' But no one ever thought tornadoes are caused by free will; only crackpot preachers think God hurls storms at people" (emphasis mine).

How does the argument flow here? Howell is saying that no Christian uses free will to explain tornadoes. And then he jumps to condemn "crackpot preachers" who say God is responsible for sending tornadoes? To what would he attribute tornadoes then? Satan? Mother Nature? I've read the book of Jonah, and I'm pretty sure that God did in fact hurl a great wind at the sea (1:4) that caused such a terrible storm that the sailors thought they would die. Maybe I'm a "crackpot preacher," because I always thought God did hurl a storm at Jonah and those sailors.

Seriously, am I just misreading Howell here?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bill:

Thanks for your reflections. I think the simplest thing to say if you want to grasp how I would approach this is to read the famous poems by G. Studdert-Kennedy called 'The Sorrow of God" and also his poem "Faith".


No, Peter, I think you are reading that right.


Krissi said...

I recently heard this guy being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. I was saddened by his conclusion. Thanks for posting the review. It is good to see a written word from the other side. A friend of mine recently gave me Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life. I loved when I read this from it: "I would rather say with Baron von Hugel that Christian spirituality does not explain evil and suffering, which remain a mystery beyond the reach of the human mind, but does show us how to deal with them."

I have to say that I get frustrated when people blame suffering on God that is our fault, like poverty. In a video I watched recently about an organization, the statement was made: "You may be asking where is God, but God may be asking where are you." God did indeed give us free will; I wish we would use it better.

Unknown said...

Be assured that I am not at all trying to suggest that our Heavenly Father is tempted by sin, nor that He tempts anyone to sin; but is not the Creator ultimately responsible for what He has created??? After all: how can a manufacturer of an automobile call it a failure for not being able to fly when it was never designed to do so in the first-place???

Neither I am trying to suggest that there is really not any such thing as sin, nor that there is really not such a place as Hell. For there really is sin; and there really is such a place as Hell.

Nonetheless: what our Heavenly Father is calling for as many as will to accept is that He really is more responsible for all that happens in this world than what most want to believe. For it is relatively easy to love someone who always at least tries to do what you want them to; but it takes a very special kind of love to hang in there with someone who seldom does. Be assured that this is the kind of love that our Heavenly Father wants to receive.

Yes, that certainly portrays our Heavenly Father as being some sort of a monster; but only unto those who cannot accept that the sufferings of this world is nothing in comparison unto the glory of spending all of eternity with Him in His Kingdom of Heaven as heirs unto all that is His in glory. For what is of this world was never meant to last but for a little while in comparison unto the whole of eternity; and great will be His joy when the time comes for Him to gather all of His children by faith unto Himself. For it truly is as it is written: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. {Romans 8:18-21 NIV}

Ben Witherington said...

Fishhawk Human beings are not automata. They were created with minds and wills of their own, and so throughout the Bible they are held ethically responsible for their own behavior. Is a parent morally responsible if his child grows up and goes off a murders someone, when the parent has done all they could to train them up in a right way? I don't think so. God did not make us defective and is not responsible for our heinous actions. Had he created us like cars which were pre-programmed that would be different.

Ben W.

Shawn said...

The book seems a little pathetic, but I was more intrigued by this sentence of yours:

"That is the God of Islam, but not Christianity at its best."

Why does Christianity's God get a qualifier, acknowledging there isn't one simple picture of a Christian God, but Islam's God gets a blanket statement?

Unknown said...

Yes, Reverend Witherington, it would be the same for our Heavenly Father if He was as limited as we naturally are. For we cannot be with our children everywhere, all of the time, forever and ever. Therefore: it is incumbent upon a good parent to teach their children how to do for themselves unto the best of their abilities (naturally speaking, of course); but it is not the same for Him: is it???

Yes, there is the matter of maturity to consider; but even in regards unto that: where do we want the line drawn between where He ends and we begin??? For it truly is as it is written: The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly of the Lord [even the events that seem accidental are really ordered by Him]. {Proverbs 16:33 AMP}

No, this is not to deny that we do have freewill. For no one could be held accountable for any sin if they had absolutely no choice in the matter; but is it not also written: For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all {Romans 11:32 NIV}???

phil_style said...

I'm no expert on Romans, but I thought 11:32 had to be read in the context of arguing the singularity of Jews and Gentiles before God. Paul is justifying why God can view both Jews and Gentiles alike as unrighteouss(and thus provide mercy for both)i.e. God considers all men to be in the same boat (that they are "bound" together in the same state). It's a concluding remark based on his discussion immediately prior - as opposed to a proof text on human free will.

Unknown said...

I totally agree about the God of fatalism. It is a view of God I hear quite often, and it disgusts me more and more. I try to see and understand where these people are coming from, but the more I try the more I become confused.

I go to their websites, read their books, and hear them speak. I listen to their objections about why the sovereignty of God and suffering makes it necessary for him to receive all the more glory (as if it can be increased?). I have yet to hear or read a good defense of this view about God and human suffering (from the Calvinistic side). To say God sometimes causes disasters and tragedies to happen is of course true for reasons we have no idea about, but to universalize this and say this is always God, all the time, is completely ridiculous.

God did not causes Job to suffer all that he did. Rather, he allowed the satan to do this, which is far from causing or being responsible. And it certainly never says anything of him pre-ordaining all things that come to pass, this is completely eisegetical and dangerous hermeneutically as well. It baffles my mind every time I hear it.

Joshua Collins said...

Thanks for your review. I saw Bart Ehrman in person recently at a public discussion about the Resurrection at Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City. It was sad to see his quick dismissal of the 4 Gospels by using rather antiquated arguments that fail to take into account the ever growing picture we have of the first century, particularly the multi-lingual nature of even places like Galilee and his treatment of the oral NT apostolic traditions as a "telephone game."

He was, however, a clever and skilled speaker, which is probably why he keeps getting invitations on the talk show circuit...that and the sensationalism aspect of his work.

SteveJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theophilus Punk (PLStepp) said...

Ehrman's is an maddening case, because he has the stuff to be a brilliant scholar and ask / answer important questions about the NT--even from his anti-faith position. But he's discovered that he can make money by the athiest who out-fundamentalizes (is that a word?) the fundamentalists, and seems content to stay there.

Has anyone else noticed the changing the story of how he rejected faith? First, it was one of his profs suggesting that Mark made an error; then it was discrepancies between the gospels; now it's the fact that bad things happen to good people.

Maybe we need to start a quest for the historical Ehrman?

Vitamin Z said...

Dr. Ben,

Thanks for your thoughtful blog. In your comment to Steve below... In terms of Romans 9 and individual salvation: Does not Paul allude to individuals in the application of election when he says in verse 23 and 24 - in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 EVEN US whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Does not the "even us" refer to specific individuals?

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe said...

Isn't this very topic the entire reason the book of Job was inserted into the Jewish Canon by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly?

Job's friends -and Job- make all of Ehrman's arguments and more - and all those arguments are swept away by these words of logic..

Job Chapter 38
א וַיַּעַן-יְהוָה אֶת-אִיּוֹב, מנהסערה (מִן הַסְּעָרָה); וַיֹּאמַר. 1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:
ב מִי זֶה, מַחְשִׁיךְ עֵצָה בְמִלִּין-- בְּלִי-דָעַת. 2 Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
ג אֱזָר-נָא כְגֶבֶר חֲלָצֶיךָ; וְאֶשְׁאָלְךָ, וְהוֹדִיעֵנִי. 3 Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto Me.
ד אֵיפֹה הָיִיתָ, בְּיָסְדִי-אָרֶץ; הַגֵּד, אִם-יָדַעְתָּ בִינָה. 4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast the understanding...

Do not these words speak for themselves on this topic?

revchristodd said...

I think the solution to problem of evil defies being reduced to words. Just think: if someone could show you with air-tight logic why your child had to die, would that give you any comfort? I think at the end of Job God says as much. We cannot fully understand the reasons for evil, no more than an infant can understand why his mother holds him down so a man in white can stab him with a needle. But based on the other evidences of his mother's love, he he learns to trust her despite such pain.

The closest we get to an answer is in the sufferings of Jesus. God at least confronts the problem personally and takes his own medicine. When we talk to God, we at least know that he shares our experience of pain and loss.

And, yes, the afterlife must play a part in it. If this is the only life there is, there is no justice, plain and simple.

Finally, if you eliminate a loving God, you still have suffering to deal with. Only now you have disposed of any ultimate meaning to it. Faith in God at least provides hope that there is meaning to suffering.

Hollands Opus said...

It seems to me that sin necessarily morphed evil from a potentiality into actuality at least among humans. Evil already existed before Adam and Eve in the garden (Satan) but was still only a potential for humans. Adam and Eve failed in their overcoming evil, they should have had dominion over death. Jesus had dominion over death and conquered evil as the perfect and second Adam.

Anyway, there seems to be a correlation between the extent of man's usurpation of all that is God and God's (in man's mind anyway), and the types and extremes of evil God allows in the world. Morally speaking, the darker man gets, the more he smells. Having lost moral sight and closed our eyes to holiness,God appeals to our sense of smell so to speak, in allowing the kinds of evil that continue to intrude upon our moral seclusion ,anonymity, and blindness. As moral relativism increases and blurs good/evil distinctives, the ontological status of actual, objective evil is once again brought into focus by the kinds of extreme that have the effect of preventing a total collapse into the types of moral horror that would effect nobody's sensitivities.

Once Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were banished so that they would not reach forth and eat from the tree of life - life that would accommodate itself to the presence of the relativism that Adam and Eve embraced, and leave them stuck there. Outside the garden though and without access to the tree of life, death reminds of the spiritual separation and is unavoidable.

Hope that makes some sense!

Michael Gilley said...

Revchristodd came so close to Kierkegaard. All you lacked was to state that God is "wholly other," God and [his] practices cannot be reduced to mere human words or thinking. I think this is coming very close to accepting the supra-rational reality of God, a very Eastern idea that basically says there are some wisdoms especially of the eternal that humans cannot comprehend. Indeed, there is a mystery to God. At the same time, I don't think we should allow this argument to shut down all discussion of the subject. The definition of a mystery is something that is difficult or impossible to explain, not something that not understood because no one talks about it anymore.

crystal said...

Thanks for posting a link to the review. The problem of suffering/theodicy is one I keep reading about, trying to find an explination that works. One book, David Bentley Hart's Doors of the Sea gives an Orthodox approach that I like, even though it isn't totally satisfactory. He talks about the tsunami and his theodicy in an online interview for those interested - Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.

I don't understand why God allows suffering, but I don't want to give up on an all powerful God so I can keep an all good God. I guess I'll just have to keep struggling with the question.

CT40207 said...

"I realize that I will either allow my view of evil to determine my view of God and will cut Him down accordingly, or I will allow my view of God to determine my view of the evil and will elevate Him accordingly, accepting that nothing is beyond His power for good."~From Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard.

Perhaps Dr. Willard is one of the scholars Ehrman should have consulted on this topic?

Thanks for the review Ben.

hangulmalmotayo said...

Hi Ben,

I appreciate your response to Ehrman's book.

I do think, however, that fishhawk, and stevej make some valid points. While I don't think that Christianity is by any means a fatalistic religion I'm wondering whether one can really say that foreknowledge does not entail predestination for God.

You said [in response to fishhawk]:
"Foreknowledge and predestination are not co-entailed. Paul can even ask -- has God forsaken and broken off his people whom he foreknew? The prophets foreknow many things, but this not mean that they have pre-determined anything. My point is simply this-- what one knows and what one wills are two different things, and that is true not only in human beings, but also in God. God is not the author of sin, and as James says in James 1 God is neither tempted nor does God tempt anyone. But clearly the Devil does, and so a distinction can be made between what God wills, and what he knows."

I understand how this is the case for the prophets and those who spoke for God, but many of the things they spoke they did not fully understand. But God knew what He was telling them and He knew His plan of redemption. I think everyone will agree that neither the prophets nor apostles, as inspired as they were, were predestinating anything through their foretelling of what would come. But the only reason they were able to foretell was because they were moved by the Spirit of God to speak. Now, for them, there was a source, namely, God, but for God He is not "inspired" or given words to speak by any outside force, His knowledge is self-contained. Their foreknowledge was true in that it was dependent on God, but it was neither comprehensive nor originating from the prophet nor apostle. Can we really argue from the apostles and prophets foreknowing without predestinating to make a case that foreknowledge does not entail predestination for God?

Again, I appreciate the blog and the thoughts.

-Josh L.

Ben Witherington said...

Indeed we can Josh, its called the theory of Middle Knowledge, and no one is a better expert in such deep matters that William Lane Craig who wrote the book on the matter. Willing and knowing are two different things. For one thing God knows all possibilities as well as all actualities. There is nothing we can know that God cannot also know. This means as well that he knows contingencies, things that may, and not necessarily must happen, as well as things that will happen. God's knowing of a future contingency no more makes it happen than God's knowing of a future certainty. For example, God knows that if I drop a boulder from my roof, under the conditions of gravity that currently exist, it will most certainly fall and hit the ground. Did God's knowing this for a fact make it happen? Of course not--- gravity made it happen. There is so much more I could say, but this must suffice here. Suffice it to say that even in God, a being not limited in or by time, that knowing and doing, or knowing and willing are not co-entailed though often they work hand in glove.


Ben W.

hangulmalmotayo said...

Thanks for the response, Ben. I understand what you're saying. I don't mean to bother you, I'm sure you're busy, but I had a few more questions regarding what you wrote.

If God knows all things, but does not predestine them, does that subject God Himself to (for lack of a better phrase) the "course of the world"? Is there something above God that He Himself cannot change? Doesn't a view of God as foreknowing but not predestining make God into a passive observer, or, at best, one of us, who is unable to work contrary to those "certain contingencies" (i.e.. someone not hearing the Gospel)?

I know God is not the Author of sin. The Bible says it clearly, but I'm sure that God is completely in control, in such a way that nothing happens that He does not both know and will. With sin, I don't think God is the Author, the sinner must take responsibility for his sin. But at the same time, God knew those "contingencies" that would cause certain people to sin. God hardened pharaoh's heart. One can argue that pharaoh's sin caused his heart to be hardened, but didn't God, knowing that Pharaoh would refuse and thus sin (or even for the very purpose of hardening Pharaoh's heart) continue to send Moses to let His people go? I don't think that God was guilty of authoring sin, but God knew it would happen and did, in a sense, cause the sin that He could have (if He hadn't provoked Pharaoh) prevented.

Saying that God is the author of sin and saying that God is the indirect cause of sin are not the same thing, right? (this is a genuine question). Because isn't it necessary to point to God as the indirect cause of all sins (whether Calvinist or Arminian), since He is conscience of every "possible" contingency and yet does not prevent it? Yes He judges men justly based on their sins, but could He not (according to His will that all men be saved) prevent even those sins, not through violating their free-will, but rather through changing their circumstances?

In the end, it seems like it just comes down to either God is omnipotent but chooses not to save everyone, or God is not omnipotent and saves those whom He is able.

I don't know if that all makes sense. You've probably already been asked all these questions many times, in which case I wouldn't mind being directed to a website or book. Anyway, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to the first question, and doing so graciously.

Josh L.

Ben Witherington said...

In brief Josh, what this means is that God is the most important actor in the universe who has viable choices, but by no means the only one, nor has he chosen to control all the other 'enabled free agents' so to speak, in the process. So, for example God can intervene and over-rule the free actions of others. Why he does so on some occasions and not on others has to do with God's character, purposes etc. but of course in various particular cases the matter is shrouded in mystery.

The issue is not whether God is all-powerful and could control everything, but whether he has chosen to do so.The issue is not God's almightiness but how he chooses to exercise his sovereignty. In fact, God has not chosen to completely control or pre-determine all things because he has chosen to relate to the world of human beings in both love and compassion on the one hand and justice and righteousness on the other. This doesn't make God impotent, it makes God personal.


Drew Tatusko said...

I saw the book in B&N today and picked up a copy. Not really worth a purchase, but worth a skim. I was interested to see what he does with Jesus. Not much other than to say that a vicarious suffering on someone's behalf is less than satisfactory.

What is clear is that a) this is more of a personal memoir of someone who lost faith in scripture and something incompatible with evidential suffering in the world today and b) he is trying to take biblical theodicies and attempts to make them congruent to his own personal suffering. His focus seems to lean on the prophets and on the apocalyptic worldview of many of the biblical writers.

It is clear that the bible was written by people who had a different worldview and therefore a different way of understanding order in the midst of dis-order. But to say that we must read these specific views of theodicy in the same exact way and apply it congruently to your experience not only seems like a suspect hermeneutic, but lacks theological sophistication and the true spirit of the letter.

Simone Weil would say that this is actually a quite selfish view of the world. He comes out only able to see the world from his social perspective and then cosmogenizes that view in a specific ideation of God's role in all human suffering. He cannot escape his own worldview. And that is the problem with the book from what I read (which was about all I cared for actually).

Unknown said...

I am absolutely stunned by your response unto Josh, Reverend Witherington. After all: does that not make our Heavenly Father out to be nothing more than a boastful liar when He says things like: "Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. {Isaiah 46:8-10 NIV}

Besides: what eternal security would there be for anyone (let alone: any of us) in His Kingdom of Heaven if what you say is correct??? For if it was possible for Satan to lead a revolt and things supposedly going so horribly wrong before: who is to say that it could not happen again with someone else leading the way unto destruction???

Ned said...

Dr. Witherington,
Dr. Ehrman apparently blames Katrina on God. Does the Bible indicate instead that when Man fell, so did Nature?

Ben Witherington said...

Indeed, Romans 8 says that all of nature is groaning longing for liberation just as fallen humans are.


Duke of Earl said...

FishHawk, you said.

what eternal security would there be for anyone (let alone: any of us) in His Kingdom of Heaven if what you say is correct? For if it was possible for Satan to lead a revolt and things supposedly going so horribly wrong before: who is to say that it could not happen again with someone else leading the way unto destruction?

Even angels have a degree of free will and more power to exercise it than we do. I suppose it is within the realm of possible options for another rebellion in Heaven to occur. That doesn't worry me. If the adversary could not succeed before then it's highly unlikely anyone else will either.

Try to visualize God's knowledge of history as being that of a historian in a library. From His perspective He can know everything there is to know about what is to come because it has already happened. He did not have to cause it to know about it.

Ex-Crusader said...

It amazes me to see the mental gymnastics people will go through to defend a god of the "simple" and innocent. As if anyone should have to twist and contrive so many scriptures and so much evidence to make the god of the bible seem real. Wake up, people! Stop arguing from your conclusion (the god of the bible is real) and look at things from an objective perspective for once. As an ex-evangelical who used to make excuses for god, I can truly say it will make a whole lot more sense.

דודשמש יםךא ךםהד עםג said...

I wrote on it also. he is sending a bad message to the world. also in my blog.

TruthForUsAll said...

Hey, Ben, It is so obvious that you are attacking Bart personally; that it is you who are creating so-called strawman arguments; it is you who make pedantic and snobbish statements. One cannot escape the inescapable as follows: If God is all powerful, all knowing, present everywhere, all loving, and all beneficent; then God knows about and can prevent the horrible suffering of millions of innocent children, but God does not. Any concept of love and beneficence would include preventing this suffering. Therefore, either God does not exist, or God does not have all the properties so-ascribed to "Him." The "free will" argument is ridiculous. The "to teach us a lesson" argument is ridiculous. The "original sin" argument is ridiculous.

TruthForUsAll said...

Bart and other Biblical scholars have shown that the Bible is "probably" NOT the reliable "word" of God, but something very much different. That is not to say that the Bible is devoid of truth and wisdom, but it is to say that one cannot claim something is "true" because it's in the Bible.