Is suffering a theodicy to be solved? Is there justice from God? Is human love the only island of meaning during COVID and crisis?
Here’s one of my final year essays, peer-reviewed and polished up as part of the latest COVID-19 themed issue of Laidlaw College’s Stimulus Journal. Come on an adventure through Broadway and the Bible, and see how the book of Job offers better responses to suffering worth reintroducing into the public conversation. I’m indebted to Kirk Patston for the original impetus and encouragement into the world of Hebrew exegesis and Old Testament reception history, and to Geoff Harper for reading an earlier draft of this paper.
Here’s the abstract:
How can Christians respond faithfully to the disease and suffering our world is currently experiencing? Amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, the creative arts offer a fruitful outlet for us to voice our sorrows, and grapple with different schemas to respond faithfully to God amidst pain and pandemic. In 1956, American poet Archibald MacLeish explored the vexing dilemma of theodicy in J.B., a play written in order to address “questions too large for you which, nevertheless, will not leave you alone.” Following a survey of the plot and background of J.B., I briefly explore how MacLeish’s portrayal – particularly the “death of God” ending – coheres and contrasts with the book of Job itself, then suggest some reflections and responses in light of our uncertain and painful times.
A Place at His Table: A Biblical Exploration of Faith, Sexuality, and the Kingdom of God.
By Joel Hollier.
Genre: Christian living / Social Issues
Size: 232 pages, but didn’t feel dense.
What’s the big idea: A same-sex attracted pastor and fellow bible college graduate, having imbibed in the new wave of academic literature arguing that the Bible does not condemn “faithful, covenanted lesbian and gay relationships”, re-presents their arguments and calls for others to join the increasingly vocal movement of “affirming Christians” across the Western world.
Who I’d recommend it to: Joel addresses people and questions that are very important, and Christian leaders ought to take note of the arguments presented as they filter into church and denominational life. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend his book as a faithful exploration of the Bible’s teaching on faith, sexuality and the kingdom of God (though there are good alternatives – see below for suggestions).
Detailed thoughts: These days, the “I changed my mind” story seems to capture society’s attention, and within Christian circles it’s no different. Whether it’s Josh Harris, Rob Bell or someone else, in our social media-saturated world it’s become common in the Christian scene for a public figure to announce their change in direction before supporters and detractors alike.
Joel Hollier is no celebrity, but he is a mutual friend and fellow Bible College alumni (in Chinese parlance, my 學長). While I don’t yet know Joel personally, I read his book with a common interest and experience in sharing the hope of the risen Jesus with same-sex attracted friends and family – not as objects of scorn, but people to be loved. While space limits a detailed review that his volume deserves (though I trust other more gifted thinkers will share these in due course), I hope the following summary and thoughts serve as a helpful and civil first attempt.
“A Place At His Table” is divided into three uneven sections. Part 1 — largely autobiographical — recounts across four chapters Joel’s journey of growing up as same-sex attracted within the Sydney evangelical church scene. Already, Joel’s prose is warm, engaging, lucid and personal. It was heartwarming to hear of his parents and their gospel-shaped witness, and of studying theology in a space “surrounded by men and women who sharpened me and carried me” – a shared experience. It was heartbreaking to discover that it was during his time at college that he began to question and revisit his theological conclusions about the Bible’s teaching on sexuality – sex as God’s gift to be enjoyed in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. (As an aside, when sexual ethics appears once in class, and Romans 1 gets just an one hour of translation and exegesis time, perhaps we’ve missed the mark).
Part 2 (the bulk of the book) devotes a chapter to each of the six biblical passages usually brought to bear on the issue of same-sex relationships (Genesis 1-2, 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:18-32). I’ll try to explain and comment on each chapter individually with the caveat that there’s much more to say that I can’t for space and time.
Chapter 5 seems dull but is actually the most important chapter of the book as Joel explains his hermeneutic (method of working out what Scripture means). He wants readers to move past “what it says in ink to what it means in my life”, citing commands like Levirate marriage, greeting each other with a kiss and as examples that we already don’t apply all Biblical texts at face value. What Joel (and the authors he rephrases) propose readers do with the passages that plainly proscribe (forbid) certain sexual behaviours is to search for context (e.g. other erotic Ancient writings) that will narrow their applicability for today in place of an underlying “moral principle”. My main objection to utilising the hermeneutic Joel lays out is that by asking readers to make a bee line to an abstracted “moral principle” each time, we risk reducing the moral force of the Bible further than the author intended. While Joel rightly illustrates that some laws require cross-cultural application (e.g. the Levirate marriage system as care for widows), there are nevertheless plenty of biblical laws that communicate, in and of themselves, enduring and transcultural moral principles (the Ten Commandments as a case in point). Readers are also meant to assume the biblical authors have used words and phrases in line with other Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature.
In Chapter 6, Joel argues that Genesis 1-2’s account of Adam and Eve, rather than establishing a normative mandate for monogamous, heterosexual marriage, presents the first “kinship” union, and “there is no indication that subsequent kinship unions must align with their heterosexual nature”. Others (e.g. Todd Wilson, Preston Sprinkle) have critiqued the Genesis 1-2 kinship argument so I won’t rehash them here. But missing from the discussion was whether being “male and female in the image of God” includes our biological differences. The Christian worldview maintains that embedded in each person’s anatomy and personality is a biological complementarity with the opposite sex. If “kinship” is the definitive prerequisite of a one-flesh union, does it not open the door for any relationship that one subjectively feels is deep kinship to be included (e.g. mother and child, three people)? Unlike Joel, I’m still convinced that Genesis 1-2 offers a normative framework of a male-female exclusive relationship (as I believe others like Jesus and Paul do when they cite this passage in the context of husbands and wives – not kin in general).
In Chapter 7, Joel recounts the Genesis 19 narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here I’m with Joel that people are too quick to wield this narrative as a fiery condemnation of homosexual practice. When read with other OT narratives (e.g. Genesis 6:1-4, Judges 19-20), the sexual immorality illustrates the extent of Sodom and Gomorrah’s evil, which is also evidenced by their lack of hospitality for the sojourner, wanton violence and general wickedness (which the rest of the Bible and other early church Fathers delve into). The hermeneutical step Joel then takes though is to only focus on the “driving moral principle” of God taking seriously the treatment of the marginalised. While it’s a biblical principle Christians must do much better with, I’m not convinced that it’s therefore the only sin God has in view when the city is punished. Also, Joel’s argument here (and subsequently) that only non-consensual sexual assault is condemned here and not “loving, monogamous self-giving relationships” is ultimately one from silence (akin to replying to a recipe stating “don’t add sugar” with “but it didn’t say sweetener, did it?”).
Chapter 8 features Joel’s turn at being Old Testament lecturer, as he wrestles with Leviticus 18 and 20 and the surrounding context. His main argument is that where the text reads “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman”, we should read it either as a time-bound cultural worship practice, or patriarchal power-shame act. Again, Joel assumes the biblical author’s choice of case law is motivated by the exploitative practices of surrounding nations, when the text itself says no such thing. He appeals to context to soften the force and severity of what “abomination” means, then brings in a critique against the threefold use of the Law to conclude that “it is a stretch to apply the Levitical laws (Lev 18:22, 20:13) to faithful, mutually-giving, same-sex, monogamous relationships”. Ironically, while correctly summarising Leviticus’s timeless cross-cultural message that Yahweh is a protective, jealous God deeply concerned with the holiness of His people and their distinctiveness from the nations, Joel nevertheless wants readers to capitulate to our culture’s obsession of ascribing one’s personhood and worth to what our sexual desires and practices dictate. While well-intentioned, Joel is ultimately asking us to believe that we should we free to live according to our sexual desires. That, too, is idolatry.
Enter Chapters 9 and 10, and Joel tackles the appearance of same-sex prohibitions in the Apostle Paul’s writings: namely, the vice lists of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, and the opening chapter of Romans. Largely Joel appeals from extra-biblical literature to assert that malakos and arsenokoitai denote abusive sexual activity linked to temple prostitution, and argues that the “unnatural” (para physin) in Romans 1 refers to exploitative practices. Again, he asserts all these terms exclude those in monogamous relationships. There is a fair amount of conjecture that Paul could not have known of a consensual gay relationship (despite Romans 1:27 clearly stating that they burned with passion “for one another” (mutuality and consent implied there!) My objection is that ultimately, Joel’s argument seems to be that first-century Greco-Roman society had no concept of same-sex monogamous marriage; therefore, it’s not forbidden. But there remains no example of God blessing any same-sex practice, whether within Paul’s cultural milieu or ours. Rather, a plain reading of the New Testament sees all Christians — myself included — as sexual sinners, called to submit to God’s good design for each of His image-bearers: fidelity in marriage, celibacy in singleness, for His glory and our joy.
Chapter 12 is largely an apologetic for Joel (and others’) reframing and reinterpretations of Scripture. He argues that homosexuality falls in the same category as slavery and women’s rights. Others (e.g. Keller) have critiqued this kind of attempt at re-categorising same sex relations, but it betrays the assumption that permitting same-sex marriage has become a justice issue. I can understand a secularist to hold this view: I’m saddened that it’s a view increasingly promoted within Christian circles, and betrays our uncritical acceptance of the late-modern narrative that our identity is fundamentally ours to decide and shape (the “this is me” doctrine). At one point, Joel even commits reductio ad Hitlerum and infers that Christians holding a traditional sexual ethic is akin to the Nazis’ (mis)use of Scripture to justify the Holocaust, because both “breed death and perpetuates division”. For pastors and friends who have sympathised and struggled alongside LGBT friends for years, this kind of fallacious rhetoric is unhelpful and deeply concerning.
Part 3 closes with three chapters (13-15) where Joel the activist calls readers to action and walks through next steps. He wants Christians to accept and adopt the “affirming” view of same-sex relationships, to advocate for this position in their churches, and to join the “movement” for change – even including sample letters to parents, pastors, allies etc.
Some other observations I had while reading Joel’s book:
More than once, Joel relegated what I thought were strong counter-arguments to footnotes with summary-form dismissals. In a listicle age, this kind of special pleading can be a dangerous habit, and I’d have preferred all sides be given equal air time / font size.
I was surprised that there was just one mention of interaction with key Greek and Hebrew dictionaries (BDAG, HALOT) – perhaps too nerdy, but perhaps they’re not as conclusive as Joel would like?
This is a book that Christian leaders should expect those they care for will come across at some point. It’s particularly persuasive given that Joel uses the same language and jargon as conservative evangelicals, and cites broadly (Carson et al. all get a mention, though rarely about the arguments directly).
In an age of mea culpas, perhaps it’s too much to hope for a change of change of mind from Joel (though that’s my sincere prayer). Yet perhaps an appeal for a change of heart towards biblical faithfulness is best expressed by Joel himself – as captured in his own words from an earlier piece (which I quote at length):
“…The call for a broader theology of sexuality and celibacy is vital for both the demythologizing and de-idolizing of marriage, and likewise for the reassertion of singleness as a divinely endorsed life. Within this, a strong stance against the sexual essentialism of the modern West must hold forth the distinction of sexuality and personhood, affirming the fundamental identity of the Christian as united with Christ.
With this theology as a firm grounding, the pastor must be prepared to engage with those struggling with same sex attraction from an informed understanding of the presence of loss and its subsequent grieving process. It is only once these are seen in conjunction with the young adult’s identity dissonance that rounded care can be given. And finally, in line with the Biblical understanding of God’s people as both the body of Christ and as a spiritual family, the church must be prepared to engage in intimate friendships with same-sex-attracted young people in new and creative ways.”
Joel Hollier, Will You Walk With Me? MDiv Thesis 2017, 30-31.
One of my favourite things about Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994) is that each one of his chapters ends with a hymn in response. It’s a great way to model that good theology leads to doxology; studying God leads to praising Him.
I decided to come up with my own updated list of songs for each chapter – not because I didn’t like those Dr Grudem suggested, but because since 1995 there have been a range of new worship songs written and hymns retuned that are worth adding to the mix. We can be grateful for a new generation of songwriters like the Gettys, Stuart Townend, Sovereign Grace Music, CityAlight, and artists who have taken timeless hymns and arranged them for the next generation.
You could use this list (compiled into a Spotify playlist here) for your own listening and edification, or in tandem with reading and studying each chapter. Even better, you could come up with your own song list to accompany Grudem, or another systematic theology!
Here’s a full list with links to either a video or words so you can listen and respond to theology with praise!
The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (B&H Academic, 2016).
by David L. Allen
Genre: Biblical Reference / Christian Theology
Size: 820 pages (and weighs in at 1.7 kg!)
What’s the big idea: David Allen makes a comprehensive biblical, historical, theological case that the majority of Christians, even within those who are considered Reformed, affirm an “unlimited atonement” as the best understanding of the extent of Christ’s saving work.
Easy to read? It was OK. It’s certainly an extensive tome on the atonement’s extent, so I’ve read through about a third of it so far. The sheer size of the book will probably appeal to those interested in the topic, rather than general readers. That being said, B&H editors have helpfully indexed the book by subject, author and Scripture passage. If you know how to search through this book, it becomes easy to read and a goldmine of information.
What I appreciated:
It’s comprehensive. From Irenaeus to Al Mohler, Allen surveys what every well-known (and more unfamiliar) Christian leader has believed regarding the extent of the atonement. You’ll need to discern between the historical data and Allen’s own commentary and assessment interspersed throughout. But a lot of research has gone into this book, which we can be grateful for.
I appreciated the tone of Allen’s work. He doesn’t play the man but seeks only to critique the positions that they hold. This kind of writing style is often lacking in the intramural debates on this topic.
He provides two helpful charts (p.xxviii, 766) – one is a summary of four different views of the extent of the atonement. Another is a comprehensive list of theologians and their view on this matter.
Part 3 of the book comprises a chapter-by-chapter critique of Jonathan and David Gibson’s From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, the most comprehensive defence of definite atonement to date. Even for someone who’s persuaded by the arguments for definite atonement, I found it helpful to understand the objections from Allen’s side of the fence. He summarises each contributor’s arguments fairly, and offers thoughtful and persuasive rebuttals.
What I would have liked to see:
For an 800-plus “tour de force”, there was surprisingly little discussion on OT conceptions of the atonement. For example, the Day of Atonement is only referenced twice (p402 in a discussion of Robert Lightner, and when Allen critiques the article on definite atonement in the OT in From Heaven He Came And Sought Her).
A bit less of an inquisitionary tone. I understand that this is meant to be a comprehensive historical survey, but Allen seems to take aim at any and every author who’s ever published about the atonement’s extent. In some cases, he pulls apart their arguments in the kind of lengthy, meticulous manner one normally associates with blog posts you disagree with (e.g., poor Paul Jarvis in p.610-12). At times, it seemed like a meeting or phone conversation would have sufficed in place of the extended critique.
Some more trimming. I appreciate how extensive the data is out there, but there’s no reason why some of the historical surveys couldn’t have been abbreviated.
Allen sometimes adopts unclear labels to describe his and other viewpoints. He insists that no Baptists can be “Reformed” in the confessional sense (p.xv), and goes so far as to call his own view not Arminian, or Moderate Calvinist – but simply, a “Baptist” perspective (p.xviii).
Who I’d recommend it to: Anyone who is interested in the debates about the extent of the atonement. Carl Trueman (an advocate of definite atonement) offers a warm endorsement: “While David Allen and I disagree on the matter, this work is an irenic and learned contribution to the topic which carries the historical, and thus doctrinal, discussion forward in an extremely helpful way. I am thus happy to recommend this work of a friendly critic. It deserves wide readership and careful engagement.”
Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, this extensive tome about the atonement’s extent serves as a thorough, critical companion to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.
Jeff Johnson offers a detailed critique of Allen’s book from a definite atonement perspective.
(I’m grateful to B&H Academic who provided a review copy of this textbook, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)
Amyraut on Predestination: The First Published Translation from the French (Charenton Reformed Publishing, 2017).
by Matthew Harding, with a biographical sketch by Alan Clifford
Genre: Church History, Theology
Size: 190 pages – a 30 page biography, some translation notes, and then 100 pages of Amyraut’s own words from Brief Traitté de la Predestination et de ses principales dependances (Brief Treatise on Predestination and Its Dependent Principles).
What’s the big idea: Never heard of Amyraldianism? This English translation of his seminal work on predestination and the atonement (which sparked three heresy trials!)will help you understand where the idea of “4 Point Calvinism” or “Moderate Calvinism” originated from.
Easy to read? Definitely. Harding’s translation is lucid and clear, and even sounds like a “French” person is saying it. I found the book easy to use when preparing a theology essay on Amyraldianism.
What I appreciated? A few things:
The fact that this work now exists. A lack of primary sources has been a longstanding barrier to evaluating Amyraut’s teachings accurately – for example, if you want to know what Calvin himself taught you can read his Institutes. Matthew Harding and Alan Clifford have done a service to the church by publishing the first English translation of Amyraut’s most well-known work, This will hopefully provide clearer insight into Amyraut’s teachings.
The biographical sketch by Alan Clifford reads well. While he comes across as very adoring of Amyraut (complete with photos of the archway he used to walk under!), it doesn’t seem to seep into hagiography.
Harding is a careful guide – his explanatory notes are helpful, particularly when Amyraut seems to his metaphors or says confusing things, e.g. a “predestination unto salvation” and a “predestination unto faith” in Chapter 13.
Amyraut’s words exude a warm and pastoral tone. It certainly helped me to gain a fuller picture of his teachings, not just as an abstract theology, but motivated by real issues from real people. It’s much harder to see Amyraldianism in this way if you’re reading him through the lens of secondary authors who seem more interested in dissecting his theology rather than listening to his words.
While I don’t agree with Amyraldianism myself, reading his words directly helped me to appreciate his view as a legitimate view of the atonement within the Reformed evangelical tradition.
Who I’d recommend it to: Two kinds of people – those who call themselves Amyraldians (e.g. Sydney Anglicans) but have never read Amyraut’s own teachings; and those who are wrestling with the idea of the “L” in “TULIP” (limited atonement). Don’t discount Amyraut’s views before studying him first-hand.