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.
Recently a friend asked me if there were any good congregational songs that specifically focus on global missions. In God’s timing, the music team at SMBC have just finished serving at our biennial Missions Conference. (The theme was “A Heart for the Lost”, we were challenged with six talks by Tim Chester from the book of Isaiah, and cross-cultural workers and mobilisers from restricted countries shared their experiences living and serving among unreached people groups.)
We’ve been hearing song recommendations from other places too. For example, in our home church one of our pastors has also been introducing songs to help us reflect on world mission, alongside the prayer updates we receive. We’re about to commission a new family this Sunday as they seek to share Christ with the Warlpiri people in Central Australia.
I’ve also been reflecting on how, as John Piper puts it, “missions exist because worship doesn’t”. In one sense, we sing praises, longing for others around the world to join in. Also, in one of Tim Chester’s talks, we were reminded that the cross is worth the nations (Isaiah 49:6), and it’s too small a thing to be concerned only about our own people, church or area. The cross of Christ deserves the nations.
So here’s a couple of songs that help to remind us of our purpose in God’s mission.
Facing A Task Unfinished (We Go To All The World) – Frank Houghton, Keith & Kristyn Getty
Frank Houghton wrote this hymn (originally titled “A hymn for the forward movement”) for an annual gathering of China Inland Mission (now OMF) missionaries. Keith Getty comments:
“Frank Houghton understood this and in response to great turmoil in China, turned to writing hymns to encourage those who were witnessing martyrdom around them. ‘Facing a Task Unfinished’ provided inspiration to a generation of missionaries when it was first written, and it urges us on still, even as we also live amid persecution and martyrdom, both at home and around the world today. Into these situations the call of Christ and His Kingdom is our only hope. His gospel is the window of light pouring into the darkened corners of this world. He is the good news we must sing and bring.”
The Gettys updated the hymn with a simple chorus:
We go to all the world
With kingdom hope unfurled
No other name has power to save
But Jesus Christ The Lord
Rob Smith (Theology and Music Ministry Lecturer at SMBC, Emu Music songwriter) wrote this song as part of SMBC’s Centenary commemorations in 2016. It’s fairly easy to pick up, and has several challenging lines:
Martyrs and missionaries answering your call
Ready to sacrifice giving up all
We are yours
Trusting in Jesus despising the shame
There is salvation in no other name
We are yours
Ransomed to serve
As we long for our Saviour’s return
The last verse even includes a mention of Ezekiel 36:22 as we declare: “Not for our sakes but the sake of Your holy name”.
Across the Streets – Mike Begbie, Rob Smith, Troy Munns
Mike Begbie is a former SMBC and Moore College student who co-wrote this song with Rob Smith and Troy Munns. I like the clear challenge in the words, and how it grounds a call to go “across the streets” and “across the oceans” in the heart of the Father and his desire that all of the nations be saved. There’s a mix of the triumphant and simple: “We will go”, with the acknowledgement that “Though fearful and trembling, we go remembering the gospel is mighty to save.”
My favourite is part is where the bridge paints a picture of God’s Harvest:
The time has come lift up your eyes
The harvest fields are shining shining
The time has come let us arise
For Heaven’s judge is soon returning
The song is rhythmically driven and consistently off the beat, so you’ll have to work hard at making your arrangement not sound like an out-of-control polka (Mike has a tutorial video here).
May the Peoples Praise You – Keith & Kristyn Getty
Here’s another excellent one by the Gettys. I like how the motivation for mission here is not guilt or achievement, but God’s ownership of us and a growing mercy for those who haven’t heard the gospel:
All the earth is Yours and all within
Each harvest is Your own
And from Your hand we give to You
To make Christ known
May the seeds of mercy grow in us
For those who have not heard
May songs of praise build lives of grace
To spread Your Word
The chorus is catchy too, and a reflection on Psalm 67:4:
May the peoples praise You
Let the nations be glad
All Your blessing comes
That we may praise
May praise the Name of Jesus
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of organising a praise and prayer evening for our bible college community. It all started with a fireside conversation: “Wouldn’t it be great to come together for singing and prayer?”
We’re incredibly blessed at college to spend hours and hours drinking from a firehose of theology, missions, languages and ministry training. Also, God seems to have given us a range of gifted musicians, poets, artists and songwriters at present. So it seemed fitting to set aside a few hours to respond to God’s greatness: both in who he reveals Himself to be, and in how He saves us through Christ.
So on the 28th August, we had a room full of students and families, young and old, all worshipping God in song, prayer and reading His Word. The theme of the night, “Greater Than We Can Imagine”, came from Psalm 145:
“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty—
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness.”
– Psalm 145:3-7, NIV
I had the job of picking songs for the night, while my fellow music coordinators Luke and Alastair prepared the rest of the program and arranged the space beautifully. I really appreciated how varied the contributions were from everyone, and how there was a real freedom to enjoy God together and to delight in His Word, and to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord…” (Eph 5:19)
If you’re interested, here’s a recap of what we did together on the night. We sang a variety of songs from a range of sources including Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend, Indelible Grace, CityAlight, Hillsong, and even a few homegrown offerings from SMBC songwriters.
Part 1 – The God Who is Greater Than We Can Imagine
Welcome & Prayer: an invitation to prefer one another and “let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:26)
The sun sets on another semester here in Sydney. Year 2 has been harder. We’ve felt busier. God has been good amidst our failures. His Word has searched us deeply and illuminated Christ to us when we needed gospel hope. We’re looking forward to the next few weeks to connect with friends and family and prepare for the second half of the year.
As I’ve compiled previously (Year 1.1, Year 1.2), here are some quotes of what others have said this semester – nuggets of wisdom worth more than the baubles of World Cup football. Most of these were from lectures and chapels; some were from conversations over lunch and dinner with staff and students; a few are quotes from other places. I hope some of these “proverbs” are helpful to you.
From Greek Week
“Congrats on getting through first year. You’ve done the hard yards, now you can start digging for gold.” – Mal Gill
“I pray this will be a difficult year for you, so that you’ll find your identity in Christ.” – M.G.
“Romans is just Isaiah by Paul.” – M.G.
“John’s Gospel is the simplest. But he’s also the most theologically profound. We can be profound and easy to understand.” – M.G.
“Greek is like underwear. Offers good support, should rarely be seen in public.” – M.G.
“If your mind is stretched, that’s OK. We’re talking about the depths of God, and He’s not going to be in simple dot points.” – Mark Adams
“There’s a difference between evangelicals and Catholics regarding attitudes about tradition. Yet we have our own popes. We’re loathe to call them that, but I suspect they function that way. You’re probably inserting their names in your head now.” – Ian Maddock, on the danger of church tradition functioning as a ruling (or co-ruling) norm in theology
“Part of me would love for you all to be carbon copies of me. But that would short-circuit your learning.” – I.M.
“Good theology is often a matter of good grammar. Leviticus tells us sacrifice is not an act of giving up, but giving to God costly acts of devition. Leviticus 1 answers the question: what shall we willingly give to the Lord for all he has done for us?” – Geoff Harper
“Natural theology offers helpful tools. But we can’t argue people in the Kingdom. We need to have confidence in the gospel.” – M.A.
“Is God three? Yes. Is God one? Yes. Is Jesus fully God? Yes. Is Jesus fully human? Yes. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible is full of antinomies.” – I.M. on reconciling two apparent truths
“There’s something really neat and tidy about TULIP. There’s lots in it that’s true. But there are lots more strands and threads in the Bible. We should be cautious of collapsing everything about salvation into an acronym. It’s not everything.” – I.M. on understanding Arminian objections to Calvinism
“When we can’t trace your hand, help us to trust your heart.” – Morgan Renew, a prayer concerning God’s sovereignty and the problem of evil
“We’ll get into sticky territory if we use the Trinity as a model for male-female relationships.” – M.A.
“Our culture’s obsession with sex as a core human need makes it hard for Christians to be safely single.” – M.A.
“The bible is mainly interested not in answering, ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Whose am I?'” – M.A.
“[Biblical languages are vital] because on the mission field, you may end up being the only person who knows Greek or Hebrew.” – Geoff Harper
“No second hand knowledge of the revelation of God for the salvation of a ruined world can suffice the needs of ministry whose function it is to convey this revelation to men, commend it to their acceptance, and apply it in detail to their needs.” – B.B. Warfield
On missions and ministry
“After the terrorist attack in our school, people asked us: is it safe to go back? Well, God will care for us, whether we live or die.” – G.N., former missionary in Pakistan
“The first 20 years of ministry are the hardest. The hardest person to deal with is not other people, but myself, my own sin and weaknesses.” – LT Hopper, who shared about ministry with physical and spiritual arthritis
“We don’t realise how immersed in secularism we are. I was a water-logged Christian in port; or even a submarine Christian.” – Josh Apicezek, CMS France
“Religious freedom is a uniquely Christian contribution.” – Michael Kelleher speaking at the Navigate conference [read a review here]
“I was never converted out of homosexuality, but out of unbelief.” – Rosaria Butterfield at Navigate Conference
“The gospel comes in exchange for the life you love, not in addition to it.” – R.B. at Navigate conference
“[For your LGBTI neighbour to listen to you share Christ], you must have a relationship that’s stronger than your words.” – R.B. at Navigate conference
“I used to think being a missions mobiliser meant presenting Matthew 28 [Go into all the world…]. But what’s actually been more effective is to present Matthew 27 – Jesus dying as a perfect sacrifice of atonement for our sins. Then the rest will flow on from there.” – DB, missionary in South East Asia
“Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation.” – Dallas Willard on the importance of spiritual formation, Renovating the Heart p.2
“We don’t just learn spiritual formation to prepare for cross-cultural ministry. Entering cross-cultural ministry will lead to spiritual formation.” – Jonathan James
“For every three years you’re away, it takes a year to feel readjusted to home.” – DN, about returning from missions in Pakistan
“Our goal at this college is for God to form the image of Christ in you. We want to deliver you from barren academia.” – Stuart Coulton’s commencement address
“One of the worst catastrophes for the church is Christian leaders whose capabilities outstrip their character.” – S.C.
“For those so inclined, study and books are a lot more attractive than people and pastoral problems; indeed, because the book that is our chief study is the Bible, we may actually justify our callousness towards people by claiming the priority of the study of the Bible, when a little self-examination suggests that at least in part we are pursuing our preferences.” – Don Carson, The Trials of Theology: Becoming a Proven Worker in a Dangerous Business, p.119 [article here]
“Unity only works when we remember what God has done to make us one – it cost him His Son.” – Kit Barker, on Psalm 133
“You can’t walk away from the supremacy of Christ and doubt your forgiveness. You also can’t walk way and think Jesus is only moderately important.” – S.C. on Colossians 1:16-23 [audio here]
“I LOVE weeding! It’s like pulling out SIN!” – H.S.
“[For the early Israelites,] Presenting a present to God was a bloody and self-involved affair. It’s worship with an apron.” – G.H. on Leviticus 1
“So has your character changed in any significant way? Or have you just grown fat and useless?” – S.C. on Psalm 19