Review of Gregory S. Boyd (2001), Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a trinitarian warfare theodicy (IVP Academic, Downers Grove IL).

Gregory S. Boyd, 2001. Satan and the problem of evil: Constructing a trinitarian warfare theodicy. Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic.

Why I read this book

Do you believe that God is sovereign and has everything under his control? Do you believe that he determines the future? And yet you still ask him to do things that would have him change his mind and change that future? Is this you? I know it’s me, and I know it's seemingly paradoxical.

It was a search for answers to this paradox that took me to Gregory S. Boyd’s Satan and the problem of evil: Constructing a trinitarian warfare theodicy (Downers Grove IL: 2001). I certainly wouldn’t have read it for its title. But it isn’t really about Satan. It’s about the topic of the subtitle (which didn’t mean much to me at first). I had read somewhere that in this book Greg presents his version of Open Theism, a school of theology I wanted to know more about, and the only proponent of Open Theism whom I knew a bit about and respected was Greg Boyd. So I read Satan and the problem of evil, and this is why I spend more time on chapters 3 to 7 than the rest.

This is a courageous book. It tackles a number of theological issues, revolving around the paradox above. It attacks the Calvinist answers to these issues as incoherent and asserts that human beings indeed have free will, an assertion I agree with, and goes on to examine the consequences of belief in free will in ways that I had not encountered before.

My 30 pages of notes on this 357-page book (plus 100 pages of appendices etc) are here, in case you are interested. I shall try to summarise the book more briefly here, and to figure out how far I am willing to go with Greg, and why I can’t go all the way. I feel decidedly underqualified for the task, being neither a professional theologian nor a philosopher. This is a scholarly book, but written in language that the theologically inclined lay person can (mostly) follow. I immediately appreciated the lucid style and the fact that Greg lays out the structure of the book in advance, so one knows where he is going. A good portion of the scholarly apparatus is tucked away in footnotes. The book 'is an attempt to make philosophical sense of the warfare worldview of Scripture' (23).

A summary of sorts (it focuses on the chapters that interest me most)

In the first chapter Greg shows that the earliest church fathers certainly believed that human beings have free will, and that evil in the universe is the outcome of wrongful human and angelic exercise of that will. The burden of chapter 2 is that love must be freely chosen (otherwise it isn't love), and this presupposes that our will is free.

From here, Greg argues that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Greg is well aware that many (most?) Christians would not agree with him, but thinks their view is inconsistent, and cites a number of Old Testament passages in support of his position. There are places in the Old Testament where God changes his mind, where he is disappointed or frustrated by an outcome, or regrets a decision. The New Testament tells us that the names of the faithful are written in the book of life, but will be deleted if they fall away from God (Heb 6:3-6; 2 Pet 2:20-22; Rev 3:5). Peter suggests that God has delayed Christ's return because he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish” (2 Pet 3:9). This all indicates that the future is partially open. Nonetheless, Greg insists, God knows all future possibilities and all future certainties. He is never unprepared, can always redeem evil for good, and is always able to achieve his overall purposes. He is in ultimate control. This understanding of the future can increase our appreciation of God’s knowledge and power.

At this point comes a chapter-and-a-half (4-5) rebutting arguments against Open Theism. I refer you to my notes.

Greg cites Polkinghorne on the significance of quantum theory for theology. The regularity of the universe is statistical on many levels. We cannot predict the behaviour of an individual, but we can predict overall regularity. There is thus no contradiction in asserting that God will achieve his objectives in history, even if he does not predict the behaviour of each individual. The idea that God controls every event, even the most horrendous, contradicts scripture. The dark side of the freedom to love is that agents, human and angelic, also have the freedom to harm others. Jesus never told people to accept their disease or demonization as part of his Father’s plan. Instead, he revealed that God planned to overthrow these things and that he has empowered us to work with him in battling evil and will ultimately rid his creation of all evil. This is the warfare worldview.

Meanwhile, we have no promise that we will not suffer evil, but we do have an incorruptible treasure (Rom 8:35, 37-39). We can trust that God is working to bring good out of every circumstance (Rom 5:3-5; 8:28), and that he uses trials to build our character (Heb 12:3-13). We can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus and we can derive peace from anticipating our eternal fellowship with him (Rom 8:18; Phil 4:7).

People sometimes ask why God does not destroy evil agents now, instead of waiting for the end of time. Greg's answer is that God has given them free will, and a gift once given is not a gift if it can be withdrawn. Destruction would be the ultimate withdrawal of that gift. People also ask why God sometimes seems arbitrary in the way he deals with individuals. We cannot answer this question in individual cases. We can only recognise that the factors that God deals with, among them the immense network of human and angelic decisions, are far beyond our intellectual grasp.

Greg writes that God is omnipresent,

maximizing good and minimizing evil. But to the extent that he has given creatures say-so, God has restricted the exercise of his own omnipotence. (p213)

But by giving us say-so, God has also given us the capacity to be his intermediaries in this world, and thus to pray:

I submit that the effectiveness and urgency of petitionary prayer as it is commanded and illustrated throughout Scripture only makes sense if we are asking God to do something he would not otherwise do and if God at least sometimes does this. (p228)

If God needs us, as his intermediaries on earth, to do certain things in the physical realm, he also needs us to do things in the spiritual realm, that is, to pray. This is our moral responsibility. We set our wills against all wills that are set against his will. There is nonetheless no guarantee that our prayers will be answered and no guarantee that in the complex web of conflicting wills we will ever understand why or why not. But again, we can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus .

Three chapters (8-10) are devoted to explanations of 'natural' evil, i.e. the evil implicit in animals maiming and killing each other and the evil manifested in natural disasters. In reponse Greg returns to the view of the early church, pre-Augustine. 'Natural' is the wrong term: these things are caused by Satan and his minions who have rebelled against God. This was not the way God created the universe when he gave his creatures free will, and it will be set right in the new heavens and new earth.

The two final chapters of the book (11-12) are a discussion of what happens to rebellious beings after death. Greg rejects both traditional views of hell and the annihilationist view in favour of a theory that rebels get what they ask for. In this life they seek to live in accordance with what God negates, and so in eternity they exist (if that is the appropriate word) in a state of not-ness, non-existent from the perspective of those living in God's presence. If this seems obscure, read my notes, or better, read the chapter for yourself!

Some thoughts

I started this book full of enthusiasm, and maintained this enthusiasm through to somewhere in chapter 7, even when I had misgivings about some of what I was reading. But from there on I started to flag, and became more and more uncomfortable as I read the last five chapters. My difficulty was not lack of interest: the topics of prayer, 'natural' evil and hell-yes-or-no all raise questions for me, and I wanted to know what Greg was saying about them.

It has taken me a while to figure out my own reactions, which in the first instance were emotional. I was troubled that Jesus seemed to appear so little in the book, although I know he is absolutely central to Greg's faith. I was also troubled that Greg's exquisite reasoning invited me to change my perception of God. I was asked to believe that he doesn't know the future in full detail (this is what separates Open Theism from the rest of Arminianism), that he operates somehow within time, and that he is very busy fighting evil. Somehow, Greg's strong claim that the God he depicts remains omnipotent doesn't quite work for me. I believe in a God who is unconditionally omniscient, panchronic, and omnipotent (but who doesn't override people's wills). If Jesus shows us the face of the Father, and the Father has granted him all authority (Daniel 7:13-14; John 5:27; 17:2), then it necessarily follows that God has authority over his own creation.

The reasons this doesn’t work for Greg are logical. He argues from our capacity to love that we have free will, and from our freedom to choose that God cannot fully know the future. I have trouble with this second step: if God is panchronic (outside time as we know it), does it follow that he can't know what we will do next? I don’t think it does. It seems to me that there is a distinction between what God predetermines and what he foreknows, but, if I understand Greg correctly, he thinks this is an unreal distinction. It is, as long as God is within time, as open theists assume. But if he is outside time, seeing the whole range of history, he sees the future without necessarily determining it or impinging on the freedom of our wills.

Greg, I think, would disagree with me here on two fronts. He would see my interpretation as paradoxical. He argues on scriptural grounds, along with other Open Theists, that God is not outside time. But this somehow implies that the Old Testament is a scientific textbook (it isn’t) and that its writers ought to have known about Einstein's view that time is intimately related to space and thus part of creation. Greg himself argues in a more recent book, Cross vision, that Old Testament writers had a clouded perception of God. It seems to me that God has an intimate relationship with his creation, but cannot be part of it. He is outside it, as Paul appreciates in 2 Timothy 1:9.

But the possibility that my interpretation is paradoxical raises a larger issue. I don’t think that logical argument is always an appropriate way to do theology. Of course, there can be a philosophy of theology, but I question whether one can introduce philosophical analysis into theology unless one deliberately limits its power.[1]  Christian theology has long used apparent paradoxes to describe God: ever since the Coucil of Nicaea in 325 the church has insisted God is three-in-one, that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine, and that in his earthy ministry Jesus was the incarnation of God. These statements are like the physicists' use of particles and waves as models of light. They appear incapable of reconciliation, yet intuitively they work. This is where Alister McGrath[2]  finds it legitimate to use the term ‘mystery’. Our capacity to penetrate below the surface of apparent reality is limited. If we insist that God and his cosmos conform to human reason, we risk being unable to grasp the world of quantum physics and the doctrine of the Trinity.[3]  As long as I can see God revealed in Jesus (a paradox in itself) I am happy to stay with paradox.

Greg's preference for a logical theology is especially present in the last chapter of the book, which deals with what happens after death to those who have rejected relationship with God. The argument is rational, but I cannot really envisage what it means.

Coming back to the reason I read the book, namely to better understand Open Theism, I came across a comment Tom Wright made when he was asked about Open Theism.[4]  The questioner reads Wright as implying that God’s choice of Abraham and Isaac was his ‘Plan B’, that is, that God’s ‘Plan A’ had failed, so he could not have had exhaustive knowledge of the future. Wright retorts that he never uses the language of ‘Plan B’ and says, ‘I often quote the Rabbi who envisaged God having Abraham in mind from the start.’ He comments that he suspects that Open Theism is another either/or question ‘that is forcing theology into a box’.

Finally, after I wrote this review, I read reviews by a few other people (and resisted the temptation to change mine in the light of them). Jeremy Berg’s review, written in 2010, is positive, and covers the issues raised by the book more evenhandedly than I do. Ron Highfield’s, by contrast, is a demolition of Greg Boyd’s theology, but much more thoughtful than what I offer. Luter & Hunter is a short review of Greg’s background in Process Theology and his journey from there to the position presented in the book.

Footnotes

  1. [^1]  Where one sets these limits, I don’t know.
  2. [^2]  McGrath, Alister, 2016. Enriching our vision of reality: Theology and the natural sciences in dialogue. London: SPCK.
  3. [^3]  Emil Brunner (1889–1966) regarded the Trinity as a security doctrine (Schutzlehre) to prevent Christians formulating deficient notions of God. ↩︎
  4. [^4]  https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-nt-wright-response, 11 June 2013 ↩︎

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