I love when I get to do some back-and-forths on the blog. My good friend (and blog contributor) Austin Ricketts wrote a comment on my post earlier this week about beauty and suffering in the world. I posted his comments, and then I wrote a reply to them. Well, as is the nature of these sorts of things, here is Austin’s “refutation” of my post. You will see he has a great mind and sensitivity to these weighty issues. Usually, I let the other person have the last word in these things, and I’d usually end this exchange here, but I actually have some thoughts I’ll spend the weekend pondering and writing; I’ll post it on Monday.
Update: my response to this post is now up.
First things first, I always enjoy a spirited debate among brothers and friends. Iron sharpens iron. Paul is a very good friend of mine, one of my best friends. And I love that he and I can disagree deeply and yet remain quite close. I know my friend Paul’s logic quite well. I was once in a similar position as he. Previously, I wrote an article entitled, “Love—The Beginning and End of Divine Suffering”. I set forth an argument to state that there is a notion of death entailed in God’s being. I write now officially to recant that position. A new assessment of the Trinity will have to be written. For now, I write in refutation of the notion that there is evil in God, by writing a refutation of Paul’s most recent article.
I want to thank Paul for being forthright in his logic. I won’t be addressing the logic of his argument, because I think that it is quite valid—the conclusions flowing straight from the premises. I will be disagreeing with many of his premises. Because, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it’s true.
Paul says that all revelation is storied. His notion of story seems equitable with narrative, as he mentions narrative and story interchangeably. First as pertains to revelation in the bible, this is prima facie false. There are manifold genres in scripture—poetry, epistle, proverb/maxim, prophecy (which doesn’t operate by plot or character so much as judgment), chronicle (which, while often chronotopic, does not entail a plot), psalms (while there are narratival psalms, this genre also includes prayers, and sometimes praises or laments that read like almost-Romantic expectorations of emotion). This variegation in the Psalmodic genre alone is enough to prove my point as pertains to scriptural revelation.
Jesus, it is true, has been storied—at least in the Gospels. But it seems also true that He has been simply proclaimed in some epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews), and metaphorically applied in others (Ephesians, Galatians). Quite frankly, the Gospels are almost like the prophetic genre. Think about the pastiche nature in which the episodes of the Gospels are arranged. The episodes are thematically controlled rather than by a plot. Of course, the Cross stands with its shadow overcasting the whole thing, but this is where the Gospels (the Synoptics) are most like prophecy. They are a pastiche chronicling of historical reality, which is thematically controlled by an apocalyptic judgment—meaning the Cross, of course. The Gospel of John differs from this in many ways—it does read much more like a story, a Greek drama actually—but the prophetic element remains tangible.
I’m not sure how Nature (rather, nature) is considered to be storied, unless you take the capitalized Romantic view of Nature. But nature is simply unfolding process. Is the growth of a flower a story? In and of itself: No. The growth of a flower might be made into a metaphor, the slow growth from root to beauty of a young woman. But that’s not a story as it stands; it’s an aesthetic interpretation and judgment. We can see form in nature—the movement from root to rose—so we see intelligence. But we don’t always see purpose, not in the sense of ultimate telos. Natural theology does not yield a plot.
Tradition is perhaps the most storied or narratival of all the forms of revelation that Paul mentioned. Tradition is the passing along of a tradent or ritual. Ritual, of course, is meaning-laden. Meaning arises in the relation of one thing to another. And rituals need a beginning, an end/goal, or both in order to be a proper ritual. Stories are the most common way to pass along this meaning; think of the Exodus as the beginning for the ritual of the Passover sacrifice. But there is a gap even here. Not every ritual is explained. Sometimes it’s only done. Other times it is chronicled, in that it is given a time or place, maybe both, of its start, but there isn’t a why. For example, the beginning of the idea that sacrifices cleanse sin isn’t really known. There are speculations, and Christians are given a telos in the death of Christ, but the origin is unknown. For the Jewish tradition not only the beginning but also the end is yet still hazy.
Considering God-as-Narrative more closely, Robert Jenson loves to claim that to say the Triune Name, Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit, is to tell the Gospel story. He means that quite literally, and he more or less assigns a tense to each person of the Holy Trinity. God is certainly narratival in essence, for Jenson. I would certainly not assign a tense to each person. That borders on certain of Arius’s shortcomings. God’s essence is not narratival. That limits God in a way that the fact of manifold genres of scripture would speak against. God is not a plot. God is far closer to character. Another word for the attributes of God’s essence would be characteristics. And these are anything but static.
Paul mentioned Plato in conjunction with my uttering the word “formal”. I nowhere mentioned Plato. Actually, my notion of “formal” is much closer to Aristotle’s, which contains a notion of movement. Consider the flower again, growing from root to blossoming rose. This is a form. God’s form is Love. I’ve not given up on that notion. I believe it is the highest form of revelation pertaining to God in scripture. The Johannine and Pauline works seem agreed on this. “The greatest of these is love.”
Love is an act, dynamic; it is a movement. I’m fine with saying that God’s essence is an event, because God’s essence is Love. But to say that it is a narrative is to limit God’s freedom in a way the text doesn’t necessitate; as mentioned above, scripture moves against this notion. What if God performs an un-storied miracle in a great expression of lovely power, otherwise unexplained. That would seem more like one of those almost-Romantic Psalms. And it also seems quite possible.
But God’s essence, considered as event, does not include evil, not as something that actually has existence in God. My friend’s reading of Isaiah 45:7 is hyper-Calvinist in the extreme. It’s also involved in a word-concept fallacy. Let’s take a step back. No. Let’s go all the way back to Genesis. In the first chapter of Genesis, the term for God is Elohim. This is the name to which the verb ba’ra is attached. This verb ba’ra is attached to God speaking things out of nothing, so to speak, even though the text doesn’t say out of nothing. In chapter 2, we have the LORD God forming things out of material that is already there. This is where we find the verb yatsar. But so we don’t glance over the fact that this verb, yatsar, has to do with forming things from material already existing, I want to make clear that this is the case in Genesis 2. And we also don’t want to glance over the fact that this verb is attached to the so-called divine name, YHWH.
That is all well and good. The case is different in Isaiah. To equate ba’ra with a notion of ex nihilo usage, as if to say that God created, God ba’ra-ed, evil in and of itself for its own sake is too much. And that seems to be where Paul is going, by attaching to it the significance of divine-only usage. He is saying that evil pours forth from God ipso facto. This is a word-concept fallacy—taking the meaning of a word from one passage and then demanding that it must mean exactly this all the time. It simply does not.
Isaiah 45:7 uses all three Hebrew words that mean: make, form, and create (ba’ra, ‘asah, yatsar). Let me be clear, all three words can mean all three things. And the end of the verse uses ‘asah, which can mean make and/or do. And it uses this word to sum up all that has gone before in the verse, equating them all.
Isaiah 45:7: “The One forming (yatsar) light and creating (ba’ra) darkness, causing (‘asah) shalom and creating (ba’ra) evil; I am the LORD who does (‘asah) all these.”
Notice also that light is formed (yatsar) here, whereas in Genesis it is spoken into being, conceivably out of nothing (Gen. 1:3), and made (‘asah) in Genesis 1:16. These words perform various duties.
What’s more, in Isaiah 43:15 the word ba’ra is used when it says that the LORD is the Creator of Israel. Israel was not created ex nihilo, but formed from an already existing people. Isaiah 44:21 uses yatsar to say basically the same thing. These words are interchangeable. In fact, ba’ra is used in conjunction with YHWH, which was the name used in connection with yatsar in Genesis. Isaiah is using Genesis language, but it’s breaking down the Genesis borders of usage. Part of the burden of Isaiah is to show that the Creator God is the Redeemer God. So, it uses creation language for redemptive purposes, purposes which include judgment for the sake of redemption.
Speaking of which, Paul embarks on another word-concept fallacy with his usage of Ra. Ra has a broad meaning; a quick look in a lexicon will reveal this. Jeremiah 24:2, for example, uses Ra to talk about fruit that has gone bad, hardly the sort of moral depravity Paul is after. As is ever the case with biblical studies, one must look at the context of the passage in view before one makes final, etymological decisions.
Chapters 41 – 45 of Isaiah have to do with the raising up of Cyrus, Persia’s ruler, in order to judge Israel. This is announced initially in chapter 41:1-2. The context is one of judgment; and judgment for idolatry. The verse previous to our now infamous 45:7, verse six, hammers home the fact that the LORD is the only God, there is no other. The Israelites feared bad things happening to them and so worshipped idols in order to stave these things off. The irony is that silly idols cannot stop this. In fact, it’s the idol worship that has ignited the holy ire of God, thus bringing evil upon them—as a judgment. It’s not just for the hell of it!
Of course, 45:7 mentions God bringing Shalom, also. This is God’s ultimate purpose and all prophetic literature ends with a shalomic vision. Judgment comes about to end violence. God doesn’t create violence, because he wants to. He brings judgment, because he is good and must do away with evil. What’s more, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away by his own lust” (James 1:13-14). Cyrus was carried away by his own lust, but God directed this lust toward an ultimate good. “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9).
“This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all…We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death…God is love” (1 John 1:5; 3:14; 4:8).
[image credit: “Job” by Chris Koelle]