Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Answers for Suffering and Evil

Many folks find the topic of evil and suffering something rather taboo to discuss in terms of answers. Suffering and evil have no answers, it is said. Or, if answers are given, they are expressed tentatively, with approbation, and with the pious sounding absence of the definite article ("an answer" or "some answers").

Thankfully, there are still men who speak with conviction born of the Spirit of God and borne upon the sound doctrine of Scripture. I recently discovered a short book by John Currid, a professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (I believe he is now at the Charlotte campus).

The book is broken into ten chapters divided into four major sections. The divisions are as follows:

Part I: God and Calamity
1 Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
2 Suffering and the Character of God

Part II: Why Do Christians Suffer? The Benefits of Affliction
3 Solace in God
4 Discipline
5 Conforming to the Image of Christ
6 Perseverance of the Saints

Part III: Why Do Unbelievers Suffer?
7 Suffering as Forewarning
8 Suffering as Condemnation

Part IV: Attitudes in Suffering: Encouragement for Believers
9 The Cross Comes Before the Crown
10 Conclusion: A Question of Prosperity

All in all the book is a wonderful theological primer on the subject of suffering and evil, providing sound systematic treatment drawn from faithful exposition of key texts, and including a healthy (i.e. not gluttonous, but neither impoverished) dose of confessions, historical examples, and poignant anecdotes.

Part I deals primarily with Theodicy, or the vindication of God's justice, goodness, and power. Currid affirms God's sovereignty to the full while preserving the unity of His will. Although he uses the unfortunate use of God's "permissive will," his affirmations do not create the contradictions that so often result from this use. God's "permissive will," is not passive, affirms Currid (then why use language of permission, which naturally entail passivity?). Currid affirms secondary causation, God's decretive determination of all things, and the distinction between God's treatment of believers and unbelievers with regard to suffering and calamity (i.e. God uses suffering and calamity for different purposes, which Currid fleshes out in the later parts). Although Currid does not provide the desired demonstrations for these affirmations, the affirmations remains a breath of fresh air.

Part II considers the various reasons why God brings suffering and calamity upon the Christian. The first chapter under this section aims to prove that suffering leads us into greater fellowship with God. First, it does so by giving us greater impetus to pray. Lax in our comforts, God grace is revealed in our suffering when afflictions drive us to pray more frequently and more fervently to Him, leaning upon His Sovereignty as we ought to in any circumstance. Second, afflictions drive us to doubt confidence in ourselves, which subsequently drives us back to our source of knowledge and true comfort, the Word of God. Third, affliction drives out the love of the world from our hearts in order that God may be more firmly rooted therein. Fourth, afflictions humble us by revealing our weakness and utter dependence upon God's grace.

The second chapter under part II considers sufferings as a measure of discipline. Sufferings for the believer at the hand of God are not condemnatory, but are born from God's love for us. As children, we often walk as children, in the foolishness of our ignorance and careless desires. Afflictions remove the childishness from our hearts (often because it drives us into the activities and results of the last chapter discussed). Discipline also refines our souls. Like soldiers who are made strong by physical hardships in the work of warfare, so the Christian is made strong in the forge of suffering. God also uses suffering as preparation for later tasks He has in store for us. As Moses became a lowly shepherd for forty years (shepherds were despised by the Egyptians) from his former state of comfort in order to be God's instrument in leading Israel out of Egypt, so too God uses afflictions in our lives to prepare us for the work of restoration in the lives of others, for the glory of God and the expansion of His kingdom. Affliction also disciplines us in knowledge, for we are instructed by God's Word as we turn to it for answers and support. Currid also discusses the means by which God disciplines His people by looking at Habakkuk.

The third chapter under part II considers the work of suffering in conforming us into the image of Christ. Currid affirms the truth that Christ suffered, details the nature and scope of Christ's suffering, the purpose of Christ's suffering, and the reasons why Christians must follow in Christ's suffering. My focus on the chapter is brief, not for lack of substance, but rather because it is better read entire than summarized here.

The fourth chapter under part II looks at perseverance as a reason for Christian suffering. It matures our faith through its disciplining effects. It proves our faith as it separates us from the world and delivers us into glory. It witnesses to the truth of the Gospel of God as a display of its power to uphold us in our affliction. It confounds the wisdom of the world by its supernatural power and effect upon the believer who overcomes. It improves our efforts for Christ and His kingdom through the removal of remaining sin that would lead us toward self-reliance. It is training for glory because it instructs us to look for our heavenly home, which is greater than this earthly one. It serves to magnify God's promise to preserve His people through every manner of trial and adversity. It serves the glory of God in all these ways, which affirms our chief end.

Part III includes two chapters on why unbelievers suffer. The first discusses how suffering leads sinners into repentance and into great workers in God's kingdom. It focuses upon several historical examples, including John Newton, Robert Murray McCheyne, the Plague of 1665, and the thief on the cross next to Jesus. The second discusses the suffering of unbelievers unto their temporal and final condemnation under the wrath of God. Against the realities of temporal and eternal wrath, Currid asserts the only answer to suffering and evil is the grace of God revealed in His only son, the God-Man Christ Jesus. It is by His work that one may be made right with God; it is by His death that our dead spirit is made alive; it is by His resurrection that we are assured that we too shall have eternal life in the presence of God without sin, shame, or shuddering.

Part IV also includes two chapters. The first is a veritable homily on the necessity and expectation of suffering that believers must apprehend and embrace. Currid focuses primarily upon Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The last chapter handles the problem of prosperity, that is, why do the wicked prosper? He provides brief commentary on Psalm 73 and Ecclesiastes 6-7, both of which provide ample answer to the so-called problem: from the end of things all the answers to our problems are solved in the glorious wisdom of God's determination. We must therefore trust in God, and be cautious in how we judge the circumstances surrounding us. It is not always true that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. It is always true that in the end the righteous shall be blessed and the wicked shall be condemned. We cannot judge a life by its present condition, but only by its completed course. Many an apparent believer has been revealed a blasphemer (consider Judas), and many a blasphemer has become a mouthpiece for God's glory (consider Paul). Can we judge with certainty what any man shall end up? But woe to we who fail to judge the present condition of men's confession and comportment.

Currid's book is better than Carson's book (another book on suffering I've reviewed, in part, on this blog), How Long, O Lord? both in its brevity, its perspicuity, and its theological precision. Both are worthy for your personal library.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Episodes in Epistemology no.1

I picked up a copy of Ronald Nash's Festschrift for Gordon Clark, reading Nash's chapter and Clark's rejoinder.

Nash does an excellent job of summarizing Clark's epistemology, but he, like so many others, reads Clark horribly wrong in a couple of ways. I might deal with Nash's problems and Clark's replies in another post, but for this post I want to focus on Nash's exposition of what he calls Clark's "Argument from the Nature of Truth." Notice how similar it is to Van Til (and more especially, Bahnsen's) "impossibility of the contrary" or "transcendental" argument.

1. Truth exists.
2. Truth is immutable.
3. Truth is eternal.
4. Truth is mental.
5. Truth is superior to the human mind.
6. Truth is God.

1 is proven by the inescapable necessity of truth for thought and expression. To argue "there is no truth" is to claim that the proposition "there is no truth" is itself a true statement, or exemplary of the truth. Or, as Nash puts it, "If skepticism is false, there must be knowledge; and if there is knowledge, there must exist the object of knowledge, viz., truth."

2 is proven by the inescapable necessity of logic for thought and expression. The law of contradiction is basic for Clark and is contained implicitly in 1. It cannot be true and not true that "there is no truth." The law of contradiction must itself be true immutably if thought and its expression are to be possible at all. Nash mentions apparent exceptions like "I am now eating," which appears to be true at one time, but false at another. But this does not defeat the law of contradiction, which is understood to mean that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same manner. The proposition "I am now eating," is inherently ambiguous because it does not designate a definite aspect of time, and therefore it does not apply as a refutation or counter-example to the law of contradiction. Once the ambiguity is clarified, the law of contradiction is revealed true (e.g. "I am now eating on February 6th, 2009 at 11:30 p.m."--a statement that happens to be false).

3 follows necessarily from 2. If something is immutable, it is also eternal. Nash demonstrates this in relation to truth with the proposition "The truth itself has perished." If the statement is true, it remains true after the truth has perished (or else is contradictory, and therefore impossible). Like 1, the assertion of any truth (even the assertion that truth is not eternal) is an affirmation of the characteristic of its eternity.

4 follows from the recognition that the physical world is not immutable because it undergoes change. If truth is immutable it cannot be material, yet we may know the truth, so it follows that the truth is a result of thought and not simply chemical or physiological reactions. (Nash stumbles later when he accepts the notion that knowledge is necessarily derived from sensation. If knowledge is immaterial, material sensations are unnecessary to arrive at knowledge)

5 follows from the recognition that human beings are mutable, we change, and therefore we cannot be the source or ground of truth. Augustine's formulation of this view comes in De Magistro, where he acknowledges that truth is what judges our reasoning or minds, not our reasoning or minds which judge truth. On a related note, here is the ground for the argument for "faith seeking understanding," or "I believe in order that I may know." Our beliefs are not supported by an endless chain of arguments, but require a given, a starting point, a first principle which must be assumed without demonstration. We take this principle upon faith, and examine the necessary implications that follow. If they contradict, the truth guides us to reject the starting point and begin afresh. When we discover a starting point that remains consistent throughout its implications (at least so far as we can follow it), then we may be confident that truth has vindicated our assumption.

6 Truth must be metaphysical, for nothing can be known that is not existent to be known. Therefore, truth is God, for God is the only existent that is immutable, eternal, and possessing a mind by which truth is known (and known by immediate eternal intuition). Thus, when our minds arrive at a truth (that is, some part of truth, which is a whole), our minds have conceived or confronted God Himself--thinking God's thoughts after Him.

One thing that may be questioned concerning the above argument is whether the conclusion "Truth is God" implies the Trinity or merely consistent monotheism. I'm not sure how Clark or Nash would answer, and it doesn't come up in the reading.

Notice how this argument for the nature of truth resembles the argument that Bahnsen makes in his apologetics, namely, the impossibility of the contrary. In this argument, Bahnsen says that we must all presuppose the existence of the Triune God because without this presupposition, no adequate ground or justification can be made for knowledge. Clark makes essentially the same argument, using a synonym for the Triune God (i.e. truth) that is, incidentally, a term (but not its meaning) more widely recognized, I think.

So much for the similarities between Clark and Van Til/Bahnsen. Sometime in the future I'll look at Nash's problems with Clark's position, how Clark deals with these, and how Nash's problems and Clark's replies exemplify the major misinterpretations of Clark by Van Til, Bahsen, and so many others.