A few days ago I was listening to “The Briefing”, which is a M-F podcast from Albert Mohler on news and events worldwide from a Christian perspective. You should all listen to it as it’s fairly short and he’s one of the smartest people alive, particularly when it comes to cultural analysis. One of the articles he discussed was one from Dr. Gregory A. Boyd, a professor at Bethel. Dr. Boyd’s article essentially tries to answer the age old question of whether or not things happen for a reason.
I’ll try and give my comments/critique point by point, but first I’ll give you a basic overview of what he’s trying to do. He is attempting to address what he calls the “Blueprint Worldview” position, which is basically both Calvinism and Arminianism. He asserts that they’re more or less different sides of the same coin when it comes to this issue, with Calvinists asserting that everything happens because God decreed it to happen, whereas Arminians assert that everything happens because God allowed it to happen. He gives a criticism of the weak version of the blueprint worldview (Arminianism) and claims that what he says will apply to the strong version (Calvinism) with even more strength. Finally, he presents his position, which is an attempt to say that we can have assurance in God, even though He isn’t exactly in control.
He starts out by referencing an article from John Piper, in which he and his daughter are talking about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 and why God might’ve allowed it. I suggest reading Piper’s article, as it actually explains his position far more than Boyd does. I think the first thing that caught me attention was that Boyd essentially sums things up by boiling the “blueprint woldview” down to two things: “everything happens for a reason” and an old hymn “judge not the Lord by feeble sense, / but trust Him for His grace,” for “behind a frowning providence, / He hides a smiling face.” This will be significant because it taps into our emotions almost immediately, and he will use that to his advantage later.
He starts to get into his argument by writing that, talking about Calvinism and Arminianism, “Although there are obviously significant differences between these two versions of the blueprint worldview, both are grounded in the same, apparently straightforward, line of reasoning.” This should pretty much automatically a red flag. If we were discussing the Trinity or the deity of Christ or something along those lines, I might be ok with that statement about the two positions, but we’re not talking about that. We’re essentially talking about God’s sovereignty, and that is pretty much the whole debate that’s been going on between those two camps for a long time. So basically what has been said is, “they’re really different sometimes, but at base they’re both similar enough that I can deal with them together and with the same argument.” Clever, but misguided as we will see.
He goes on to lay out the argument that is apparently the bottom line of the blueprint worldview, that is that God is all powerful and all good, so He could change anything that He wanted to at any time. So, everything that happens is either in His plan, or allowed by Him to happen, depending on if you take the strong or weak versions. Apparently decreeing something to happen and allowing something to happen are basically the same, at least close enough to argue against collectively. I’m sure Dr. Boyd is a smart guy, but at this point it was really starting to sound like he didn’t understand the issues. For example, after telling us about the closeness and similarity of the strong and weak versions of the blueprint worldview, he then makes this bizarre statement: “In this essay, however, I will focus only on the weak version. I do this because I believe that whatever valid objections I raise against the weak version will apply a fortiori to the strong version, whereas the converse is not true.”
A fortiori is philosophy talk meaning “with stronger reason” or basically “even more so.” He doesn’t explain this, but how is it that his critique against Arminianism applies in a stronger fashion to Calvinism, but if he were to start in the opposite order, it wouldn’t work? If they are as close as he claims they are, then I don’t see why it would be that way. He then goes on to grant that there is at least some truth to the blueprint worldview from Scripture, before going into his critique.
“While there is little difficulty accepting that God may sometimes have a specific reason for allowing a particular evil event to take place, it is challenging to accept that this is the case for each and every evil event. Some events manifest a depth of evil for which it seems almost obscene to suppose they happened for a divine reason.” That’s a very interesting statement. I agree that certain things can be challenging to understand, but it seems that Dr. Boyd’s God is only capable of having reasons for things that are easy to understand. He goes on to tell a tragic story of a young girl and a couple Nazi soldiers, and says that the only people who intended that act for a reason were the soldiers, not God. This was an event that, to use his words, seems almost obscene to happen for a divine reason. He then goes on to ask whether or not this sort of evil is the sort that is brought by a “frowning providence” that hides God’s “smiling face.” See what he did there? He quoted that old hymn in such a way that it makes it seem that proponents of what he calls the blueprint worldview look at such horrible acts as a frowning providence that hides God’s smiling face. To me at least, that makes it sound like God is actually happy with what happened. I think this is the connection he is trying to make, so that emotions will carry people to his conclusion.
I have to wonder though, if such an event is enough for Dr. Boyd to reject the “traditional” understanding of God’s sovereignty, what does he do when he reads Job? There we have things happening that are at least on par with the horrible story of the abovementioned young girl. We also have the very clear understanding of why God allows things to happen. I know how I would understand these things, coming from a reformed perspective, but it seems that Dr. Boyd must either reject that book altogether, or find it “almost obscene to suppose they happened for a divine reason.” Keep that comparison in mind as we continue.
He then goes on to suggest that if the blueprint worldview is correct, then we must accept that “God deemed it better to allow this nightmare than to prevent it, we must also believe that it would have been bad had Zosia’s torture been prevented.” Zosia is the young girl referenced earlier. He then goes on to say that we must also accept every bad thing that has happened, including Hitler and all the dictators. If all this wouldn’t have happened, then it would have been somehow less wise and less good etc. My question is this; in comparison to what? Or perhaps a better and more simple question would be why we have to accept that.
I think the hidden assumption/position here is molinism. It might be a bit early to bring this out, but that’s what it’s starting to seem like. I’ve wrote a couple blogs on molinism before but one of its main tenants is that there are tons of possible worlds out there that God could create, an infinite number I would assume, and God chooses to “actualize” the “best” one, based on some sort of salvation calculus I suppose, which in turn is ultimately based on the actions of free creatures. Why does it seem like he’s taking a molinist position? Because I think the reason he assumes that we would have to accept that God found it better, more wise etc. to allow/decree all the evil things that have happened is because everything is so focused on the creature. Dr. Boyd assumes that the blueprint worldview takes the “whatever is, is good” philosophy and just blows it up on a cosmic scale. The line of argumentation is that we have to believe that God essentially wanted, that is, is happy with, everything that happens. If He wasn’t, then clearly He would’ve done something else, because He is powerful enough to do so.
I wonder what divine reason would be acceptable for Dr. Boyd? Is there one? For someone in the camp of the blueprint worldview, they might say “God has a reason for these things happening” but Dr. Boyd doesn’t accept this because, while it might be ok to accept the “lesser” evils, the sheer number of evils and the various types of evils that are just too much, make it impossible to believe. I wonder what scale Dr. Boyd uses to determine what is a lesser evil and therefore falls under the realm of it being ok for God to have a reason for it, and what are beyond? It certainly doesn’t seem to be a Biblical one, whatever it is. I think in Dr. Boyd’s mind, God should have prevented those soldiers, perhaps with death, I mean they were Nazi’s after all. But then, shouldn’t God also have killed the girl too? Or have we forgotten that the wages of sin are death and that everyone sins?
The whole scene is almost eerily similar to Job in my mind actually. Here we have Dr. Boyd saying “Hey, there are innocent people down here! Good people! Why didn’t You stop all these terrible things from happening? Does this please You somehow? Aren’t You all powerful and all good? If so, then why didn’t You do things differently?” What if the answer was the same as the answer that Job got? “Where were you when I created the universe?” Do you think what God tells Job would be acceptable to Dr. Boyd? To whom would he appeal if it were not?
It is so easy to miss the fact that the cross is actually much worse than we think it was. In reality, it was much worse than what we know to have happened in human history. Perhaps we think in terms of numbers, one cross versus countless atrocities. I’m sure Dr. Boyd will never see this, but if he does, I would suggest instead of thinking in terms of numbers and drawing the problem of evil sword, we should think in terms of the cross as One God and start our inquiry there. Before we move on to why would God allow/decree ___ , we need to think long and hard about why God would allow/decree that.
Next, Dr. Boyd moves on to problems he finds in Scripture. “Although Scripture contains many examples of God allowing evil for specific reasons, it also contains a many examples in which God must engage in conflict with rebellious opposing spiritual forces.” Really? Is this something God must do? Or is it something that God chose to do? I think the difference between those two is huge. On one side, God is free to do as He pleases and does not do things randomly, while on the other, God is constrained to do things a certain way because of rebellious forces, both cosmic and human. The emphasis is placed strongly on the demonic, and I think that is for a reason. I think this shifts focus away from humans, so that free will can be marshaled in later.
He claims that our understanding of God’s conflict with those opposing forces should be based primarily on the ministry of Jesus. “Jesus spent his entire ministry among people who in one way or another were suffering. Yet he never once suggested that their suffering was “for a reason.” Never do we find any suggestion that people’s afflictions somehow fit into a grand divine plan. To the contrary, Jesus and the Gospel authors uniformly diagnosed people’s afflictions as being due to the work of Satan and/or demons (e.g., Mark 9:25 and Luke 11:14 and 13:11–16).” This is an astounding assertion. Are we truly to divorce the rest of Scripture from the gospels? I’m willing to bet Dr. Boyd’s knowledge of Scripture exceeds my own, but there don’t seem to be many paths of understanding based on what he’s giving us in his essay at this point. For some reason, we’re to only look to the gospel accounts, and only where it deals specifically with the demonic/satanic, to understand why evil occurs. What exactly did Christ come to do? To save sinners. Not to save good people helplessly under the power/influence of Satan and the demons. However, that’s exactly what Dr. Boyd claims when he writes “And far from suggesting that people’s afflictions had anything to do with God’s will, Jesus manifested the will of God by freeing people from their demonically influenced infirmities.” I’m not denying the reality of these things, but to assert that they are sole reason for everything? Interestingly, Dr. Boyd claims that Jesus never once suggested that their suffering was for a reason. However, under his view, there actually was a reason, and that reason was demonic in some way.
He claims that we never find any suggestion that people’s afflictions somehow fit into a grand divine plan. I wonder if he would include the suffering that His disciples went through when He was crucified? Why would angels appear to explain things that happened (I’m thinking resurrection/ascension here) if it wasn’t to essentially say that there was a divine plan in action? I suppose that since Dr. Boyd finds it ok to say that God has a plan for some of the evil action, that these might fall under such a category, but if so, then perhaps he should use weaker terms when describing the suffering that happens in the gospels. In terms of natural evil, he claims that since Jesus rebukes storms, just like He does demons, that we should assume that natural things are caused by demons. I wonder, if “nature” was in a neutral state so that bad things are caused by demons, then why would it be that the ground is cursed in Genesis?
“Indeed, the very fact that God must engage in genuine conflict with opposing forces and rely on his wisdom to overcome them suggests to me that he can’t simply use his omnipotent power to prevent their evil activity.” “Finally, just as there is no suggestion in Scripture that there is a divine purpose behind God’s conflict with spiritual opponents, so too we find no hint of a divine purpose behind God’s conflict with rebellious humans.” I think these are two astounding statements. There is no purpose, or even a hint of purpose, behind God’s conflict with spiritual opponents or rebellious humans. Further, he suggests, God can’t use his omnipotent power to prevent their evil activity. I wonder if there was a reason for God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Scripture says there was, but according to Dr. Boyd’s system, there wasn’t even a hint of purpose behind it. What about Balaam? Why did he end up blessing when he went to curse? Is that not an example of God using His omnipotent power to prevent his evil activity? What was it that happened to Paul that made him not go through with his mission of persecuting the church? I wonder, if there is no purpose behind God’s conflict with rebellious humans, then is there a purpose for humans at all? It seems like there couldn’t be on Dr. Boyd’s system. If there is no purpose behind things, then it seems like the entire Bible is a giant waste of ink.
He then brings in free will to bolster his argument. He rightly explains certain things that God cannot do because they are not things, but rather, contradictions. Things like a married bachelor or a rock so big that God can’t lift it. There are a number of these little puzzles that are sometimes thrown out as “gotcha” attacks against the existence of God, but Boyd well explains that these are simply not things at all. They have no weight against the existence of God, but that’s another discussion. The point is that Dr. Boyd suggests that we need to apply this same logic to free will. His preferred definition is that “agents are free if and only if they have the capacity to resolve, by their own power, two or more possible courses of action into one actual course of action.”
Notice how he doesn’t turn to Scripture for a definition of free will, or to find a place where God grants us his definition of free will. Interesting. The most obvious question is to ask why that nuanced definition of free will is the case? Would this mean that creatures are free if and only if they can act solely out of spontaneous impulse? Because it seems to me that if they are influenced by anything outside of themselves at the exact moment a decision comes up, then it would then fall out of his definition of free will. Certainly we know from experience that life happens to us as much as we happen to life. Therefore I think it renders his notion of free will simply impossible, because every decision we make is going to be based on something outside ourselves, such as our past experiences “I liked the flavor of steak before, I’ll order a steak this time” or the culture etc.
I’ve talked about some of his contentions of free will here, but he concludes that the sovereignty of God is more praiseworthy if what we mean by sovereignty is wisdom and not micro-controlling. Basically, we should praise God because he is a really good chess player, or like a really fast response team. He concludes that even though God doesn’t control or decree or allow everything that comes to pass, nevertheless we can still have assurance in Him.
Ultimately, he attributes the evil that happens to randomness, though it’s a randomness that is at least strongly influenced by demons and Satan. For Dr. Boyd, there is peace to be had in knowing that God is “all knowing and infinitely wise.” “he foresaw from all eternity the possibility that every one of the innumerable free decisions that factored into Zosia’s torture might occur just as they did. Not only this, he must have foreseen every other possible way these free decisions might have gone. Indeed, he must have foreseen from eternity each and every possible decision that each and every possible free agent could ever make and how all these possible decisions could possibly interact with each other. And because his intelligence has no limits, God must have anticipated each and every one of these innumerable possibilities as though it was the only possibility he had to consider.” “we can rest assured that God has an eternally prepared plan on how to bring good out of evil for each and every possible tragedy that could ever possibly come to pass. And we can be confident that this plan is as perfect as it would have been had the tragedy been specifically allowed by him for the very purpose of the good he plans to bring out of it, in case it occurs.” “That is, specific tragedies don’t happen because they fit into an eternal divine plan, but God nevertheless has an eternally prepared plan for every specific tragedy that might ever possibly come to pass.” “Yet I also believe that God, from before the creation of the world, had been preparing a contingency plan to redeem good out of this atrocity, just in case it tragically came to pass.”
Whoa whoa whoa, what?!? So in eternity past, God knew everything that might possibly ever happen in every situation in the future (this is molinism’s possible worlds talk) and then prepared a contingency plan that included ways to work with the bad stuff in such a way that He could ultimately get His desired end result? And then what? Threw the cosmic dice and shot some power into whichever universe the dice landed on? I suppose our assurance in Dr. Boyd’s system is that God will still get His way in the end because He had a really really good emergency back up plan. All the bad things that happen have absolutely no purpose, and happen at random (one has to wonder why there are moral responsibilities/consequences then) and there was nothing God could do about it even if He wanted to. But don’t worry! God has a great plan just in case. In case what? In case things go wrong? Oops, can’t use that word, because that implies purpose.
I’m not sure how this could provide assurance to anyone. When the best answer God has is “eh, stuff happens.” This is a god completely devoid of power and sovereignty, and actually of knowledge and wisdom, despite what Dr. Boyd would like to believe. How did God gain knowledge of all these possible scenarios? If He did not already possess it because He decreed it to happen, then He was lacking in wisdom. If He is not in control and has no purpose, then He is not sovereign. If He simply adapts to the situation and reacts, then He is not changeless. If there is no purpose in God, then Christ died for nothing. If there is no purpose in God, then our hope is in vein, and there was no reason for God to reveal Himself in Scripture. This does not alleviate the problem of evil, it exacerbates it. We have already taken God down so many levels that I have to wonder what confidence we are supposed to have in this so called contingency plan that Dr. Boyd is so assured by. How can we be sure that this plan won’t fail or be thwarted by rebellious humans, demons, and Satan? How can we be sure it already hasn’t failed?
I find absolutely no assurance in such a system. I prefer the system that the Bible portrays. One in which God is completely sovereign, and does have a plan for everything that happens because He decreed it to. Yes, this forces me to think long and hard when evils arise, but that has only lead me to a further confidence in God, not an abandoning of Him. I believe in the God Who has the power to do everything the Bible says He can and does do. The God Who from eternity past had a purpose in creating the universe and sending Christ to die for those whom He loves, and will preserve them to the end. I suppose that is why that call it being able to sleep like a Calvinist.