Dr. MacArthur's Theodicy
I really enjoyed my conference experience at Ligonier 2007. I'll post again on my impressions about the conference. I have so many positive things to say. However, right now I want to focus on a message John MacArthur brought on "The Problem of Evil."
I have a great appreciation for John MacArthur and men like him. I'm grateful to God for the heavy lifting they are doing in these spiritually vacuous days. The writing, speaking, and representing they do in our country is an important witness for Christ and the church.
Now, here comes the conjunction but....
I do need to get some thoughts written down after hearing Dr. MacArthur's theodicy (the justification of God in the face of evil).
You can read my notes on his message here. I hope I recorded them fairly and accurately. The basic outline of Dr. MacArthur's message was:
1. Evil Exists. This is axiomatic.
2. God Exists. That is, the Biblical God.
3. Therefore, God wills evil to exist; He ordains it.
Dr. MacArthur said some things like: "Now this is where Arminians become apoplectic. Their eyes roll back and their palms become sweaty. Panic sets in. So they have to reinvent God with a revisionist [hermeneutic.]" Both speaker and audience gave a knowing laugh at these comments.
Now, I do admit to having some emotional responses upon hearing Dr. MacArthur's words. To be sure, I was not apoplectic. I did not experience an increased heart rate or sweaty palms, or panic.
But I did feel a sadness, a deflation, and a wonderment at the presentation of his argument. I felt like, "If I believed this picture, I might as well go back to the hotel room and draw the shade."
The speaker and audience may laugh with the knowing chuckle of the truly initiated, but I think I can explain why some folks may struggle with this kind of theodicy.
When you deal with a man's view of God, you are dealing with the most important part of who he is. So we should not be surprised that emotional reactions may occur when God is painted in certain ways.
I have the following concerns with Dr. MacArthur's theodicy.
1. His argument comes very close to an eastern view of God--where good and evil have a common source. Hence good and evil become illusions surrounding the One of all things. Surely, Dr. MacArthur would deny that this is his view. However, to speak his way has the same blurring effect on the soul. It is a de facto equivalent.
Did not Christ tell us to pray "Deliver us from evil?" If God ordains evil, then where can a man go to hide from it? If the only refuge from evil is the source of evil, this is indeed a scary thing. Hence the suffocating effect on the soul.
2. In exalting one attribute of God above all others, Dr. MacArthur undermines God's love, justice, and power. Does a loving God create people solely for a pragmatic purpose of displaying His wrath? Does a just God hold creatures accountable for sinning sins that He ordained? Cannot a truly powerful God create people in His image without his sovereignty being reduced? According to Dr. MacArthur, a real person must be a threat to God's sovereignty. So I think Dr. MacArthur's view of God is too small. This leads me to the next point...
3. No matter how we address this issue, paradoxes will arise. A theology that appears to have it all wrapped up (making 90 yard touch-down passes) still results in paradoxes. Because Dr. MacArthur seems to despise the thought that Adam had a free will, he settles for statements like:
"God ordains evil but is not guilty of it."
" God is responsible but not guilty."
How is this any less a paradox than "Man can choose, and God is sovereign?"
4. In the Q & A about this issue, I believe it was Dr. Sproul who distanced himself from "determinism." And I noticed one of the nearby Table Talk magazine covers had a puppet with strings attached. The subtitle was, "What Reformed Theology is Not." But one cannot use the language of determinism and then cry foul at being perceived as deterministic!
I have come to the conclusion that I will not know a complete answer to the mystery of evil. Therefore, I have to choose the best paradox-- one that addresses the whole counsel of God. Dr. MacArthur's view does not seem to encompass the complete picture of God in the Bible. For example, the Bible says that:
Man was created as a Real Person.
God is Just.
Man is Guilty.
I believe that God is Good. There is no shadow of turning in Him. If He cannot tempt men with evil, He surely doesn't direct them to commit it! I have to hold to a theology (paradoxical as it may be) that separates evil from a sovereign God--as the Bible does.
I believe that God created the world knowing full well that man would sin, but His love created a solution before the foundation of the world. But man's sin was against God's will.
I believe that when men are damned, it is because men are truly guilty. It's our fault. We have rebelled against our Maker.
I believe that God is sovereign when He chooses to act or not act--according to His own will. How is God's sovereignty reduced if He chooses to limit Himself in any way? If God chooses to make real persons in His image, isn't that His business? Why could not God ordain that people have a will? Dr. MacArthur sounds like God values evil more than creating amazing creatures in His image.
I have some follow-up issues with the theological perspective Dr. MacArthur represents.
1. I think Michael Horton, in the afore-mentioned "Table Talk" magazine, said their view of election brings great consolation to God's people. I've never found their view of election to bring consolation. I have known their view to bring the opposite. Their view of election puts my eternal destiny--not in the hope of the gospel, but in an impersonal and arbitrary Will. Their view of election is an amplification of God's sovereignty apart from the context of His personal nature, virtue, love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness. Their view of election erects a high, thick, circular brick wall on which I find myself pounding from the outside.
2. How does one know if he's elect? It seems that according to their view, you know if you're elect if you persevere in righteousness. I have found this to be a back door to legalism. Instead of trusting the promise of God in the gospel, I would find myself trying like mad to convince myself that I'm elect by looking at the subjective experiences in my life: my performance. No grounds for confidence there!
3. Sometimes, I sense a condescension in some folks I've met in Dr. MacArthur's theological camp. It is the air of being in the "know." I'm sure this is unintended on their part, yet I do perceive it. Maybe it comes from being in the inner circle of election.
However, I have very true and extremely valuable friends who are not this way. With the love of Christ, they listen to my concerns about their view. So I honestly try to see the "glory" of deterministic theology. I can tell it is a source of consolation and security for many.
4. I have heard some say that people don't like Dr. MacArthur's theology because it strikes at the pride in man. Well, I acknowledge pride needs to be stricken. However, I think I react against it because it strikes at my hope in God. If salvation is based on the Great Will instead of the Glorious Gospel of God, I know I have no hope.
5. It seems that Dr. MacArthur's view weakens the potency of both Good and Evil. God's love isn't really love. It's simply the execution of a personally pragmatic plan. Evil isn't really evil. We can just shrug off this week's atrocities in the news as "God's will." Under Dr. MacArthur's view, do we resist evil or not? Should we react viscerally against evil as reprehensible? Or do we register evil cognitively and put it in the ledger as "part of the plan"--and go about our determined day? Something about this minimizes the goodness of the good and the wickedness of the wicked...
6. I'm willing to be put in the same camp as "liberals," but I'm not sure how I could honestly be so labeled.
I affirm that God's eternal justice redounds to His glory. It is good that evil is finally destroyed from His presence. But the picture is bigger than this one aspect. And God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
I affirm that men's salvation redounds to God's glory in eternity, but it is in a context of God's love for real and responsible people.
I affirm that God is sovereign, in charge, and victorious. But He is not Fate. Creation is not a gray, two-dimensional, deterministic sketch. It is a wonderful three-dimensional world filled with people made in His image. Sin has effaced this image, but it is still there.
I affirm that justification is by faith alone--not by anything meritorious in a sinner.
I affirm that God is omnipotent.
I affirm that God is omniscient.
I affirm that God is sovereign.
I affirm that God wants to save me--nor is willing that any should perish; that He loved the world; that He is the propitiation for our sins, but not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
I deny works-for-justification, the loss of salvation, universalism, "open theology," and "process theology."
I hope I am not "revising" God. I hope I can honestly say, "I'm simply trying to account for the big, Biblical picture." Yet, in all this, I truly believe I have more in common with Dr. MacArthur than I have in distinction--namely, the Savior.
I recognize this little post on an insignificant blog must resemble a rat terrier yapping at the heals of a great theological mastiff. But, there you go.
And I'm brought full circle to thanking God for His good use of Dr. MacArthur in this needy world.
It was a great conference.
I quickly shook off the air of sadness brought on by one sermon, escaped its great flattening of the world, and got back on track by rejoicing in the goodness of God--and the future destruction of evil.