Saturday, January 31, 2009

Book Review: Satan and the Problem of Evil

Some books are destined to become classics. I believe that Gregory A Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy will be one of those books.

Boyd has written extensively on so-called open theism. In this book, he turns to the profoundly difficult question of how God relates to evil and suffering (the technical theological term for this issue is theodicy). Underlying his discussion is an open theist set of beliefs, but they only form part of the fabric of Boyd's total view. The most significant theme is that there is a warfare going on and humans are caught up in this warfare. This explains, in part, why humans suffer and why God responds to suffering in the way God does. But to say this is to inadequately describe Boyd's contribution to this issue.

Boyd is thoroughly orthodox in his trinitarian and warfare views. But orthodoxy is not really the issue. He is also thoroughly biblical. Many critics incorrectly accuse open theists of minimising the evidence of Scripture and undermining the sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience of God. Boyd has written a brilliant, comprehensive, and cohesive argument that integrates all the biblical evidence in a coherent statement about the problem of evil. He firmly lays the blame where it should be: on Satan's shoulders and all those beings who choose evil. Of course, not all questions are answered. No model or theology will ever answer all of our questions and may, in fact, raise some. But for someone looking for a sensitive theology of suffering and evil  needs to read this book to see the possibilities that Scripture allows for understanding this intractable problem.

Satan and the Problem of Evil is divided into two halves. The first half presents an argument for the warfare worldview. The second part of the book turns to practical and pastoral concerns and how the warfare view helps enrich our understandings of important aspects of the Christian's spiritual life.

Boyd begins by describing what he calls the "Blueprint Worldview" which has, at its heart, the teaching that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) of the future. He contrasts this with the "warfare view" and then describes the essential goal of the book which

is to answer this question. How are we to conceive of an all-powerful God creating beings who to some degree possess the power to thwart his will, and thus against whom he must genuinely battle if he is to accomplish his will? The attempt to answer this question is the attempt to render philosophically coherent the warfare worldview of Scripture as well as the war-torn appearance of our world. (p. 16)

In making his argument, Boyd adopts the Wesleyan 'methodological quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition as the criteria for theological truth.' (p. 16) Specifically, he holds to the following assumptions (expressed in Boyd's words):

  1. Scripture is divinely inspired and therefore trustworthy on all matters that it intends to teach.
  2. ... reason, if employed correctly, is also a trustworthy guide in seeking truth.
  3. ... experience has a legitimate role to play in our quest for truth.
  4. ... church tradition has a dialectical role to play in our quest for truth.' (pp. 22-23)

Using the above methodological assumptions, the rest of the first part of the book argues for a trinitarian warfare theodicy based on six theses (once again, expressed in Boyd's language):

  1. Love must be freely chosen.
  2. Love entails risk.
  3. Love, and thus freedom, entails that we are to some extent morally responsible for one another.
  4. The power to influence for the worse must be roughly proportionate to our power to influence for the better.
  5. Freedom must be, within limits, irrevocable. This entails that, to some extent, God places an irrevocable limitation on himself with his decision to create beings who have the capacity to love and who are therefore free.
  6. This limitation, however, is not infinite, for our capacity to freely choose to love is not endless.

These six theses are worked out in incredible detail drawing on biblical, philosophical, and empirical evidence with the biblical material taking precedence over all others. Boyd sensitively responds to objections to the trinitarian warfare theodicy, especially from proponents of the EDF perspective.

In the last few paragraphs of Part 1, Boyd contends that the truth of the sixth theses means

... we can make sense out of the fact that a world created by an all-good, all-powerful God could become a nightmarish war zone. In contrast to all blueprint theodicies, within the trinitarian warfare theodicy we need not assume that there is a specific, good divine reason why God ordains or allows each specific evil event to take place. The only reason God allows free agents to engage in evil deeds is that this possibility is what it means to create agents free. The specific reasons why these agents actualize this possibility in particular ways is found in them, not God. If God is justified in risking freedom in general, we need not ask why God allowed any particular event. To be sure, God can use evil agents to fulfill his purposes, and he always works to bring good out of evil. But God's specific way of responding to a particular evil must not be confused with God specifically ordaining or allowing a particular evil.

If the six trinitarian warfare theses are accepted, we can also begin to make sense of the fact that God is assured of winning the war, though many particular battles have yet to be decided. We can further understand why God must tolerate for a time the evil activity of rebellious agents, how it is that love must be risky now but not in heaven, and why it is that God's interaction with his creatures appears so arbitrary. (p. 205)

It is impossible to exaggerate the power of Boyd's argument in this first part of the book. And the second part is no less powerful as he turns to practical and pastoral issues covering prayer, miracles, and the arbitrariness of life; natural evil; and the doctrine of hell and eternal suffering (where he develops a view of hell that integrates both eternal suffering and annihilationism — very intriguing!). His application of the trinitarian warfare theodicy to these areas resolve so many questions — although some difficult ones remain — and I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions about hell). Boyd's discussion of these issues restores the possibility of genuine faith, hope, and love in our relationship to God.

At the end of the book, Boyd provides a series of appendices that deal with some technical issues including responding to further objections to his view, philosophical arguments related to the relationship of foreknowledge and free will, and the issue of chance.

Satan and the Problem of Evil is a very significant book. Boyd is thorough, respectful, rigorous, and, despite the philosophical nature of some chapters, practical and pastoral. His interest in this issue is derived and driven by real life and real people experiencing real questions. This book should be in the library of every thinking Christian. For some, it may be a little difficult to read. If that is the case, the reader might like to consult Boyd's simpler book Is God to Blame?

The problem of evil has been one of the most significant reasons people have given up on God. At last, new perspectives are beginning to bring some answers and relief to those who struggle with evil.

More books to read ...

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson et al

An excellent, practical book on how to listen and speak when engaging in conversations when opinion vary, stakes are high, or emotions are strong.

Postmodern Children's Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21st Century Church (Emergent YS) by Ivy Beckwith

Children learn and process the world very differently in the 21st century. Ivy Beckwith draws on her experience to discuss how those in children's ministry must adjust to the realities of contemporary postmodern society and culture.

50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Should Know (Ideas You Really Need to Know) by Ben Dupre

An engagingly presented introduction to 50 philosophical ideas from absolutism to zombies. Each concept is dealt with in just four pages with inserts, timelines, and interesting facts.

The Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage)by Simon Critchley

What does it mean to die? How should we die? What is a good death? This book surveys the deaths of nearly 200 philosophers from the pre-Socratic Thales to Dominque Janicaud in 2002.  A meditation on accepting our creatureliness.

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokesby Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

You might think that philosophy is a dry, abstract subject. But the two authors of this book believe that one of the best ways to learn about philosophy is by examining jokes. A delightful, intriguing introduction.

Two men are making breakfast. As one is buttering the toast, he says, "Did you ever notice that if you drop a piece of toast, it always lands butter side down?"

The second guy says, "No, I bet it just seems that way because it's so unpleasant to clean up the mess when it lands butter side down. I bet it lands butter side up just as often."

The first guy says, "Oh, year? Watch this." He drops the toast to the floor, where it lands butter side up.

The second guy says, "See. I told you."

The first guy says, "Oh, I see what happened. I buttered the wrong side!'

To find out what this joke says about the concept of falsifiability, read the book!

1 comment:

  1. Boyd is a gifted thinker and speaker and this makes me want to read this book. Also, you may wish to read "Oh My God" by Paul Cinquemani (see This book started me on a wonderful spiritual journey about 5 years ago that then lead me to your site, Neal Punt, Boyd and many, many others. Doug Myers (You can reach me thru Contact Author)