Discipleship as Theodicy, Part 2: The Superiority of the Irenaean Theodicy

In our last post, I argued at minimal length that discipleship to Jesus is part of God’s answer to the problem of evil, and we talked briefly about the two main paths that have been taken theologically on theodicy–the question of how there can be a righteous, all-powerful and all-loving God with the existence of such extensive evil, sin, pain, and suffering in the world–namely, that of Irenaeus on the one hand and Augustine on the other. Today, I will argue for why I believe Irenaeus’ argument to be superior to Augustine’s, for three distinct reasons.

Before I list those reasons, it’s important to note once more that all questions of the problem of evil and theodicy inevitably come back to a question of why evil exists in the world, which inevitably comes back to questions of primeval history–of how God chose to make the world and specifically, the agents through whom He desires to govern the world, human beings. Thus, to speak of Irenaeus’ theodicy or Augustine’s theodicy is also to speak of their conception of the sort of man that God created. As I mentioned last time, Dr. Peter Enns has a helpful article in which he provides a link for John Schneider’s article on this subject, and I encourage everyone to go check it out. In short, Augustine sees Adam as a superman (the image evangelicalism is fond of), while Irenaeus sees Adam as innocent but morally undeveloped, i.e., a work in progress.

Thus, that in mind, here are my three reasons for supporting an Irenaean view of creation and theodicy over against Augustine.

  1. Irenaeus’ view of man and theodicy lines up more with the text of Genesis 1-3 and the Hebrew worldview that is present there. One of the central elements of Augustine’s narrative involves creation as a perfect invention of God, with man as the apex of creation, physically and morally perfect. This view doesn’t hold up under the scrutiny of the text or under the worldview that guided the authorship of scripture. The Hebrew worldview, as Rob Bell notes at some length in Velvet Elvis, does not view the world as perfect–rather, it is exactly as it appears in Genesis 1: fundamentally a good creation by Israel’s God, but a creation that is good because God has brought order to it, and thus a creation God seeks to bring more order to in and through his human image-bearers. This seems to be the intention of commanding Adam to “cultivate” the Garden (Genesis 2:15): the idea that through Adam and his project of pruning and bringing order to the creation, God would actually be bringing creation to a greater state of order, and thus a greater state of “good.” In other words, creation is an ongoing, trajectory process, and God creates human beings in the middle of that ongoing process to be partners in the process. Irenaeus’ view is superior because it makes provision for this idea: human beings, like the world in which they live, are not static supermen whose fall should be nigh impossible, but rather are, like the world around them, created with potential that has to be shaped, immortality and maturity that can 0nly be procured through obedience to and dependence upon God Himself. Furthermore, Irenaeus’ view fits in with the rhetorical point the Adam story would’ve made in later Israel’s regular reading of and commentary on the story: obedience to Torah, God’s law, is to eat from the tree of life and results in blessing and life in the age to come; disobedience to God leads to exile and death.
  2. Irenaeus’ view lends itself to evolutionary theory. One of the major reasons that many evangelical Christians do not accept evolution is because of Augustine’s Adam, because, as it were, evolution has little room for a primordial superman from whom the rest of the human race was descended. Of course, other Christians that would be considered evangelical, or at least who have influenced evangelicalism throughout church history, have found helpful ways of accepting evolution and maintaining Orthodox faith, such as C.S. Lewis (David Williams has a brilliant series on Lewis’s relationship with evolution, which I recommend you read all of, here.) I, for one, accept evolutionary theory, for a number of reasons that we don’t have time for here–very briefly, I find it to be a.) congruent with the nature of our God in his infinite patience and infinitely complex design, and b.) to be the most convincing argument logically for origins, and thus I c.) recognize the need to reassess my understanding of the value or sort of truth contained in texts like Genesis 1-11 that describe creation in terms that don’t permit for evolution. Irenaeus’ Adam, unlike Augustine’s Adam, fits quite well into that mold, as evolutionary theory does indeed leave us with a human being who is morally undeveloped but nevertheless innocent, and depends heavily on that trajectory imagery of creation I mentioned earlier. [Note: I say "evolutionary theory leaves us with" something. What I mean is that God, particularly Israel's God, in and through the power of His Word and Spirit, was interactive and involved in biological processes on earth to bring about the particular creature that we now today recognize as human.]

This is essentially why I think that Irenaeus was right and that his theology for defending the goodness of God in light of evil makes the most sense: i.e., God made a fundamentally good world that included human beings as the creatures with and through whom God desired to bring creation to a new level of goodness, but who needed themselves to develop their potential for bearing God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). To connect this to a standpoint of evolutionary creationism, which is one of my two main reasons for endorsing Irenaeus: I would theorize that God’s good world included the process of evolution, which depended in part on the evil of natural violence and suffering, and guided evolutionary processes to human beings so that through them, God might bring the creation to a new level of reality. Humans were created (through millions of years of God-guided adaptation and natural selection of hominid species) to bear God’s Image and represent Him as kings and queens on the earth, and thus with the potential to fulfill this God-ordained role for them: however, humankind ultimately failed to obey God and for this reason continued on in the cycle of violence and death in creation, though with the now-added evil of sin. God thus called Abraham and his descendants, Israel, to be the community in whom God redeemed the world by continuing on with the original human project, which Israel also failed to uphold and do.

Enter Jesus and his talmidim.

In this context, discipleship to Jesus functions as God’s answer to the problem of evil in the world because it is to live according to the pattern by which God originally envisioned human beings, and thus the Cross of Jesus justifies God despite the existence of evil because it shows that God has always been in the process of dealing with evil, the cure for which he had already made in the creation of man himself. To repeat: God created man to be the creature through whom he further redeemed the fundamentally good but still potential-filled created world, and discipleship to Jesus–participating in His Cross in every element of life–is the means by which we participate in the ultimate theodicy wrought on the Cross, because it is the means by which we are able to live the way God always intended human beings to live.

God is just, and good, and loving, and everything else we claim about him, then, despite the existence of evil, because evil is something He has always been in the process of dealing with and working against, albeit in a limited way (shall we say a self-limited way) due to his desire to deal with evil through the human creatures whom He originally made to deal with it through. The question, then, is emphatically not, “How can God be good when the world is so evil?” but, rather, “How is it that I am contributing to the existence of evil in the world, and how is it that I can stop and start doing something else entirely?”

And this answers, I think, the problem of evil as it is apparent in the Christian tradition through the problem of sin–i.e., co-crucifixion with Jesus (discipleship to him) in every part of our beings is the means by which we are declared in the right and, coincidentally, by which we participate in that action through which God was faithful (and shown to be in the right all along)–i.e., Jesus’ death on the Cross. It is thus in our discipleship that the focal point of all theodicy–the Crucifixion–continues to be made plain to the world.

I went a little past where I intended to, and there’s still a little more to cover on this topic. Thanks for keeping up (or attempting to). Please discuss!

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7 responses to “Discipleship as Theodicy, Part 2: The Superiority of the Irenaean Theodicy”

  1. Hakdaddy says :

    If God is really omniscient and all powerful, then wouldn’t he have been able to predict or even just know that humans and Isreal would fail to meet his expectations? Also, do you mean violence amongst humans should be ended, or all violence perpetrated by humans, including violence against animals? I did enjoy your reconciliation of evolution and Christian scripture, it’s one of the better I have read.

    • tsoigitli says :

      Hey Nick,

      Your comment is full of good questions, and I would need a whole post to answer them all (thanks for giving me material, haha!). However, here is a brief response to your questions.

      1. Omniscience and Human Failure: the question of how God’s omniscience interacts with human choices and free will is ultimately a question of God’s sovereignty–i.e., how can God truly be in control of the world when, in fact, creatures that he foreknew act against him? There have been various attempts to address this question. The two polar interpretations are generally Classical Theism (which asserts that God is beyond being affected by the world, has all knowledge of future events, etc.) and Open Theism (which, in its most radical form, asserts that God does not know the future, whether because He chooses to or can’t). I am somewhere in the middle, and the best way I can account for this is to lay it out step by step.

      1.) God chooses to limit Himself in order that His creations may exist as separate beings and have freedom of choice in a meaningful way.
      2.) This limitation is God’s choice, not a failure or impotence of His Being, and thus is an act of sovereignty, not a defiance of it, in the same way that Jesus’ kenosis (self-emptying) is an act of divinity, not a denial thereof.
      3.) God created the space-time universe and the creatures who live within it and are subject to its laws, and to interact with them must condescend to enter into space and time.
      4.) God thus both foreknows and purposely plans events ahead of time as well as endows human beings with the ability to choose to obey or reject Him, while maintaining knowledge of “all possible futures” they may choose.

      A good example of this, provided in The Jewish Annotated New Testament’s commentary on Romans 9-11 (which deals specifically with the question you asked regarding God’s foreknowledge of Israel’s failure), is with Jacob and Esau: God chose Jacob to be the bearer of God’s promises from before birth, but did not determine ahead of time whether or not either Jacob or Esau would respond with obedience to God in life. The view of scripture thus appears to be that God, though sovereign and in control of the world, chooses to empty Himself and condescend to a level where He can both interact with His human creatures in meaningful ways as well as permit them to make decisions and choices that are meaningful. Hope this was helpful.

    • tsoigitli says :

      2.) Violence and the End of Evil–Paul, in Romans 8, seems to look forward to a time where the same freedom from sin and death that those who are in Christ currently enjoy and will enjoy in the eschaton through Resurrection will also be shared by all creation.

      In other words, from the standpoint of an evolutionary creationist, the evolution-driven creation–which depends on violence and death between creatures to function properly–was and is a good creation by God, but will ultimately be brought into a new and better reality by its Creator in which the old requirements for the good and benefit of the natural world will no longer be necessary parts of it. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that creation is “groaning like a woman in labor” as it awaits this brand new age and stage in God’s creative-redemptive plan for it, which will, for Paul, come about with the Royal Appearing of Jesus, the Resurrection of the dead, the transformation of those living believers, the judgment, et al.

      • Hakdaddy says :

        Thanks for the answer, I think I understand what you are saying. If I’m reading this right, and please correct me if I’m not, God is all powerful and omniscient, but chooses to limit his foresight in order to allow for humans free will. I guess the next logical question is why does god care so much about humans free will, but I feel like that answer could get rather lengthy.

      • tsoigitli says :

        Haha, as though the last one wasn’t?

        The biblical claim is that God made human beings in His Image, which is an Ancient Near Eastern way of saying that God made human beings to be the representatives through whom he governed the earth, and by implication, all of creation (see Psalm 8). It is abundantly clear that God wanted beings with whom He could have relationship and be partnered with in the act of creation and rulership–indeed, the incarnation itself, God literally “pitching his tent among us” (John 1:14), has always been God’s Plan A, not his Plan B. God wanted children and agents through whom He could govern in a creative and covenantal way. However, because God is Love (1 John 4:8) and is defined essentially by His kenosis or self emptying (Philippians 2), God did not and did not want to create robots. Thus, as Irenaeus says, God permits the existence of evil and our ability to make decisions out of His sovereignty in effort to allow us to mature and come to fully bear His Image, making sovereignty the best starting place for arguing theodicy.

  2. Hakdaddy says :

    Hrrrm I can’t reply directly to your comment so I’ll just start a new one. I really like that answer, about infinitely more than the ‘it’s to test your goodbess’ answer. I wanted to say something else but I forgot and it’s late, I’ll try to remember it tomorrow.

    • tsoigitli says :

      Sounds good, friend. Some good reads/sources on what were talking about here:

      1. The entire book of Job is essentially an experiment in theodicy, wherein the answer Job is given for his suffering is essentially is that Job, a man, is limited in his understanding of suffering, but God ultimately blesses Job in the end and uses His suffering constructively in Job’s life.
      2. Greg Boyd is a well known Open Theist and blogs at reknew.org. I can’t say off hand if I would endorse EVERYTHING Greg has to say on the subject, since he subscribes to a Bivalentist Omniscience (God can only know possibilities because the future is strictly possibility), whereas what I describe is closer to Voluntary Nescience (God willingly chooses to limit Himself in certain respects of foreknowledge). However, I appreciate Greg for much of what he does say and would recommend him as a good introduction.
      3. With regard to evolutionary creation and God’s purpose in making mankind: the Biologos foundation (Biologos.org) has a number of helpful articles on this, the best being a series by Peter Enns which a quick search will procure.

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