The selected readings from chapter two of Walter Klaiber and Manfred Marquardt’s Living Grace: An Outline of United Methodist Theology focus on two traditional flashpoints in Western Christianity’s tension between the ever-growing body of secular truths and theories about the natural world and the all-powerful, loving creator God of the Old and New Testaments. In the first selection - pages 93 to 102 - the authors focus on the tension between the Judeo-Christian belief in ex nihilo1 creation and natural science’s discovered truths and generally accepted theories over the last several centuries. In the second selection - pages 115 to 126 - the authors focus their attention on the Wesleyan theology of theodicy; how we explain and embrace the seemingly contradictory nature of a loving God who allows suffering. In both selections the authors juxtapose the seemingly nihilistic nature of modern atheistic, secular thought against the always-creating Christian God of love. Rather than furthering the conflict, the authors in both selections bridge the gap between worldviews by presenting a theology of God that is larger than ancient Mesopotamian understandings of creation and beyond the machinations of DNA chains and the “chance” of natural selection.
Creation: Resolving the Tension Between Faith and Science
In the first reading selection - pages 93 to 102 - Klaiber and Marquardt work towards resolving the apparent conflict between science and faith. In the modern landscape of popular thought, faith and science are seen by most to be incompatible concepts; one must either believe in an all-powerful creator God or one must believe in a cosmos driven by chance and governed by natural laws. The authors disagree with this prevailing thought and, “protest any recent attempts to reassert that the Christian faith in God the Creator and the findings of natural science fundamentally cannot be reconciled” (98). To Klaiber and Marquardt any system of thought, “that holds that either the Bible or modern science is correct [excluding one for the other] misses the mark” (99). Science and faith, to the authors, come together to create a full picture of God’s intent in creation and redemption.
In their path toward reconciling the two seemingly divergent worldviews, Klaiber and Marquardt address Genesis chapters one and two, often the lynchpin of literal Christian interpretations of God’s creative acts. The well-known documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch supposes that the creation account given in Genesis chapters one and two are actually two accounts from two different sources, the Yahwist and the Elohist. The Yahwist account of creation in Genesis 2:4b - 25 takes the prevalent ancient Mesopotamian understanding of how humans came to be - formed out of the clay to which humans return at death - and applies to it the God of Israel. This account was not based on fiction, but observable scientific2 truths; humans break down into dirt after death, we have shorter lower ribs, etc. (99-100). The Elohist’s Genesis 1 account of creation takes creation from a differing perspective; God is less of a sculptor and creates by simply speaking things into existence. As with the Yahwist account, contemporary scientific insights are inserted into the text; the Genesis 1 creation story, too, is part scientific3 work (100).
To Klaiber and Marquardt the creation accounts in Genesis are not intended to give a clear, perfect, or much less scientifically accurate account of the how of creation, “but an account of the relationship of the world to God and of the relationship of God to humanity” (100). Science explains the how of the observable world but, “can assert nothing at all about the meaning” (101). To the authors, this is where the bridge between worldviews forms; this, in part, was the intent of the Yahwist and Elohist and the oral traditions behind those works. If the Bible does not intend to give a scientifically accurate explanation of the how of creation, then faithful Christians have nothing to fear and can gain immense value from the insights of natural science. If science is bound by the observable how, then it can gain from the “whence”, “whereto”, and “why” provided by the God of the Christian faith (102). For Christians, God created the world as a result of the overflowing of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His intent was and is that all his creation remain within flow of love between the divine Persons. To this end, even as we push him away, he continues to sustain, support, and create in our midst (93-96).
Providence & Suffering: General and Particular
The second selection from Living Grace - pages 115 to 126 - focuses on theodicy or the Christian theology around evil and the suffering inflicted on the innocent caused by evil. Here, unlike the topic of creation, the opposing worldviews offer less to contrast. The secular, atheistic worldview solves the problem not by engaging suffering, but by explaining God away and thus removing the need to explain suffering (121). The Christian worldview looks to the concept of providence, the idea that God provides for his purposes in the world even when it is not clear to those observing (118).
Providence starts with the covenant between God and his creation; that despite humankind’s constant rejection of him, God will continue to work for our redemption and perfection. There is truly no distance too great to take us outside of the reach of his creative and loving care (116-117). Within the Wesleyan/Arminian context, for humans to be made in God’s image means we have been given the God-enabled freedom to accept or reject his offer of restorative redemption. God working on our behalf to enable our will and reason to work towards this reconciliation are what Wesleyans refer to as God’s general providence (118).
In the seasons, the plants, the animals, and the interworkings of creation in the natural law, God’s general providence is easily observable and appreciated. It is when providence is taken to the individual level, particular providence, that questions begin to arise (120). How does God give providence to the child murdered by evil ones during a civil war’s massacre of a residential neighborhood? How can God “be love” as the Scriptures say in this context? As Klaiber and Marquardt note, “if we love a person or are inclined toward that person, we do not unnecessarily inflict suffering upon that person […]” (122). This question, how can God both providentially provide and love his creation whilst allowing pain and suffering is the particular pastoral task of theologians.
Though Klaiber and Marquardt present many of the major approaches to dealing with theodicy within the church, they find their resolution in the cross. In Jesus the authors find God participating in the suffering of humanity. This still provides no explanation to suffering, but does provide a place where those in the midst of suffering can meet God (125). When God is met in the middle of the suffering he offers not an immediate end to suffering, but the hope of the new creation. The present creation is finite and along with it suffering. God’s covenant with humankind brings us eventually to full fellowship with Father, Son, and Holy Sprit. This is God’s particular providence to each and every human being (126). Rather than dismiss suffering and refuse to give it meaning, the Christian response is to stand along side the suffering and point towards the God who has also suffered and suffers alongside.
My Theological Response
Klaiber and Marquardt offer interesting insights into the place of God in creation and his relation to suffering and evil in the world. The bridge built between science in faith is especially constructive. If theologians can remove themselves from the arguments surrounding the how of creation and focus instead on the why, we can bring the creating God into contexts where he has long been excluded. Instead of being at battle with science, we can be the voice pointing towards the One Source who can fill the voids left by the nihilistic thoughts brought by studying the hows with no whys.
Klaiber and Marquardt’s treatment of suffering left much to be desired. While they did eventually end up with a theology of the cross, they missed the Trinitarian implications of this theology. It is not just the God the Son suffered on the cross for all humankind, but also that that suffering was experienced by God the Father and God the Spirit. The crucifixion had a real effect on the Persons of God; God in all three parts was injured on our behalf. Jesus is not just an entry point for God into the suffering of humankind, but suffering for the sake of love in some way becomes the very definition of what it means to be God, and thus, the trajectory of our sanctification.
Klaiber, Walter. Living Grace: An Outline of United Methodist Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001. Print.
Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2010. Print.
1 Ex nihilo is Latin for “out of nothing” pointing to the traditional belief that God created all things out of nothing. I.e., God was the first mover.
2 Scientific, at least, to the standards and practices of the day.
3 Again, to ancient standards.