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“Sketches Toward a Wesleyan Theodicy: An Examination of Wesley’s Thoughts” Part IV

April 12, 2011

V. Modifications Toward a More Coherent Wesleyan Theodicy

The remainder of this essay will be an attempt to modify Wesley’s approach, and in so doing, an attempt to strengthen both the Augustinian and the Iranaean thoeocies indirectly.  It is my position that both of these theodicies complement one another and by taking the best of both, we may offer a highly plausible explanation to the problem of evil that is faithful to Wesley’s regard for the utter goodness of God and the intrinsic freedom of man.  Due to the nature of this essay, I can offer nothing more than a sketch of what this would look like.

 

Combining Irenaeus’ Concept of Moral Development with an Historic Fall

As I have noted, in the Augustinian approach, the historical fall is incoherent with Augustine’s conception of man as “morally perfect.”  Yet, Hick goes too far in describing the fall as a “myth” and abandoning it altogether.  Fortunately, this is unnecessary.  By incorporating Hick’s (Irenaeus’) “process of becoming,” we may say that God created man morally innocent but not morally perfect.  However, we need not conclude based on this that man is morally imperfect, but simply morally indeterminate or neutral.[1] In his primal state, he was created with a sense of incompleteness that was meant to be developed through obedience to God and a reliance on God’s grace through a trusting relationship.  In God’s original creation, responding and relying on grace was as much of a necessity as it is now![2] If we adopt Irenaeus’ proposal of man’s moral incompleteness, then we are no longer bewildered by Adam’s fall.  In his indeterminate state, he freely chose to believe the lies of the serpent and side in rebellion against God.

 

Clarifying “Felix Culpa” and Strengthening Wesley’s “Soul-Making” Climax

Wesley’s appeal to God permitting evil for the greater good of the coming of Jesus Christ is known as the appeal to felix culpa (“fortunate crime”) and was also utilized by Augustine.  Of course, Wesley develops it in a direction that is similar in tone to Hick’s “soul-making” proposal.  Basically, God looking forward (i.e., foreknowledge) could see that, in the end, it would be better to permit the fall, so that mankind could reap the immensely greater rewards that would come through Jesus.  However, in accepting the theme of felix culpa, Wesley and others undermine the very purpose for which Christ came in the first place—redemption.  The very nature of redemption consists of restoring something to its rightful place.  Yet, if the plan was for mankind to become broken in the first place, then it is difficult to understand how redemption can be more than a illusory gesture; redemption only makes sense when in the context of something being as it shouldn’t be.

Now, it is understandable how this line of reasoning can become adopted.  As always with God, he has the startling ability to redeem in such a magnificent way that the state of redemption seems better than the original.  Yet, we should not assume that God’s response to a situation—as redeeming as it becomes—is the desired purpose from the beginning.  This undermines the very nature of redemption.  It is a chink in Wesley’s otherwise spotless defense of God’s unquestionable goodness, to suppose that he subjected the world into the chaotic and horrific state we currently find it in.

With all that said, if we accept man’s moral indeterminacy, and God’s unrelenting support of man freely choosing to stay in trusting relationship with Him—expressed by obedience, then we may see the Fall in all of its tragic horror, as something that grieved the heart of God.  Yet, the goodness of God is such that, rather than abandon the creation to its destruction, He would begin the process of weaving (using) the evil in this world as a means of bringing unspeakable good out of it.  Thus, we can truly agree with Wesley and Hick, no evil state is utterly meaningless, but rather now (after the tragic fall) it is used in the process of soul-making.  God is, indeed, “making all things new.”

 

Replacing Wesley’s “Simple” Foreknowledge with Open Theism

This will certainly be my most controversial and contestable point.  Nevertheless, I find that the view of foreknowledge endorsed by Open Theism would bring immense coherence to Wesley’s superb defense of man’s freedom.[3] One of the major problems with classical Wesleyanism, is the uncritical acceptance of “simple” foreknowledge.  At the risk of oversimplification, this view states that God does not cause or determine the future decisions of free creatures; rather he looks ahead and simply “sees” what their decisions will be.  Thus God retains exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and man retains his freedom.  However, upon closer reflection, it is not at all certain that this can be so.  David Ray Griffin reveals the incompatibility with the two claims:

Free choice in this sense is not compatible with an omniscient being who knows the details of what is still the future for us.  If this being knows infallibly that next year I will do A, instead of B or C, then it is necessary that I will do A.  It may seem to me then as if I make a real choice among genuine alternatives, but this will be illusory.  I really could not do otherwise.  If I were to do otherwise, God’s immutable, infallible knowledge would be in error, and this is impossible.  So in what meaningful sense will I be responsible for that choice?[4]

Thus, with this view of freedom, Wesley’s entire project comes crashing down.  However, if we accept a view of foreknowledge that includes the possibilities of future free actions of sentient beings, then we can genuinely affirm man’s free choice.  Further, this harmonizes well with our modified understanding of man’s “process of becoming.”  In his indeterminate state, man faced the possibility of choosing for or against God, and God would know it as such.  And this would allow us to embrace a most fundamental claim concerning the nature of evil:  Though evil must exist as a necessary possibility, it was never meant to be actualized or brought into this world.  Evil, in all its forms, is something that unequivocally should not be.  This was the hope of God in creating a world where mankind was free—the only world where love is possible.  And thus, we can affirm wholeheartedly with Wesley, “Had there been no sin, there would have been no pain.”[5] However, now that there is, we can rejoice in the “inexpressible tenderness of God” who has not left us without a hope, but has given us (and the entire creation) redemption through Jesus Christ.



[1] Kinghorn writes that for Adam to be able to sin, he would need “less-than-perfect desires,” “John Wesley on the Role of the Fall,” 8.  Yet, these desires are not necessarily “sinful.”  I can agree with this distinction, but would prefer the term “indeterminate” to “less-than-perfect.”  The former term captures the sense of “becoming” that is crucial to an Irenaean theodicy, while Kinghorn’s term  appears somewhat “static” or fixed.  However, on page 11, Kinghorn proceeds to write, “But a less-than-perfect desire, is strictly speaking, a kind of natural evil.”  I am unsure why he has drawn this conclusion, accept that he says  that it “constituted a genuine adversity.”  But why must we equate “adversity” with “evil”?  In fact, I would say that this sense of indeterminacy is itself what needs to be overcome, and had it been done, man would have prevented the actualization of evil in the world.  Prior to this primal choice, evil was only a necessary possibility.

[2] I am highly indebted to Dallas Willard for this understanding of grace.  In his fine work, Renovation of the Heart, (Colorado Springs:  NavPress, 2002.) p. 82, he writes:  “The transformation of our inner being is as much or more a gift of grace as is our justification before God.  Of course neither is wholly passive.  (To be forever lost you need only do nothing.  Just stay the course.)  But with reference to both justification and transformation, ‘boasting is excluded’ by the law of grace through faith (Romans 3:27-31; Ephesians 2:1-10).  In fact, we consume the most grace by leading a holy life [!!], in which we must be constantly upheld by grace, not by continuing to sin and being repeatedly forgiven.  The interpretation of grace as having only to do with guilt is utterly false to biblical teaching and renders spiritual life in Christ unintelligible.”  Willard repeatedly states that we live more of a “grace-filled” life by obeying God rather than by sinning and receiving forgiveness.  If this is so, then would not grace have been in full operation at the very beginning?  Was this not the foundation of the reciprocal relationship between God and mankind from the very beginning?

[3] There are plenty of accessible introductions to Open Theism.  However, for an indepth treatment of all the issues, see Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL:  The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, 2001), chapters 2-5.

[4] David Ray Griffin, “Augustine and the Denial of Genuine Evil,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, IN:  Notre Dame Press, 1992),  202.

[5] This is somewhat of an overstatement.  As I have mentioned, scientifically, pain was already in the world long before mankind arrived on the scene.  I have indirectly already discussed a possible explanation for this in this modified “free-will” theodicy.  But allow me to state just a little bit more here.  If the presence of fallen spirits constituted a disruption in God’s creational aims (a process accomplished by evolution), then we can admit that the earth was in a state of chaos when God created the garden of Eden.  In this view, the garden of Eden is the “paradisiacal” piece of creation that God has established his loving creation over.  Within this garden, he places man, his delegated image-bearers, and designated authorities to “reclaim” or “have dominion” over the earth.  The garden of Eden, then becomes a beach-head of sorts for the reclamation of creation.

Though this sounds fantastical, we see this same pattern in God’s election of Israel and the church.  It seems that God focuses his attention on a small entity, in order to bless or rescue the world.

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