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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Journey, Part 3: Questions multiply

This is part 3 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the Beginning
  2. Cracks Appear
By late 2011, my senior year of college, the misconceptions that had grown into my Christian faith had borne their fruit and undermined ways in which I was "walking with God" that, in retrospect, I can see that I was largely just doing to conform to peoples' Christian expectations of me. The passionate worship, fascination with the latest releases from "Christian" bands, casting around of "Christian" terms I only dimly understood like "eternal perspective" and "casting vision", and especially the ground-level evangelism I saw a lot of in Cru began to fall by the wayside. I had never managed to connect these things to my active faith, and I found that my heart wasn't in them. Rather than dismissing this uneasiness and saying that the Christian life doesn't depend on feelings, I decided to start paying attention to things I did as a Christian that felt forced or unnatural. A great deal of what I did and talked about in relation to my Christian faith was disconnected from what I actually believed, and consequently less real to me; this was the fundamental realization I'd had in my small group.

So I decided to get off the Christian bandwagon (wasn't Christianity all about getting off the bandwagon and being 'countercultural' anyway?) and see what was left. I considered this an undesirable and temporary compromise. I still wanted to conform to the expectations of my Christian circles; I simply refused to do so blindly. I remember having this anxious sense of expectation for the one realization or teaching that would make it all 'click' and help me to be a content, intellectually fulfilled, actively-walking evangelical like my friends. My own belief in the 'gospel' was not in question. I believed it was the ultimate truth by which I was supposed to live, and if it didn't seem to connect with the evangelical expressions of faith I saw as normative, that was because of a deficiency in my own understanding of it. Once I became aware of the chasm between my internal and external faith, I wanted to correct whatever problems in my internal faith were keeping it from making sense so that I could live it out properly.

There were deficiencies in my internal faith, beyond anything I had imagined. The process by which God pointed them out to me and brought me past them would be much, much longer and harder than I expected.

In early 2012, I started having big doubts about God's character based on parts of the Bible I was reading. (Actually, the first such doubt happened in the infancy of my blog over the bizarre, troubling incident recounted in 1 Kings 13, but I don't think it continued to bother me) Right before I started my big series on God's providence (and partly fueling my desire to know more about it), a study on John Calvin's Institutes I was partaking in gave me some pretty big questions. Specifically, as Calvin was defending his view of God's sovereignty even over evil, he brought up two passages which immediately began to trouble me and give me doubts about God's essential moral qualities.

God's goodness

First, 2 Samuel 16:5-13 and 19:16-23. These passages are set during and after King David's struggle for the kingdom against his insurrectionist son, Absalom. David is fleeing Jerusalem after Absalom has staged a bloodless coup, when suddenly a man from the house of Saul named Shimei comes out and begins cursing David, throwing stones at him, and claiming that the coup is God's revenge on David for usurping Saul's place on the throne. Abi'shai, one of David's guards, offers to take off his head. David's response to him is what helped ignite my next crisis of faith (emphasis added):
But the king said, "What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeru'iah? If he is cursing because the LORD has said to him, 'Curse David,' who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?'" And David said to Abi'shai and to all his servants, "Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD has bidden him.
David seems to think that the Lord has told Shimei to curse him. Perhaps he is feeling regretful for his role in the downfall of Saul and his house. The problem is that later, after David reclaims the throne, Shimei comes to David to apologize and, in 19:19-20, says that he sinned by cursing David. Once I had put these two together, I could not undraw the conclusion:

God had told Shimei to curse David.

Shimei's cursing of David was sin.

God told Shimei to sin.

The tapestry of my understanding of God's goodness began to unravel. If God tells anyone to sin, He puts them in an impossible situation. They must either obey Him by sinning, or sin by disobeying Him. God telling someone to sin is the same as Him causing that person to sin. And if God causes anyone to sin, then His "righteous" anger against sin and claims to moral perfection become absurd, meaningless, a transparent fiction. This was not strictly a logical contradiction in the Bible; it was a moral contradiction. The Bible's teaching didn't undermine itself, but the supposedly 'biblical' image I had of God as morally perfect and worthy of worship. A God who causes people to sin and then 'justly' has wrath on them for sinning is not worthy of worship.

God's truthfulness

The second passage is 1 Kings 22, especially verses 19-23. Ahab, the king of Israel, is trying to convince Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah (this is after the division of the kingdom) to go to war with him against Syria. Jehoshaphat, being considerably more morally upright than Ahab, asks him to "inquire first for the word of the Lord". (22:5) So Ahab gathers four hundred of his prophets together, who tell him to "Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king." (v. 6) Jehoshaphat is unsatisfied by these yes-men and asks if there is another prophet they can ask, so Ahab summons Micaiah, but reluctantly, "for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil." (v. 8) When summoned, Micaiah promises, "As the LORD lives, what the LORD says to me, that I will speak." Immediately after this, though, he seem to lie (or at least speak with deliberate sarcasm), pretending to agree with the other prophets, but Ahab realizes he isn't being serious and tells him to speak the truth. (Hadn't he just promised to do exactly that?) So Micaiah prophesies Ahab's downfall at the battle (v. 17), and supports this with a vision of heaven (v. 19-23, emphasis added):
I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?' And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, 'I will entice him.' And the LORD said to him, 'By what means?' And he said, 'I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.' Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has spoken evil concerning you.
The excuse that God is not technically lying because He tells an agent to do so for Him wouldn't even hold up in a human courtroom. This passage completely flew in the face of verses that assert that God never lies (Num 23:19, Pro 30:5, Tts 1:2), and again it casts God's essential moral righteousness and trustworthiness in doubt. I blogged about my confusion in the interlude of my series on providence, concluding that God does not arbitrarily reject or lie to people but does so in response to our own rejection of Him, with the (seemingly contrary) intention to call us back to Him. In many ways it foresaw later conclusions I would come to, and it's one of my favorite posts I've written.

That troublesome Calvin...

Simply bringing these verses to my attention caused me considerable confusion and doubt, but Calvin made it even worse by "fearlessly" owning up to them, explaining that such is God's sovereignty that He actively uses evil to accomplish His purposes, which are beyond all human questioning or understanding.
The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place. (Institutes 1.17.6)
So when David was assailed by Shimei with stones and curses, had he immediately fixed his eyes on the man, he would have urged his people to retaliate the injury; but perceiving that he acts not without an impulse from the Lord, he rather calms them. “So let him curse,” says he, “because the Lord has said unto him, Curse David.” (Institutes 1.17.8)
From other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his Judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. (Institutes 1.18.1)
Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his Judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets (1 Kings 22:20). If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a Judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. (Institutes 1.18.1)
Despite my doubts, I knew beyond all uncertainty that I could never believe in Calvin's God—yet He seemed to be inescapably depicted in 2 Samuel 16 and 1 Kings 22. Even as I found 'logical' explanations for God's behavior in these verses, they felt unsatisfactory, as if I was simply explaining the Bible's words away rather than taking them seriously. And more doubts were soon to follow, especially as I started a biblical theology course at my church that would take me through the entire Bible.

The meta-question

As I read Genesis more critically as part of the course, I kept asking things like: Where did the other people in Genesis 4 come from? What is with all the bizarre, morally troubling side stories? If God 'remembers' someone, does that mean He'd forgotten them before? How did people become nations? What is Genesis about? And the questions didn't stop with Genesis; I began writing them down as I read them, and soon I had almost 30 such questions about my Old Testament reading, all adding to the cloud of doubt surrounding me. Even as I was able to deal with some of these (like swatting a seemingly endless cloud of flies), a higher-order, "meta-question" began to loom huge on my horizon. My journal entries speak for themselves (the various versions of the meta-question have emphasis added):
One of my biggest doubts about my faith is how much twisting of words it is founded on. [James Davison] Hunter wrote [in To Change the World] that God embodies a perfect connection between word and world, so why the linguistic acrobatics necessary to interpret the Bible? Why must I struggle with the Bible to establish its own knowability and truthfulness? (2012-9-14)
If the Bible really is true and consistent, why do we have to spend so much time and effort showing it to be so? (2012-9-19)
Do we also have to believe in the basic attributes of God, besides His existence, by faith—over and against counter-evidence from the Bible? My doubts are generally about God's moral attributes—things that make Him a “nice person”. … Is there something wrong with wanting God to be always compassionate, truthful, and just to everyone? ... More concisely, my doubt comes down to this: why does the Bible so often not say what it means? I've lost sight of the 'big picture' of the Bible that we keep emphasizing. All I see are a collection of tangentially-related stories. I seem to have lost the ability to screen out the evidence I dislike. (2012-9-20)
A year previous, I'd realized the disconnect between my internal and external faith. Now I was realizing a deeper disconnect between what I'd been told the Bible said (and how it said it) and what it actually seemed to say. When my class did address these kinds of questions and doubts, I often found the proposed solutions unhelpful. The focus of the class was deliberately on the "big picture", the story the Bible told, and strange verses here and there weren't about to get in the way of that. But I couldn't just brush aside what I was reading if it seemed to go against this big picture. I wrote:
I refuse to accept that God is less morally perfect than I can imagine. … I think what I dislike is 'interpreting' a difficult verse merely by explaining the larger picture it's supposed to fit into, with minimal attention paid to what the verse itself actually means. (2012-9-21)
I began to be dissatisfied with what I saw as the overconnectedness of the class' hermeneutic. By viewing Scripture as a single story that was supposed to be connected to a single center (Jesus), I felt that it failed to do justice to many (especially Old Testament) passages, reducing them to be "pointers" to Jesus even if it didn't seem feasible that they could have originally meant this. I thought that they should say something of value in their own right, in the context in which they were originally written, and not make sense only in a context imposed on them by our hermeneutic. By reading the Old Testament through the "lens" of Christ, we seemed to lose sight of how the original audience would have read it.

For example, did ancient Hebrews really understand the "protoevangelium" in Genesis 3 as a promise to send Jesus to defeat sin and Satan and rescue the creation from a metaphysical curse? Or did the people of Judah, upon hearing Isaiah 53, immediately begin waiting patiently for a future Messiah to come and take away their sins via penal substitutionary atonement? I couldn't see the value of the whole idea of "typology"; it seemed like an idle game of word association and arbitrarily finding connections that weren't intrinsic to the text. Though I didn't know what dispensationalism was at the time, I was pretty strongly learning towards a dispensational hermeneutic (especially in the emphasized part), seeking to defend the meaning of the Old Testament in its own context against what I saw as unjustified impositions from the New Testament.
Even if the 'protoevangelium' could be construed to have parallels with Jesus for us now, the Hebrews would have had no inkling of it then. We should only focus on what it meant back then; any extra perspective we have now is just an 'easter egg'—as if God described the curse with a wink. Maybe it is a symbol, but that isn't the point—the text itself is, not its role as a symbol. … It's like two different ways of reading the Bible—top-down or bottom-up. (2012-10-16)
I sought a more unified way to read the Bible, one that would help me to tie together the biblical story instead of multiplying my questions. Fortunately, this was pretty much the point of the class I was taking at my church. It called us to read all of the Bible in light of the gospel; the saving work of Jesus was supposed  to be the unifying principle in which all of God's words found their purpose. I was convinced of the truth of this gospel, and I thought that a renewed and expanded understanding of it might be the key to resolving my profusion of doubts.

Unfortunately, it was around this time that the gospel I'd been hearing for years also stopped making sense to me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Journey, Part 2: Cracks Appear

This is part 2 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous part if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the Beginning
Between my perceived dualism of my agency and God's, my laserlike focus on "relationship with God" or a "decision for Christ" as the be-all and end-all of Christian spirituality, and my rationalistic distortion of the faith, it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. You can't run the "Christian life" on such misconceptions any more than you can run a car on water. 2010 and 2011, for me, were marked by my first two major "crises" of doubt, which served to shatter these illusions, or at least begin their end.

Summer Project

The first signs of the aforementioned trouble started to appear when I was on Summer Project in Milwaukee, helpfully documented here about a month after it happened. Specifically, my conversionist take on my relationship with God and my dualistic view of how my agency and God's agency interact turned out not to work in actual ministry. I expected that if I believed the right things and took part in inner-city ministry, God would do amazing things through me, like I thought I'd been promised. But one evening, during the mens' Bible study as we were sharing ways we had seen God at work, I couldn't think of anything. The problem, I thought, lay with my faith—but how could that be? What was I doing or believing wrong? Wasn't it all about what God had done, not me? I journaled my confusion:
I want faith and I'm praying for faith but I'm not finding it and it can't be God's fault so it's my fault and I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Why am I the only one not seeing God at work? Why am I stagnating? Except I can't live for God inwardly or outwardly on my own. ... If I don't see Him at work in my life, am I being lazy or impatient? (2010-7-5)
I seemed to be interpreting John 15:5 to mean that I couldn't do anything of spiritual value on my own, which (in my flawed dualistic thinking) meant that I could expect it to happen completely apart from my own efforts. If things weren't working the way I'd hoped, there was nothing I could do (for "apart from me you can do nothing"); was my faith somehow wrong? Did I really have faith? Was Jesus really still the Lord of my life? Were His promises trustworthy?

Unfortunately, I didn't end up actually resolving that issue; I had to get back to my ministry, after all. I resolved to set aside my expectations of God and keep following Him even if He didn't seem to be doing anything through me, even if He seemed to make my life worse. I misinterpreted Job 13:15 ("Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him", actually part of Job's attempt to justify his case to God) and considered it my "life verse". At the time I considered this the big important faith decision I needed to set everything right (from my blog post: "I made an intentional decision to put my faith in Him"), the highlight of the whole project, but looking back I realize that I was simply denying my doubts, sweeping them under the rug and moving on. They wouldn't remain there forever. Nothing made any more sense to me then before; I just decided to keep going anyway, without really knowing why, thinking that this bold decision was an act of "faith".

2011 small group

But, of course, more episodes of doubt followed. The next came one night in 2011 during a meeting of my church small group. I have no idea what we were talking about; as was so often the case, my thoughts and questions led me on a trajectory that was far removed from the rest of the group. This doubt was overwhelming and confusing, as doubt so often is. As it began, I journaled (emphasis mine/original):
If we grow in relationship with Christ just to help other people know Him, that's circular and pointless. I want it to be more authentic, more real than that. What is the life of Christ? What is the death of Christ in us? ... So much of the time this seems like just idea manipulation, pointless exercises. How do I 'plug into' God and make sense of it? Works aren't the point. Emotions aren't the point. Knowing isn't the point. What is the point? Nothing matters. Except God. 
I'm struggling not to see [Christianity] as a different version of normal life with no substantive difference. ... I've suddenly realized how empty, meaningless most of my actions are day-to-day. I see it in others too. I'm just a shell of a life. Is anyone not a shell? People with Christ in their hearts. But what does that mean? I do have Christ, and I'm a shell. (2011-11-30)
The day after, I posted some brief thoughts on seeds and shells. The divide between my internal faith (the seed) and external faith (the shell) had become undeniable. Externally I did all these "Christian" things that didn't really make sense to me (like "know Christ" and evangelize people so they could "know Christ" and evangelize others), and then off in another part of myself I thought about my actual questions of faith and belief. But my belief and practice rarely conversed with each other; my thinking was disconnected from reality and my praxis was disconnected from any theoretical grounding. I had begun to feel this gap acutely.

In retrospect, this was inevitable and unsurprising. While I myself largely focused on thinking (and blogging) on matters of belief, in practice I largely just conformed to the expectations of what was "normal" for my Christian circles. As I realized this disconnect and tried to close it by connecting my thinking with my practice, I began to realize that many elements of how I lived as a "Christian" didn't make sense (like the seeming circular emphasis, especially of Cru, on the "point" of knowing Christ being to share Him with others, until I wasn't sure what else it actually meant). As I began to question more and more elements of my external faith by trying to connect them with my internal faith and being unable, I became less fervent and more ambivalent about living my faith out. I still inwardly believed "the gospel" as I'd been taught it, but I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how I saw it lived out in American Christianity and how little this seemed to correlate with my own understanding. I wrote:
I want to get a good look at Christianity without the 'bandwagon-y” religion getting in the way. So often it's just about knowing the right answers and having the emotional experience—the head and the heart only. (2011-12-21) 
Christian theology is a beautiful study of the divine, but Christian praxis is riddled with contradictions. I desperately want to connect my everyday life to the eternal, to meaning outside of myself. I don't see how to do that in Christianity. (2011-12-22)
These critiques are not entirely fair; to an extent, I was projecting my own two-level conception of Christianity onto the church. I was simply unable to see things in a more integrated way, and I never got substantial help in doing this. It was also around this time that I dropped out of my personal involvement with Cru:
I dislike how normative Christian culture is. ...Is there pressure to 'add to' God's work? …You can't put Christianity into someone from outside. They can only accept Jesus into their heart—the center of their being. … I want to go deeper than [just acting like Cru people to fit in]—I really identified with and supported Cru's mission, but I think I did it all to please Cru, not God. I was a Christian as a lifestyle, as logic and a desire to be part of something, experience something [meaningful], but I only fleetingly connected my faith to my real needs that were instead met by shallow religious facsimiles. Is it wise to incentivize Christian events by what you will get out of them? There is such great pressure to accept the gospel now, I can see why it might not have time to 'drop down'. (2011-12-29)
There is a lot going on in this entry. My sense of Cru's ethos was something externally imposed stemmed, again, from the disconnect between how I internally processed and understood my faith and the ways that faith was 'supposed' to manifest, which I saw as normative. So I followed this ethos, but because of this disconnect it was "all to please Cru, not God". I also saw a conflict between perceived pressure to "accept the gospel" and allowing it to actually permeate you. I saw Cru as focusing much more on the former, for as many people as possible. All of these things were echoes of my desire to close the gaping chasm between my 'authentic' internal faith and 'inauthentic' external faith that had become evident in me.

As these doubts filled the gap between my internal and external faith, I increasingly withdrew from the manifestations of faith that I had previously participated in due to external pressure, but which no longer made sense to me. I expected to find a better way to live out my faith, a way which would be totally consistent with the glorious gospel I knew and "make sense" as I expected, and even to lead others to it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, looking where it has taken me), the doubt would go much deeper...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Journey, Part 1: Back to the Beginning

When announcing my hiatus back in May, I mentioned (but deliberately did not elaborate on) a "new direction" to my journey of faith, which has put my beliefs in a "new and more promising state of flux". This is slightly inaccurate since in truth God didn't shift me into a new direction; I simply realized that the direction in which He has been leading me, besides leading me away from something, has also been leading me towards something. As I realized this, the previous direction I had been planning to take my series on the gospel became inadequate; some major rethinking was in order. Hence the hiatus.

To try and make sense of this development, to set it in its proper context (theologians are all about proper context), I did a fairly comprehensive survey of my journals, which span the last six years, in an attempt to trace and summarize the trajectory my faith has taken to where I am today. The result ended up being about 35,000 words, so I'm breaking it into about 13 posts which I hope to put out in relatively quick succession. So without further ado, back to what I believed in late high school/early college! (This is the continuation of my series on the gospel, I swear)

Looking back at my old journals, which begin shortly after I left high school, such is the difference that they could have been written by a different person. And I really was a different person back then, at least in how I thought about and lived my faith. I had some big, deep-seated misconceptions about what it meant, practically, to be a Christian that would set the direction for my journey in the years to come.

Dualism

As N.T. Wright explains in The New Testament and the People of God, "dualism" can mean a lot of different things, so I'll clarify my own usage of it here. By "dualism" I specifically mean a dualistic relationship between my agency and God's agency. That is, I believed that either I did something, or God did something for me, and that Christianity was, in some sense, 'about' ceasing to do things for ourselves and letting God do them for us, thereby 'trusting' Him rather than our own strength. One of my earliest journal entries shows this belief pretty clearly:
For a while I've been confused about the role of actions vs. faith in my spiritual life; if I'm to trust in God, does my current situation in life depend on my own actions or efforts? If it does things seem hopeless; if not, my free will seems useless. (2008-8-14)
I clearly saw a distinction between "trusting God", which was supposed to be at the heart of the gospel, and relying on my own actions or efforts, which was negatively associated with "religion". For example, one quote from a book about the beatitudes I've been going through says:
Christianity is about coming over and over again to rest in the life Jesus lived and the death that he died for you as a gift of sheer grace. Religion and morality turn Christianity into a system of achievement: "Do this, and you will live." But the beatitudes turn this on its head. In them we hear Jesus say, "I have done this, so you live."
It's not about what we're supposed to do, but what Jesus has done for us. The dichotomy between our agency (assumed to be fallen and impotent) and God's agency (assumed to be all-sufficient) is clear here. The gospel is about Jesus doing for and in us what we cannot (and should not try to) do for ourselves. He does the work, not us; He gets the glory, not us. So I don't think my dualistic thinking, however misguided it was, was or is entirely without support in the evangelical world.

The latter part of that journal entry also shows some of my early confusion about this kind of dualism: the dichotomy between our (useless, fallen) agency and God's (all-sufficient) agency also seems to necessitate a choice between despairing in our own strength or setting aside our free will to let God do everything. Or, trying to put them together, all we were supposed to do in our spiritual life was to somehow actively trust or rest in what He has done for you, as if the pure act of "trusting" apart from other action on our part made any sense. The Christian band Casting Crowns describes this paradox as "trying so hard to stop trying so hard". Seeing no alternative at the time, I assumed there was an answer to this question that I just didn't know yet.

A few other quotes to drive the point home:
Why should I serve God in something I enjoy and am good at? Aren't I supposed to rely on His strength, not mine? (2010-6-29)
Here I'm confused about another implication of my dualistic thinking: it seemed to turn the whole idea of "spiritual gifts" or God-given talents on its head. Doesn't relying on our own interest in or aptitude for something keep us from relying on God? Doesn't He get more glory for using someone totally unequal to the task, as He did with Moses, Gideon, David, and so many others? So shouldn't I seek to minister in ways I don't feel talented, gifted, or interested in, so He gets all the glory? (I'm not saying this is a well-developed evangelical teaching, this is just what I believed at the time, ostensibly as an implication of it)

Even during one of my major crises of doubt (more on that next time), I clung to this belief in dualism, in God working independently of me and my faith, for hope:
The strength of my faith is not what it once was. What we do is unimportant compared to what God has done for us. (2011-12-14)
I've heard that last sentence, or something basically equivalent to it, innumerable times in evangelical teaching.

Relationship with God

Related to dualism was a strong emphasis on my "relationship with God" (again, this was based on evangelical teaching I was hearing, or rather my interpretation and application of it). What I was hearing was that the point of "the gospel" was so that we could have a powerful, transformative, loving, personal relationship with God. This relationship was seen as equivalent to salvation itself (John 17:3). After all, "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion".

What I took from this kind of teaching was that everything in my spiritual life (and my life in general) depended on staying in right relationship with God. And I mean everything. In almost Buddhist fashion, I believed that this relationship was the solution to all of my problems; anything I was going through came down to some disruption in this relationship that needed to be repaired. The important thing wasn't directly confronting the problem, but fixing the relationship. I also thought of this relationship in dualistic terms: seek the face of God, reject the world and its temptations. Sin issues were solved by turning from whatever was tempting me back to God. I was constantly on guard against things "distracting" me from God. Some more journal quotes will illustrate (I probably considered all of these to be exemplary expressions of faith):
Instead of focusing so much on not sinning, maybe I should try to think of God more. (2008-8-11)
Seeking God is really all that matters—I don't have to worry about anything else. That's it. (2009-7-14)
Now, my faith means in any choice I have between my relationship with God and anything else, God wins, because I know He has my best in mind. (2011-11-22)
The first quote shows how I envisioned a very simple choice between either choosing God or choosing sin/the world. The solution to sin issues was simply turning my mind from sin to God—simple, right? The second quote states this more strongly, and shows how the evangelical tendency to highly value piously reductionist statements without nuance was rubbing off on me. The third one shows how this misconception was related to my view of dualism: the only thing I was supposed to 'do' was remain in relationship with God (apparently apart from anything concrete), and let Him take care of the rest. I'm not sure if I knew of the aphorism "let go and let God", but I probably would have endorsed it.

As I got involved with Campus Crusade (Cru) in college, this focus on relationship with God also took on conversionistic overtones: that is, I came to believe that this relationship was begun by our accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior and having your sins forgiven, which was supposed to instantly transform/regenerate you, bringing you from death to life. I saw a binary, black-and-white distinction between being "saved" and "unsaved", between "having Jesus" or not. This distinction was the most important thing about a person, and the "decision for Christ" was the most important decision of one's life. Consequently, when I eventually did run into serious doubt, it meant that I began questioning when and whether I had every really made that singular, all-important "decision for Christ" that was supposed to change everything, and if maybe I had better accept Him again just to be sure it really "took".

One more quote to tie this misconception in with the next:
Why am I trusting in my heart to let me know how it's doing? I can't just rely on some intuitive, mystical relationship with God. I need to actually get to know Him through His word and intentionally seek out His will for my life. (2008-9-2)
This relationship with God, though personal, was (I believed) mediated through Scripture. There was no place for wishy-washy emotionalism or mysticism here; our knowledge of God had to be based on His Word to us, and not on our own wishes or experiences.

Rationalism/Internal vs. External Faith

Last, and most seriously, were my own hyper-rationalistic tendencies, which created a gaping divide between my head and my heart, actions, and life. Unlike the previous misconceptions, which were at least nominally based on Christian teachings I was hearing, this one was (and still is) innate to my personality; it's a danger of being the deep thinker God has made me to be. It meant that my faith primarily played out in my intellect/conscious will (I saw no distinction between the two), my "beliefs" were often my mental assent to a propositional doctrine that was logically explained to me, and I thought I was supposed to "live out my faith" by rationally applying these beliefs in my everyday life through my conscious decisions. I expected to be able to somehow choose to "focus on my relationship with God" consistently and let Him take care of everything else, and considered this to be what the "Christian life" consists of. This colorful quote shows how I tried to do everything in the "Christian life" very intentionally, and was often frustrated:
If I consider following and knowing God to be a matter of the heart, I get into some kind of abstract, mystical, thought-policing state in which I try to turn my heart and mind to Him and am doomed to failure. If I consider it more a matter of the will, I risk getting into legalism. (2008-9-3)
In practice, in my actions (which, it turned out, were still up to me) I tended to "live out my faith" simply by going along with the expectations or application points given to me from my Christian circles. Thus, my rationalism gave rise to what I call (in retrospect) my two separate faiths: internal and external. My internal faith was dynamic and active in me, but largely consisted of merely thinking about Christian truth. My external faith was how I "lived it out" in accordance with what I was taught, but was impersonal and largely disconnected from how I actually processed faith. Obviously, this divide would lead to trouble.

Another result of my rationalistic tendencies was my expectation of my beliefs, doctrine I was taught, and the Bible to all make logical sense and to neatly cohere with each other. I believed that this was to be expected if they were true, because that's how truth works: by fitting into neat little compartments and formulas. (Obviously I no longer agree with this, at least consciously) My simplistic understanding of God's agency vs. my own was one example of this. I don't think I imagined that there might be truths that seemed counterintuitive or challenging, or that I might not understand; I believed that if it was true, it would readily appear to be so, and if no answer seemed like this, then I hadn't found it yet.

Dualism, a single-minded focus on "relationship with God", and a divide between rational "internal" and experienced "external" faith—with misconceptions like these, it was only a matter of time before something went wrong.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism

The following is a paper comparing/contrasting covenant theology and dispensationalism I wrote for my Biblical Theology course, whose length got a bit out of hand.

Covenant theology and dispensationalism are two dominant systems of biblical interpretation in Evangelical biblical theology. Both take Luther's law/gospel dichotomy as a starting point and attempt to situate it in the salvation history depicted in the Bible, rather than just in the hearts of individual believers. From there, however, the systems proceed in very different directions, the comparing of which is the object of this essay.

Covenant theology (CT) views salvation history and the law/gospel dichotomy as several covenants made by God. Grudem defines a covenant as consisting of "a clear definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that stipulates the conditions of their relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the condition for obtaining those blessings."1 The covenant of works was made with Adam, as the federal head of the human race, in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:16-17; see Hos 6:7). In return for his obedience to God's command not to eat from the tree, he would enjoy everlasting life with God in a perfect creation. When Adam and his wife disobeyed, they brought sin, death, evil, and suffering into the world. They broke the covenant of works, and because of our inherited sinful nature we have no hope of keeping it either (Rom 5:18); we are slaves to sin, objects of God's wrath (Rom 9:22).

But God had a plan. In eternity past, the Father and the Son had planned the redemption of mankind from sin and death, through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus; this was the covenant of redemption. So after the Fall, God made a new covenant with Abram, to enter into a relationship with him and restore His blessing to all the fallen nations of the world (Gen 12:3). This was the beginning of the covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, God does not demand perfect obedience in exchange for blessing but graciously takes the initiative, replacing our sin with Christ's righteousness so that we may have eternal life by knowing Him. (Jhn 17:3)

So CT frames salvation history in terms of these three covenants, but especially the covenants of works and grace, which are a historicization of Luther's law/gospel dichotomy. Even the Mosaic law is included in the covenant of grace; it was never intended as a means by which man was to earn his salvation by obedience, but was a guide for the Israelites and a pedagogical tool to show the impossibility of self-justification and to lead people to Christ. In the covenant of grace, Jesus acts as mediator and redeemer, fulfilling the terms of the covenant for us so that all that is required to receive God's blessing of salvation is faith in Him.2

CT emphasizes the continuity of God's plan of salvation. Everyone (save Adam and Eve before the Fall) has the same standing before God, and the same responsibility: believe in God and accept salvation by grace through faith. The way that this saving faith is lived out might vary from age to age (contrast the Mosaic law with the law of Christ), but the centrality of faith is constant. CT's hermeneutic also tends to find continuity in Scripture. Through typology and the pattern of promise-fulfillment, Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of the law, the prophets, the sacrificial system, and many other symbols of Judaism. Jesus Himself is the "new Adam" (see Rom 5:12-19), succeeding where Adam failed. He is the end of the law (that is, its goal or culmination, not simply its cessation) (Rom 10:4). He is the perfect sacrifice who truly atones for the sins of the world, to which the imperfect Mosaic sacrificial system "pointed" (See Hbr 10).

Another distinctive of CT is that it sees the Christian Church as the true people of God, the "true [or new] Israel". This means that promises made in the OT to the nation of Israel are now understood to be fulfilled by Christ for the Church, which is considered to include Israel and to have begun with Adam. For example, Hebrews 8:8-12 views the promises made in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as having their fulfillment in Christ, for the Church. This results in a "dual hermeneutic" in which some messianic prophecies (e.g. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, Mic 5:2) are interpreted literally, while others (such as prophecies about the restoration and glorification of Israel; see Hosea 14) are interpreted more theologically, as finding their fulfillment in Christ's redemption of the Church, instead of ethnic Israel per se. (Paul meditates on this tension in Rom 9-11) Based on the usage of OT prophecies in the NT, some OT passages (and, indeed, the OT as a whole) are reinterpreted typologically in light of their Christ-centered meaning. Even if this new meaning isn't evident from the original text, it is believed to be the "true" meaning of that passage. For example, the "suffering servant" section in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is commonly believed to be unambiguously predicting the ministry and passion of Jesus, even though in its OT context it seems more likely that Isaiah is speaking of Israel.

CT sees the "kingdom of God" as present here and now, albeit in a spiritual sense. It was inaugurated by Jesus (see Mat 4:17, the beginning of His public ministry) and claims the true allegiance of all Christians. Obviously the kingdom's status as spiritual is different from how it was anticipated by the Jews (who expected a visible, political salvation from foreign oppressors), but nonetheless it is how Jesus has chosen to rule the world, through word and Spirit. Some adherents of CT (particularly premillennialists) also expect a final, visible consummation to this kingdom, but this is secondary to living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven here and now.

CT is the theology of my church, so I have become familiar with both its strengths and shortcomings. Its historicization of Luther's ahistorical system of theology is commendable, as is its focus on the unity of God's plan of salvation as told in Scripture. CT brilliantly portrays Christ as the fulfillment of the OT in all that it meant to the Israelites, the expected Messiah who would redeem God's lost people and bring the promises spoken to Abraham to the nations. And finally, the attention that CT pays to the "already" aspect of prophecy and the present (though invisible) reality of the kingdom of God in the world is a welcome rebuke to the stereotype of Christians dismissing involvement in the world on the grounds that it is all going to burn anyway.

CT’s three central covenants seem to correlate only loosely with the ones depicted in the Bible. The covenant of redemption is explicitly described nowhere in the Bible and is of a different kind than the others (God interacting with God, rather than with man); viewing God's command to Adam as a covenant (one of the three major ones, even) seems tenuous; and all the other covenants that are actually clearly depicted as such in the Bible (the covenant with Noah, the major ones with Abram and Moses, and especially the new covenant in Christ's blood (Mat 26:28)) are considered to be part of a single "covenant of grace". Could the distinctions between the biblical covenants be unduly flattened by CT?

Also, as Peter Enns points out in his book Inspiration and Incarnation3, there is a clear tension between the ways CT allows the NT authors to reinterpret the OT and what is considered sound hermeneutics in conservative evangelical circles, i.e. the grammatical-historical method that considers the intended meaning of a text’s author to be the "true" meaning. For example, in Matthew 2:15 Jesus' return from His flight to Egypt is said to fulfill Hosea 11:1: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." (ESV) Yet in context, Hosea was clearly speaking of the nation of Israel, and immediately goes on to describe how Israel sinned and turned to idolatry. (11:2) Clearly he wasn't describing Jesus here, so how can Matthew's usage of Hosea 11:1 as describing Jesus be based on Hosea’s original meaning? Does Matthew get a free pass to interpret Scripture in ways we would consider incorrect today because He was inspired? As Enns points out, we seem to be left with an unsavory choice between following the apostles' hermeneutics and violating our interpretive instincts, or admitting that the apostles should not be examples for us in how we use our Bibles.4

Last, and most personally for me, is the treatment of the law which CT inherits from Luther. Recall that CT holds the Mosaic law to be a pedagogical tool to show us how we are subject to sin, unable to fulfill God's moral demands on us, and thus need Jesus to fulfill them for us so that we can be saved by His righteousness rather than our own. I have been wrestling with the implications of this view for years, and the question of how the law can be a good gift from a loving God to His chosen people if it really plays the role that CT says it does. I can't actually see it in the OT, only in the NT's "reinterpretation" of it (which I cannot but see as eisegesis). The Pentateuch seems to equate faith in God with obedience to His commandments. In Deuteronomy 30, after reviewing the law of God and the blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying, Moses says, "For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. ... But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (v. 11,14) This is a far cry from CT's view of the law. Here it seems simple: you are able to obey the law, so you should. In Romans 10:5 Paul further says, "For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them." Are we supposed to seek salvation through the law or not? Paul seems to contradict himself on this matter, as does the rest of Scripture, at least as interpreted through the lens of CT.

Contrasting CT in many ways is the alternate system of dispensationalism (DT). It is so named because of its division of salvation history into a series of "dispensations"; a dispensation is "a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purposes with unique expectations for human beings".5 In each dispensation (there are generally held to be seven6) God relates to humans differently and gives them different responsibilities to respond to Him; each time man is tested, his failure demonstrates his sinfulness and need for God.7

Literal interpretation of Scripture is thought to be the foundation for the system of DT.8 Among other things, it also plays out in DT's treatment of Old Testament prophecy. Rather than allow the NT to reinterpret the OT as CT does, DT insists on the preservation of the original, literal meaning of the whole Old Testament. The NT authors can add meaning to prophecies (under inspiration), but they can never cancel the original meaning, which is still in force. A significant corollary of this is that DT views the nation of Israel and the Church (which is seen as having begun at Pentecost) as two separate entities. Promises and prophecies made about Israel still apply to Israel; promises made to the Church apply to the Church; a contrast is often drawn between the earthly nature of the promises to Israel and the spiritual nature of the promises to the Church.9 In the view of DT, God has two separate peoples and two programs of salvation.

Also in contrast to CT, DT sees the kingdom of God as more visible and immanent, and thus still in the future. Though subject to Christ's rule as king here and now, dispensationalists await the coming earthly manifestation of that kingdom at the second coming of Christ. In their vision of eschatology (in which dispensationalists seem at least a little more interested than other Christians), Israel and the Church, being separate entities, are believed to have separate destinies under separate parts of God's plan; the earthly kingdom of heaven for Israel and the more universal kingdom of God for the Church.10 Though Israel has been set aside for now as God ministers to the Church, it will be remembered and play a prominent role in the last days.

The difference between CT and DT shouldn't be overstated. Both are conservative evangelical systems; both are based on Luther's vision; both affirm that salvation is by grace through faith; both purport to tell the overall "story" of salvation from the Bible. Yet the differences are also clear. CT focuses on the unity of salvation history as God's single plan; DT focuses more on the diversity by seeing it as a series of dispensations. CT is willing to reinterpret the OT in nonliteral, theological ways to connect it into its single vision; DT does not allow this, and holds that the revelation of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh only adds to the promises given in the OT, rather than altering them. And, of course, while CT sees the Church as the new Israel, DT sees them as two separate entities with their own places in God's plan of salvation.

DT's willingness to stand up for the literal meaning of OT prophecies is, of course, more consistent with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Unlike CT, it does not risk overspiritualizing the kingdom of God until it becomes little different from secular ethics. It keeps in mind the "not yet" aspect of the kingdom as something to be fervently hoped for, and eagerly affirms that the world (not just peoples' hearts) is far from the way it should be. It also takes the diversity of Scripture more seriously rather than risk ignoring the contexts of some parts of it for the sake of a unified interpretation.

Yet DT has at least as many shortcomings as CT. Most of these arise from its a priori commitment to a strictly literal hermeneutic and a biblicist view of Scripture that seems to view the Bible as a sort of reference book for truth whose primary purpose is to provide easily systematizable prooftexts. How did it become a given that such a hermeneutic is the most faithful one? (Or rather, where is it stated in the Bible?) By reducing Scripture to being essentially a repository of propositional information, literalists not only miss out on the richness of the Bible's many genres, contexts, and perspectives; they betray their own goal of reading Scripture faithfully. It strikes me as much like the flat way nonbelievers who think the Bible is a bunch of nonsensical fairytales read it—except that dispensationalists believe it all anyway.

By making the words of Scripture the sole determiner of truth, literalism fails to grasp that truth refers to a reality outside itself. DT coheres with a strictly literal reading of Scripture, but nothing else. Whenever two different words or terms are used similarly or interchangeably (e.g. "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew 19:23-24), instead of realizing they refer to the same thing with different connotations and studying what the word choice means, DT assumes they refer to distinct theological concepts and develops a separate theology for each based on other uses of that specific term. So with the kingdoms, so with Israel and the Church.

The result is a hermeneutic that becomes almost a cipher; the meanings of terms are kept hermetically discrete and controlled not by context or an attempt to discern what the author meant, but by what DT's "biblical" system says them must mean. It is disjointed, arbitrary, complicated, and highly unintuitive; there is little reason to believe that God would work in such a way besides literalism's say-so, and a wealth of reasons to prefer a more theological (not to mention traditional) interpretation that sees greater unity in Scripture and salvation history as the coherent work of one Author. There is little in the way of a single biblical "storyline"; God seems unable to make up His mind what to do with His people and keeps reworking His relationship with them. What basis does such a system provide for any kind of transcendent, universal morality, beyond simply whatever God has tasked people with doing at the moment?

DT's eschatological vision in particular is missing what I consider to be a key component. The kingdom of God, or "Millennium" in the dispensational imagination, will consist of the visible, earthly rule of the returned Christ, which will involve a total transformation of the world's social, political, and economic orders and will be enforced on everyone, with nonbelievers either slain or forced into paying lip service11; "all will have to accept Him as King; some will also accept Him as personal Savior".12 It will be a restoration of Old Testament theocracy, with sin immediately punished.13 This conception of the kingdom seems entirely imposed from the top down, very much like failed utopian visions of yesteryear. In this way it misses the upside-down nature of Christ's kingdom, which is not of this world (Jhn 18:36) and is not simply a better, more successful version of earthly kingdoms. It forgets that the kingdom of God is not simply something "out-there", but already exists in the Church and in the hearts of those who love God. It does not use violence and coercion to achieve its goals, especially over sin (see Jesus' refusals of violence in Mat 26:52-54, Jhn 18:36), but self-sacrificing love. In the dispensationalist imagination, Jesus' kenotic ministry in Judea, as described by Paul in Phl 2:5-11, seems to have been a mere parenthesis, and in the end He will be revealed to be more like the violent, tribalistic God of the OT after all.

I also find one of DT's most characteristic features, its distinction between national Israel and the Christian Church, highly problematic. DT seems to rule out the possibility that God's separate plan for Israel is simply their mass conversion into the Church, for if Israel must join the Church to be saved, how is this any different from CT's claim that the Church is the new Israel, the one true people of God? And if God still has a plan of salvation for Jews who reject Jesus, it seems to imply that Jesus is not the only means of salvation for God's people(s). Besides the unfortunate Trinitarian implications of asserting that you can reject Jesus and somehow still obey God, Paul asserts the unity of God's plan of salvation in 1 Tim 2:5 (RSV): "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus".

Worse, this Israel/Church dichotomy breaks the narrative of the Bible into two. Jesus is no longer seen as the fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel for salvation (which God seems to be unaccountably putting off), but something totally "unforeseen and intercalary".14 The failure to unify the two strikes me as a failure of imagination that I don't find compelling in the least. Stating that God is one but has two peoples and two separate plans of salvation goes against my intuition of the biblical storyline; I see absolutely no reason to believe it except DT's literal hermeneutic and its failure to see unity of the Bible. Why is Jesus not the universal savior of both Jew and Gentile? DT fails to provide a remotely satisfying answer as CT does. And, finally, this distinction is flatly contradicted by Paul who portrays Christians as the true Jews (Rom 2:25-29) and states that Christ demolishes the distinction between Jew and Gentile and is Lord of them both (Rom 10:12, Gal 3:28). In Romans 4:11-12, he says that Abraham is the father both of those who believe without being circumcised and those who are circumcised but emulate Abraham's faith. I don't find DT's attempts to restrict the scope of Paul's words to Jewish and Gentile Christians convincing. Additionally, one of his major points in his argument in Rom 9-11 is to deny that Jews have any special privilege by virtue of their birth, for “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6); his hope for the Jews is that they will come to Christ, not a separate plan of salvation. Paul’s heart is broken for his fellow Jews who have rejected Christ; there is no other plan for them. It saddens me that literalistic interpretation is used to silence Paul to prevent this major theme of his writing from being heard.

A few other comments. The distinction between earthly Israel and the heavenly church is an eisegetical imposition of a dualism alien to the biblical imagination. The literalistic, systematizing, prooftexting hermeneutic of DT tends to lead (as we often hear) to unhealthy speculation about the "end times" that treat the Bible as a manual of cryptic prophecies to decipher into a clear roadmap of how (and even when) they will play out. And the attempt of some dispensationalists to establish that their theology is the historic belief of the Church15 is totally unconvincing. Just because a church father says something that sounds like it could have been said by a dispensationalist does not mean he was as well. DT also implies a strange kind of pluralism, the existence of two continuing ways to God: Judaism and Christianity, each with a different set of blessings; choose wisely! Apparently when Jesus called Himself "the way" (Jhn 14:6), He was speaking only to the Church (that is, His altogether Jewish disciples).

As I said, I was raised in churches that largely followed CT, so this is the system I am most familiar with. I still share its desire to see God's plan of salvation as unified and coherent, and its vision of the kingdom of God as being spiritual now, but visibly manifested through the Church and Christ's rule of it (not simply in top-down fashion) at His return. And I very much try to view Christ as the expected fulfillment of the OT promises, as the culmination of the promises made to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the other OT saints. I think most of my disagreement with CT comes from the belief that it does not adequately realize its own theological goals, not from any dispute with those goals. I am less experienced with DT and less positive toward it, but in its refusal to let NT reinterpretation trump the original meaning of OT passages or flatten biblical diversity into a single picture, I can see some of my objections to CT echoed.

My own approach to biblical theology differs from both CT and DT in a few important ways. I see the “point” of the gospel as not just the salvation of human souls, but the redemption of all creation through Christ and the Church; not simply the end of sin-as-disobedience, but of sin-as-ontological-corruption and the related forces of death, the devil, and the world’s “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). I consider this a much grander and, ultimately, more glorious view of God as the true savior of the world, whose plan of salvation is much bigger than us humans. I emphasize that throughout salvation history God has related to people not only externally through outward signs and covenants, but transformationally in our hearts. I view “law” as the Mosaic law, which was given by a good God as a precious gift to His people for a definite purpose (which it has now served), not simply as oppressive and condemning. Lastly, I am keen to see Christianity as the fulfillment of the Israelite religion, not merely a substitute or add-on, so I try to see Jesus as the true (though not always literal or expected) fulfiller of the original meaning of Old Testament prophecies, albeit in the expanded context of God’s people as defined universally by faith rather than national birthright. Such an approach, I hope, both incorporates the best aspirations of both CT and DT while learning from their blunders.

1
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1994), 526.

2
Grudem, Systematic, 519.

3
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the
Problem of the Old Testament
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
2005), see ch. 4.

4
Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 156.

5
William Glenny, "Dispensationalism" (online lecture),
(30
June 2014).

6
Lewis Chafer and John Walvoord, Major Bible Themes (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 128.

7
Chafer and Walvoord, Major Bible Themes, 127.

8
Glenny, "Dispensationalism".

9
Lewis Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas: Dallas Seminary
Press, 1951), 33 and 37.

10
Chafer, Dispensationalism, 64.

11
"Dispensationalism Chart", <
https://courses.unwsp.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=673157> (30 June
2014).

12
Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988), 510.

13
Ryrie, Basic Theology, 509.

14
Chafer, Dispensationalism, 34.

15
See Chafer, Dispensationalism, 10–12.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Animal Suffering and the "Cosmic Fall"

Last Sunday night at my interchurch small group, beginning from the subject of the end of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life, the question was raised: "Why is there death? Why does God allow death, pain, and suffering in His 'good' creation? And why do these things affect not only sinful humans, but uncomprehending and morally neutral animals, and even the forces of nature?" The question, it turned out, was one of those Pandora's boxes that simply cannot be put away once it is asked. The result was some of the most heated discussion we've ever had in that group. (I'm thankful that we managed to keep it mostly charitable)

The discussion was basically most of the group espousing and defending the idea that part of the "curse", God's just punishment for Adam and Eve's terrible sin in Genesis 3, was a "cosmic fall" that caused not just humans but also the rest of creation to become subject to death and decay, myself strongly opposing this thesis, and another friend with lots of questions trying to adjudicate between these views. Given that I express myself much better in writing after a few days to process, I decided against trying to persuade people then and there in favor of writing this post. (Which, incidentally, contains much that I was going to write about in my Gospel series)

In a way, this discussion on animal suffering and "natural evil" was perfectly timed as it came shortly after I got a long-desired book on just this subject, Death Before the Fall by Ronald Osborn. (Previously quoted here) The longer first part of the book is his somewhat heavy-handed answer to biblical literalists who refute evolution and an old earth using a strictly literal, scientific reading of Genesis 1-2 (which contained some interesting points but was not overall terribly useful for me), but the second part was his honest meditations on the problem of animal suffering. Given the magnitude of this question and its close relation with the "problem of evil", it's understandable that he doesn't try to state many firm conclusions, but he takes the discussion in a healthier direction that I overall agree with.

In structuring my own thoughts on animal suffering, and the "cosmic fall" hypothesis often used to explain it, I'm deliberately avoiding any discussion of the age of the earth and the truth of evolution (which I am planning on addressing later anyway). I'm instead trying to get into an "inner-biblical" understanding (that is, what the biblical authors and their contemporaries would have thought) as much as I can.

A note on Hebrew ontology/cosmology

Though many Christians would deny the reality of evolution (see how I promised not to mention it again?) as an unjustified encroachment of modern, scientific thinking on the truth of Scripture, scientific thinking can also affect our take on Scripture in more subtle ways. Consider, for instance, our generally rational view of the universe as operating by mathematically describable natural laws. The laws of mechanics explain everyday motion; the law of gravity explains why things fall, why the earth is round, and why it orbits the sun; the laws of electromagnetism account for much of our modern technologies; and so on. Of course most Christians are on guard against naturalism, or the view that these laws and the matter they describe constitute the whole of reality. We confess the existence of an immortal, invisible God who wrote these laws, is not controlled by them, and can suspend them as He wishes to accomplish His purposes. But these laws describe the way things "normally" behave. If we desire a strictly "biblical" ontology (philosophy of being), this will not do.

To begin with a point I make often, ANE ontology was not material (that is, something "existing" did not mean its consisting of a set of atoms with a position, orientation, and velocity) but functional; something "existed", to quote John H. Walton in his helpful description, "by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system", namely the well-ordered cosmos. ANE creation myths aren't concerned with the material origins of the cosmos so much as the functional origins. They primarily consist of a creator deity creating lesser deities (often by birth or other such analogues of human life) and giving them functions; to be the sky, the storm, the water, the fertile earth, etc. Again, these things are not thought of in material terms but in terms of their functions, their contributions to the working, ordered system of society.

Of course, we can't assume the ancient Hebrews thought just like their contemporaries; we know for a fact that they did not. I don't think they defined Yahweh strictly in terms of his functions (except maybe, circularly, the function of existing: "I AM WHO I AM." [Exo 3:14]), nor did they view Him as creating sub-deities to govern the functions of the cosmos. But it is more likely that the Hebrews did think of God as creating functionaries, not matter in the modern sense (albeit impersonal functionaries that totally obeyed His word). If we read Genesis 1 and 2 as an explanation of where the material sun, moon, earth and stars came from, why life exists on earth, etc., we are missing the precise point the text is trying to make: God created all that was created not to follow scientific laws that govern the universe, but to serve an ordained function in His ordered cosmos. It's a much more personal view of the universe than we have today.

Besides this, in the ancient Near Eastern cultures from which the ancient Hebrews arose, there was no distinction between the "natural" world in which we live, and the "supernatural" plane in which the gods lived. Walton explains how this works for the sun/sun-god:
The cosmic deities were manifest in that element of the cosmos with which they were associated, and they had some jurisdiction there. Sun gods were active in and through the sun—but they did not create the sun, at least in the material terms that we are used to thinking in. ... Existence is much more closely bound with function and role. Consequently, that the sun and sun god function together and that their roles coincide suggest a modified "creative" role. The birth of the sun god is coterminous with the origin of the sun(neither functions/exists without the other), thus explaining the oft-mentioned correspondence between theogony and cosmogony. Though the god is the controlling party in the functioning partnership, the god has no existence separate from, or outside, the sun. The sun is the manifestation of the god and the expression of the god's attributes. The god is the power behind the sun. ... In the ancient world the origins are inseparable from operations. Hence cosmogony, cosmology, theogony, and theology are all inextricably intertwined.
Again, there are big differences between the ANE and Hebrew views. Yahweh was seen, in stark contrast to the gods of the surrounding nations, as transcendent, not confined to any particular function, but the creator of all the functions. The second commandment (Exo 20:4-6) is not simply an application of the first but a rebuke to the absurd pagan notion that the true God who created everything could be depicted and contained in a figure created by creaturely hands. But there are also similarities: the modern, scientific view in which mathematical laws describe how the universe "normally" is unless God steps in bears little resemblence to the ancient notion of an immanent God "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Or the God who displays the knowledge of Him in the stars and makes the sun run its course like a man on his wedding day or a champion runner. (Psa 19) Or the God of Psalm 104 who makes the clouds His chariot, waters the mountains, grows grass for the cattle, and so on. Perhaps the great tragedy of the modern, scientific worldview is that it threatens not our capacity to believe in miracles, but the premodern sense of divine wonder that permeated all things.

The upshot (no, I wasn't just rambling): in the Hebrew cosmological view, the creation is not some semi-independent entity that normally runs "on its own" when God doesn't reach in. He doesn't have to reach in because He is already very much at home in governing His creation. Even man's exercise of his God-given free will is subject to this government, for sovereignty does not mean crowding out every other agent. Based on this, I assert that it does not make biblical sense to think about death the way we tend to—as an alien entity with a life of its own that somehow broke into the creation to "change the rules", cause havoc, and subvert God's dominion, outside His control, and that needs to be slain. To do so is to confuse biblical metaphor with the reality it describes.

Death (physical death) is described in the Old Testament more simply (and Augustinian-ly). It is simply the absence of life, specifically, the breath of life. Ishmael and the patriarchs each died by "breathing his last" and being gathered to his people (Gen 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; RSV, see also Jesus' death in Mar 15:37,39; Luk 23:46). God brings Adam to life by breathing the breath of life into him (Gen 2:7), and states man's mortality by saying, "My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh" (the words for "spirit" and "breath" are interchangeable in Hebrew, as in Greek). In Psalm 104:29, speaking of the animals, the Psalmist says, "when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust." In the Old Testament view, the only thing separating living creatures (man and the animals) from dust is the life-giving breath (Spirit) of God.

The "cosmic fall"

With that said, it should be a bit clearer why I think reading a "cosmic fall" into the Old Testament, before which everything was perfect, is nonsense. There is simply no way to interpret such an event as being a consequence of human sin—to blame it on us. There is no logical way to argue that the first sin could have somehow radically altered the physiological structure of lions, edited biological processes to allow for disease, changed meteorological and geological patterns to make natural disasters possible, and so on. It's nonsense. It simply does not follow at all.

The alternative (and the view my friends were arguing) is that God made such changes in response to Adam and Eve's sin. These changes accompanied His curses pronounced on them in Genesis 3:14-19; because of Adam's role as the representative head or God-appointed ruler over creation, and because of the awful seriousness of their sin, God was entirely just in imposing such a punishment. Man's fate became the fate of all creation; it was "subjected to futility" by God (Rom 8:20) so that all of creation would be redeemed along with sinful man (8:21). So the whole creation groans in travail along with us, (8:22-23) waiting for this redemption from the grievous evil wrought by the sin of Adam.

This is where expressing myself in writing helps; I disagree with this view so strongly and for so many reasons that they get jumbled up and become incoherent when I try to argue against it verbally.

First, this view, though justifying God's action in cursing the creation by invoking His "justice", forgets an extremely basic axiom of all justice: justice only punishes the guilty. No matter how much you play up the seriousness of Adam and Eve's sin, no matter how guilty you make them out to be (a separate matter that I won't get into here), this still in no way justifies punishing uncomprehending, morally neutral animals (much less plants and forces of nature) for the sins of the first humans, no matter how bad those sins were. There is not some threshold of "bad"-ness after which the punishment of a sin is justly allowed to spill over to others. The sheer obviousness of this makes it hard for me to understand how anyone could question it. You may protest (as theologians have done) that God struck the creation to teach man a moral lesson about his sin, but this in no way lessens the infraction of justice. It's like a father who, to teach his son a lesson about obedience and the combustibility of fire, throws the family cat into the furnace. The son will learn a lesson, of course; but what will he learn about his father?

Further, even besides this basic misunderstanding, this view depends on the misconception of "God's justice" as basically being His necessity to punish sin. it is not. As I have previously argued, God's justice is not something negative (opposition to sin and a determination to repay it) but something positive that is compromised or destroyed by sin and which God desires to restore. It is the fair, righteous, and compassionate administration of authority, of which dealing with wrongdoing is only one piece. God's justice is not "in tension" with His mercy; they are both blessings that He wants to bestow on His people and restore in His creation, but which require punishment for those who oppose them. God's "justice" is terrible for those who continue to rebel against Him, but it is so much more sweet for those who are His. We must not allow ourselves to forget this positive picture of justice as something to be desired and sought after, not just something Jesus saves us from so we don't have to experience it.

The upshot of this is that God's justice is not simply a license to take arbitrarily harsh measures against sin or the basis of divine voluntarism (the view that whatever God does, no matter how awful it seems to us, is automatically right because God is the one who does it). It does not stand on its own in conflict with His "nice" attributes like this. It is a part of His plan to redeem all things, so that Amos, in calling Israel to repent and turn back to God, can say that "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (5:24) The same Isaiah who prophesies that the Messiah "will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth" (42:4) gives one of the most beautiful passages linking the work of this Messiah to an act of restoration that goes beyond humans to the animal kingdom (emphasis added to this part):
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of E'phraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; E'phraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass E'phraim. [Isa 11:1-13 RSV]
This is the background to my biggest objection to any divinely mandated "cosmic fall". God promises a redeemed "natural" world without predation, existing in harmony with humans rather than existing as a danger (as it did in the Old Testament) or as a resource to be exploited (as it all too often is today). These promises, however, are meaningless if the reason the natural world is in need of redemption is because God "broke" it. He would only be promising to undo what He did in the first place. The deep biological changes that would have to take place to allow the lion to eat straw would only be the reverse of the ones God made in bringing the lion into its present state. If our hope for the restoration of the created world is simply for God to return it to the way it was before He cursed it, what kind of a hope is that?

You may claim (with biblical justification) that God is not restoring the creation to exactly the way it was before; it will be better somehow, to His greater glory. But this still fails to answer how, exactly, it's to God's glory to arbitrarily afflict His creation only to restore it later. Sure, it's a display of His power, but if the ideal is a world without "natural evil", why would He actively move the creation away from this ideal? How does this enhance His glory? This is roughly analogous to answering Paul's question in Romans 6:1, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" with a resounding "Yes!", and the additional caveat that God is the one making us continue in sin so that His grace may abound. One of the rules for interpreting Scripture in the early church was that any interpretation must be worthy of God's character, and I contend that this interpretation is supremely unworthy of Him.

At this point, I'm reminded of another book I read recently, a chronicle by Austin Fischer about his journey into and out of Calvinism. It was a nice little read, and I like how he clearly explained his (still-valid) reasons for being a Calvinist to help show how Calvinists are not simply pretentious, joyless exegetes obsessed with God's sovereignty. He made clear that Calvinism is not a horrible heresy; it is a good way of understanding God's sovereignty and grace, but not the best way. I hope to do something similar with the "cosmic fall" view. Yes, it has its merits, both in how it portrays God as sovereign over creation and deeply concerned about sin, but it is not the best way to explain natural evil.

Fischer's central critique of Calvinism is a more sophisticated version of the old objection that it portrays a God who is no longer good. In response to Calvinist objections that God gets to define what 'good' is and that we are bound to listen and obey, Fischer asks, essentially: if God's definition of 'good' is, in the case of the reprobate, so completely foreign (that is, diametrically opposed) to our definition, how can we be sure that His definition of His other attributes, for instance His truthfulness or trustworthiness, are not also the opposite of our definitions? How can we be sure that His "truthful" speech in Scripture is not lies to us? How can we have any meaningful relationship with Him?

I think this critique applies equally to the doctrine of the "cosmic fall". If, in this instance, God's definition of "justice" is so completely contrary to ours, punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty, how can we trust this justice? And, as Fischer objected, how can we know His Word is really trustworthy for us, etc.? Again, if God somehow gains greater "glory" (for this view also calls our understanding of His glory into question) by cursing creation and then restoring it, how can we hope that the restoration of all things will really be permanent? Why not continue breaking and fixing the cosmos for ever-greater glory, if God's glory is such an abstract and mathematical notion?

Understanding natural evil as being ordained by God also undermines any incentive we may have to act as "stewards" of creation; after all, God is the one who placed the animals in their plight of mortality, predation, and disease in the first place, and He is the only One who can do anything about it, so why should we try to improve it? Why not make the created world serve our interests with deforestation, pollution, factory farms, and the like and focus on the only thing that really matters, loving our neighbor and the salvation of souls? (I think that such instances of humans failing as stewards and denigrating creation are the only way in which human sin does negatively affect animals, and it is quite obviously our fault, not God's)

Finally, and perhaps most devastatingly, is the fact that not only is this "cosmic fall" never spelled out anywhere in Scripture; in much of the Old Testament, God Himself does not seem sorrowful about "natural evil". There is no hint that it is not the way things are supposed to be, or that it is God-wrought. Psalm 104's beautiful description of the natural world in all its "wild"-ness, including God providing meat for lions and sea monsters, is how Osborn opens his book.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep forth. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they get them away and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening. O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it. These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season. When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things. When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground. [Psa 104:20-30 RSV]
Likewise in Job:
"Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? [Job 38:39-41 RSV]
"The wings of the ostrich wave proudly; but are they the pinions and plumage of love? For she leaves her eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them, and that the wild beast may trample them. She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers; though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear; because God has made her forget wisdom, and given her no share in understanding. When she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider. ... Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? On the rock he dwells and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag. Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off. His young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there is he." [Job 39:13-18, 27-30 RSV]
And of course, the whole of Job chapter 41 about the "leviathan" (probably the crocodile), who is portrayed as the proud, terrible king of of the creatures, rather than man. In all of God's descriptions the tone is one of a proud parent giving a glowing description of his progeny, not of regretfully describing necessary measures taken in response to human sin. Likewise in Psalm 104 the tone strongly suggests that the Psalmist's description of the created world is working just as God intends it to, even the cycle of life and death in v. 29-30. The only suggestion that things are other than they should be is in the last verse, which is directed solely at human sinners and is distinct from the discourse on the harmonious creation.

Death before the Fall?

Osborn's thesis, as the title of his book suggests, is that death could have existed before the Fall. In other words, the pre-Fall creation was not the golden age of perfection that Augustine and later interpreters made it out to be. I have come to cautiously agree with this, fully acknowledging that it leaves much unanswered (but doesn't have the horrible implications of a divinely decreed cosmic fall).

First, the creation in Genesis is never called "perfect". It is called "good", or "very good". The Hebrew for these are tob and tob me'od. These words are elsewhere used to say that Rebekah was "very fair to look upon" in Gen 24:16, that God meant Joseph's brother's mistreatment of him "for good" in 50:20, that the promised land was "exceedingly good" in Num 14:7, that man should "take pleasure" (or "see good") in his toil in Ecc 3:13, and that "it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." (Lam 3:27)

If Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis, depending on your theory) had wanted to say that the creation was perfect, he most likely would not used tob and tob me'od, for there is a Hebrew word for "perfect", tamim. So, using this word, Noah was "blameless in his generation" (Gen 6:9), the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus are to be "without blemish" (Lev 1:3,10; 3:1; 4:3; 5:18; 14:10), and in Deu 32:4 God's work is said to be "perfect". If the author really did view the pre-Fall creation as existing in a state of ontological perfection, why didn't he say so?

Or again, if the creation was perfect and exactly "the way it's supposed to be" before the Fall, how do you explain the presence of the snake (later interpreted as being Satan) in the garden? How did he get there? If he really was a fallen angel, who let him in? It's hard to argue that the creation was "perfect" if it contained this lying figure, whatever his identity.

In God's charge to the first humans in Genesis 1:28-29, He tells them to "subdue" the earth and "have dominion [rule] over" it. These are not nice words that describe the work of a gardener; they are militaristic words. The word for "subdue", kabash, is used to describe how the land of Canaan lay subdued before the advancing Israelites, King David's conquests (2 Sam 8:11), people being subjugated into slavery (2 Chr 28:10, Neh 5:5, Jer 34:11,16), trampling or treading down an opposing force (Zec 9:15), Haman "assaulting" Esther in the king's presence (Est 7:8), and God treading our iniquities underfoot. (Mic 7:19) In no other place in the Old Testament is kabash used to mean anything nice.

Likewise with the word for "rule" or "have dominion", radah. At best, it is used to describe the Lord or a prevailing nation exercising dominion over a subjugated nation; at worst, it is used to describe especially harsh rule in Leviticus 25:43,46,53 or the mission of Christ to "Rule in the midst of your foes!" (Psa 110:2) The picture of human's mission here in Genesis 1 is not merely a dignified, representative role as the "head" of a perfect, harmonious creation, but conquerors appointed to subdue an unruly creation (likewise the word for "helper" in Gen 2:18 does not simply mean a personal assistant, but usually speaks of God's much-needed support against a superior force, even enemy armies). In light of the tension between the garden and the land outside (was only the garden perfect?), it's quite possible to see Adam's mission as the expansion of the garden, the subjugation of the untamed earth.

The scope of the "curse" in Genesis 3 is much smaller than what we commonly present as the consequence of sin. The only animal cursed is the serpent, but even it is not forced to become a predator, but only told, "upon your belly you shall go, and dust [not mice] you shall eat all the days of your life." Eve's pain in childbirth is "greatly multiplied", leaving open the possibility that pain did exist before. (There is also the fact that no one has to explain to Adam and Eve what pain and death are, but this is only an argument from silence)

Finally, it is worth remembering, as I often say, that nowhere in the Old Testament do we find any mention of a generalized curse affecting all humans (much less all creation) reverberating from Adam's sin. Isaiah 43:27 does mention him, saying "Your first father sinned, and your mediators transgressed against me", but even here Adam is merely being used as a bad example for the later Israelites, not as the origin of "original sin" common to all.

Neither is death universally presented as the direct consequence of sin; says Osborn, "Death in classical Jewish thought is at times seen as a divine punishment and the consequence of sin, but at other times it is seen as the God-appointed fulfillment of full lives", as seen in the above-mentioned deaths of the patriarchs. Again, going back to the cosmological note, death in the Hebrew understanding is not some alien force that Adam unwittingly introduced to creation, but simply the withdrawal of God's Spirit, the breath of life. It is quite feasible that Adam and Eve were not created immortal intrinsically, but immortal conditionally on their continuing to eat from the tree of life (see Gen 3:22-24). Without continuing access to this tree, man went the way of all flesh, back to the dust from which he came. God's curse to Adam in Gen 3:19, "you are dust, and to dust you shall return", could be God merely reminding him of his finite, creaturely nature and dependence on God's active, sustaining grace for life rather than editing his biological makeup to make him start aging.

I'm not claiming that this case is airtight. There is still plenty that doesn't make sense to me. My goal is that you would, if only for a moment, remove your current interpretive lenses and try on some different ones. This different, admittedly more difficult and ambiguous view of the creation is, at least, one possible way to read the Old Testament—and, in my view, closer to the beliefs of the ancient Jews than our Augustinian reading of a perfect, deathless paradise destroyed by both human and divine action. It draws a closer parallel between creation and redemption (at least for the non-human world), seeing the latter as a continuation of the former to a state of completion that never was in the past.

And yet...

At this point, you are probably just about ready to throw your New Testament at my head. I have been sticking to the Old Testament in an effort to show how we can piously introduce later ideas into it. It is to those later ideas that we now turn. But before getting to Paul, it's worth noting, as I mentioned earlier, that God promises a redemption of all of creation not just in the New Testament, but also through Isaiah. Quoting the relevant passage again:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isa 11:6-9 RSV]
A similar theme is found later in Isaiah:
"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the child shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their children with them. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD." [Isa 65:17-25 RSV]
These passages both describe a plan of redemption that goes beyond human sin to encompass all of creation, including what we would call "natural evil". Interestingly, you'll notice that people are still subject to death in the second passage, just at a good old age. (Was death per se a problem to Isaiah and his audience, or just untimely death? That is, does this passage describe an "intermediate state" of redemption, as is commonly supposed, or an earlier vision of the eschatological paradise?)

But, of course, it's primarily in the writings of Paul that death itself is revealed to be a great enemy of mankind, which Jesus defeated (or at least defanged) on the cross. In Romans 5 Paul typologically compares and contrasts Adam, the man through whom death came, with Jesus, the man through whom life comes. This passage is also the basis for a doctrine of "original sin".
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned-- sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Rom 5:12-21 RSV]
Again, pay attention to what Paul does and does not say. He does say that death came into the world through Adam's sin, and that it "spread to all men". He does not say anything about whether it also reigned over animals through Adam, or whether "death" is some kind of dualistic spiritual power or simply the loss of man's conditional immortality made possible by perfect communion with God in the garden. The strong parallel Paul draws between sin and death makes it hard to believe he could also have meant his words to apply to natural evil.

Later in Romans, Paul makes clear that the promised redemption and glory which Christ will bring extend not just to us but to all creation, which was "subjected to futility" by God in hope of this redemption.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. [Rom 8:18-25 RSV] 
"Futility" here cannot be the same as "bondage to decay", or we again read Paul as saying, absurdly, that part of God's plan of redemption is simply fixing what He broke.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes very clear that death is "the last enemy to be destroyed", and destroyed it will be at the resurrection.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. "For God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "All things are put in subjection under him," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one. ... Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:21-28, 51-57 RSV]
In his great Christological hymn in Colossians 1, Paul speaks of how, through the cross, God reconciled to himself "all things, whether on earth or in heaven". As many as were created through Christ will be reconciled through Him.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. [Col 1:15-20 RSV]
And in his vision of the final victory, John sees the final destruction of death, and the future hope of eternal life without any death.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; [Rev 20:14 RSV] 
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." [Rev 21:1-4 RSV]
Reading these passages together, it seems pretty obvious that they share some common themes and promises. Paul draws close parallels between sin and death; they both entered the world through Adam, they were both decisively defeated (but not done away with) by Jesus' death and resurrection, and they will both be destroyed forever when Jesus finishes what He started. To Paul, they work together closely; the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), the sting of death is sin (1 Cor 15:56), death came through sin (Rom 5:12), sin reigns in death (5:21)... Furthermore, given Paul's emphasis in 1 Cor 15 on both the physical and spiritual implications of Christ's resurrection, it seems unjustified to say that Paul drew a distinction between physical death and spiritual death, as I used to do. As with Isaiah, Paul envisions a redemption not just of human sinners, but of all creation to its creator.

In this light, it's easy to see how, reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New, an interpreter could extend Paul's dynamic of "death through Adam's fall, life and redemption through Christ's rise from the grave" to all creation: the whole cosmos "fell", in some sense, with sinful man, and now awaits redemption along with us. This view is based not so much on a specific text as on the desire for consistency; animals age, get sick, and are subject to the same kinds of dangers we are, so shouldn't they have the same source? Yet, as I tried to show earlier, such a "cosmic fall" could not be the direct consequence of Adam's sin, but only God's free response to it. But if the Old Testament perspective I argued for is correct and what we see as "natural evil" is part of God's original, intended creation, the "way things are supposed to be", why are we promised that it will be redeemed? Something doesn't add up...

Picking up the pieces

A few words on methodology. I'm not claiming for a moment to have the solution to the problem of evil, or even of natural evil. If Job is any indication, it lies beyond the human capacity to fully understand. So any solutions that we attempt to come up with are doomed to be both fragmentary and speculative. Fragmentary because they will not be ultimately conclusive or satisfying (I think Jesus Himself is the only truly satisfying answer to these questions), and speculative because in trying to assemble the biblical evidence into a coherent picture, it must add something. What the Bible tells us underdetermines a sure, complete conclusion about God's purpose in allowing sin and suffering. This is why throwing favored proof-texts back and forth doesn't get us anywhere; both parties try to go beyond what God has revealed while thinking theirs is the truly "biblical position".

I think something like this was going on in my small group. As I hope I have showed by this point, the Old and New Testaments (and even different parts of the Old Testament) don't provide a single, neatly cohering viewpoint. Job and some of the Psalms seem perfectly fine with animal suffering and natural evil; Isaiah and Paul promise an end to it. The Old Testament doesn't see Adam's sin as having a global, spiritual effect on his progeny; Paul does.What was happening in our discussion was that I was placing the Old Testament position more centrally, while my friends were emphasizing the New Testament position.

So what is the answer? Does the Old Testament take precedence because it came first? Does the New Testament view supersede the Old by virtue of being more recent? I hope you are as dissatisfied with either of these options as I am. Prioritizing the NT leads to the "cosmic fall" theory and all of its problems, whereas continuing my focus on the OT might have led to a passive acceptance of the creation as it is now, with all its imperfections. The Bible is the work of human authors, but in light of the Christian belief that "all Scripture is theopneustos" (2 Tim 3:16), we rightly expect God to communicate a single message rather than a list of options.

The way I do this is by looking for a progression from the earlier to later views, rather than simply saying that Paul gets to control how we read Isaiah, David, Moses, and Job. Currently, this progression looks something like this:

Job is probably the earliest book of the Old Testament to be composed, despite not having the earliest chronological setting. As I mentioned before, in God's speech to Job in chapters 38-41 we get a very positive view of the created order in all its wild-ness. The sea (associated in the ancient world with danger, monsters, and the unknown) is given boundaries, but still allowed to exist. God asserts knowledge of the gates of death and deep darkness (38:17; probably Sheol); mastery over hail, torrential rain, and thunderbolts; providence of food for both plant and meat-eating animals. Much of chapters 40 and 41 are taken up by what can only be described as God boasting in two particularly spectacular creatures, behemoth and leviathan, on whose identities we can only speculate. On hearing all of this, Job does not question the wisdom of any of it but only falls silent before the great Creator who ordains and sustains the cosmos, and provides for everything in it. Again, there is no hint of a "curse" that has fallen on the natural order, or that any of it is other than it should be.

Genesis, by its third chapter, makes clear that all is not as it should be in the creation. Humans, created to bear God's image and exercise His sovereign rule over His creation, sin against their creator and descend into self-destructive rebellion. This all happens in the first 11 chapters. But through the increases of sin, a glimmer of hope is preserved, first through Noah, and then Abraham and his line. The patriarchs become the main characters throughout most of Genesis as the recipients of God's promises to deal with sin and extend His blessing not just to their line but to "all the families [nations] of the earth". (Gen 12:3) God's promises to Abraham become the vehicle by which He will solve the problem of Genesis 3.

Moses, and Joshua afterwards, lead Abraham's descendants, now a large nation, to claim the promises given to him. Yet even before the Israelites reach the promised land of Canaan, we have to wonder whether they're really the solution God intended or just part of the problem. The big question through the subsequent books of history is whether Israel will remain faithful to God, who gave them the promises, or join with Adam in rejecting Him. Unfortunately they do not, and the curses promises in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 come true as the promised land is taken over by Assyria and Babylon, and the people taken into exile. All seems lost; Israel has failed in her faithfulness to God, and as a consequence lost both her land and the temple their God's presence dwelled among them.

The prophets, however, remind Israel that even if she has been unfaithful, God is still faithful to her, though displeased with her sin and determined to cleanse it. So they prophesy both of punishment at the hands of other nations (either beforehand, as it is happening, or in retrospect) and of God's future redemption of His people. But through the prophets we are also reminded that God's plans aren't just for Israel, but for all nations, as He said to Abraham. And, even more surprisingly, where Genesis and Job seemed to accept the created order, Isaiah foresees a coming redemption that goes beyond humans, to the animal kingdom and even the whole earth. Regardless, even after returning home, Israel senses that her exile is not over. They still live under foreign pagan rulers; the temple has not been rebuilt; her people still don't keep Torah faithfully.

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate fulfiller of the promises made to Abraham, the "faithful Israel" who demonstrated perfect obedience when no one else could. He ministered to both Jews and Gentiles—the promises were coming true for all nations! His death fulfilled Israel's conception of her continuing exile serving as an atoning and purifying sacrifice, and in His resurrection He showed the destiny of the redeemed Israel, the enjoyment of eternal life. He was the Messiah, though not the one Israel expected.

Paul, then, does much of the work of interpreting Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, showing how He fulfilled God's promises. He identifies Israel's continuing exile with the "curse" promised by Moses and presents Jesus as the one to break it, but more than that, to bring the promises of Abraham to all nations. This inheritance of redemption extends not just to the Jews, not just to humanity, but all of creation (Rom 8:19-23); Jesus is truly the savior of all. He never states it explicitly or expounds on it, but it is hard to deny that he saw this redemption extending even to animals and natural evil.

The way I put these viewpoints together, roughly, is that through the Bible, the hope for redemption remains ever since Genesis 3. But the expected scope of that redemption increases, from Israel to all the nations to the whole creation. Since the means by which the whole creation came to be in need of redemption are never spelled out, we seem to be faced with a dilemma. We can either say that God created the world "just right" (assuming that tob me'od really does mean "perfect") and, by implication, is the one who "broke" it, or that He created the world imperfect, with mortal animals, disease, natural disaster and such, so that the promises of a global creation are not a return to the way things were but something totally new.

The first option, that God made the creation perfect but caused it to fall in response to human sin, begs the question of why God would do such a thing and then reveal His master plan to redeem it, that is, to undo what He Himself did. But the second option, that God made the world imperfect, with death, disease, disaster and the like already there, runs into similar difficulties: if it was all the same to Him, why make the world worse than He could? Each explanation for natural evil is beset with such troubling implications.

But is there a third way?

Notice that neither of these patterns fits humans, at least in regard to sin. In the Jewish account we were created sinless, but no one would argue that God "caused" us to fall into sin. Rather, Adam and Eve were created with free will, the powers of self-choice and self-direction, and it was through the abuse of these God-given powers that they sinned. Even after the Fall, the fact that we have free will is not a bad thing, only that we misuse it to sin. Free will is assumed to be a unique gift to humans, and so the blame for the Fall of man can truly be placed on our shoulders, not God's. It's easy to see how God's creation of a self-directing, self-creating people can be to His greater glory than a world of automatons, but also how this freedom creates the possibility for creation to autonomously rebel.

What if the fate of man is analogous to the fate of the rest of creation? That is, what if the animal kingdom and even the forces of nature were also created with a degree of limited autonomy from their Creator? And the misuse of that freedom, rather than God's direct fiat, is the reason for natural evil? In other words, what if there was a "cosmic fall" of some kind, but it was not God's doing but the misuse of creaturely freedom, just like the human condition? It's crazy on its face, not highly supported by the biblical evidence and totally outside the scope of modern science, but then, so is the notion that God edited the biological structure of animals, introduced disease and decay, and even reorganized plate tectonics in response to human sin and then blamed it on us—and this explanation is much more consonant with God's character.

This is the view that Osborn finally, tentatively, settles on, and he explains it better than I can. (Underline = emphasis added)
In Genesis 1, there are implicit and explicit distinctions made between domestic and wild animals, or cattle and "beast[s] of the earth" as well as "creeping thing[s]". ... So there is a still-untamed and wild aspect to the creation. Adam and Eve must wrestle with this side of the created world and bring it more completely under God's dominion without overriding or exploiting its freedom. This is their high calling, and it may be a formidable task. The language of "subduing" in Genesis does not suggest pruning hedges. It suggests doing battle. Put another way, Adam's role is not simply that of a caretaker but of a redeemer. The pressing question is: Might this wildness in the creation that still needs to be "subdued" or redeemed, emerging from principles of freedom or indeterminacy built into the creation, have included death as well? Could God ever have looked at a world that included death or pain of any kind and pronounced it "very good"? And could an untamed and very good creation have included elements of ferocity and even predation? 
The first unmistakable death is recorded in Genesis 3:21—and it is by all accounts God who is responsible for it. ... Readers who hold to a high view of Scripture's authority must be very careful, then, about projecting their own notions of perfection and goodness onto the text and onto nature in the name of defending God's character. These readings may in fact pose far greater theological and moral perils than the idea of death of a kind before Adam's rebellion. To say that seasonal change and cycles of birth, life, and death in nature are, without qualification, "satanic", "evil", and things we will someday escape by leaving this veil of tears and illusion behind, may actually be an expression, in Jewish perspective, of ingratitude if not contempt for God's good creation and the earthiness of material existence.
Whatever its difficulties, the only position that makes any moral, religious or rational sense of human moral evil to my mind is the one that declares that the divine will wills human free will, and is both powerful enough and self-giving enough to create beings with the capacity to make meaningful, self-defining choices that are morally and spiritually significant. And in the same way we speak of moral evil as resulting from human free will, we should now somewhat analogously speak of natural evil and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other. "The Creator wills that his creation itself should affirm and continue his work," writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "he wills that created things should live and create further life." And God continues to create in and through these processes while still allowing the creation to be as it is, each element and organism working out its inner principles according to its kind. 
Or as Terence Fretheim writes of "natural evils" such as earthquakes and floods, "the created moral order" is best grasped as "a complex, loose causal weave." God "lets the creatures have the freedom to be what God created them to be." At the same time, "the looseness of the causal wave allows God to be at work in the system in some ways without violating or (temporarily) suspending it." This opens the door to the possibility of suffering, whether from the sheer randomness of plate tectonics and bolts of lightning that set forests ablaze or from the rise of adaptations in some creatures that are harmful to others. We might summarize this view of the natural world ... by saying that God's way of creating and sustaining primarily takes the form of divine providence working within history, including natural history, rather than absolute miracle radically interrupting history from without.
Building off C.S. Lewis' speculations on animal sufferings in The Problem of Pain, Osborn looks at the situation in a slightly different way, drawing another parallel between the human and animal plights. Man did not fall on his own, but after the temptation of the serpent, traditionally identified with Satan. Could animal suffering and death, like the human Fall, be a result of the influence of a preexisting spiritual principle in opposition to God's good, creative purposes?
[quoting Lewis] "it is also worth considering whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. ... It may have been one of man's functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable."
Nevertheless, there is a clear sense throughout the New Testament that we are living in a time of temporary dualism in which God has permitted parts of his creation—and not humans alone—the autonomy of radical freedom and even defiance, which God himself not must in some sense struggle against.
If we take this language not only of human but of cosmic redemption seriously, we will see that the gospel is not only good news to people—it is good news for creation in its entirety, including suffering and stupefied animals, subjected to chaos, cruelty, and death not by their own sinfulness, not by Adam's disobedience, nor again by God's design, but potentially before the arrival of humanity in a universe of unequal but mysteriously conflicting spiritual realities. ... Human as well as natural history now appears as the stage for a drama that has involved opposing principles of freedom and sovereignty for vastly longer than we may have first imagined. 
The advantages of Lewis' in some ways highly literalistic but at the same time nondogmatic speculations include the following: (1) he emphasizes competing principles of freedom rather than postfall miraculous refashioning of matter (whether demonic or divine) to account for the physical universe we now see before us—an approach that seems to this reader to offer greater theological and moral (not to mention scientific) coherence; (2) he offers a nondefensive and open approach to what scientists have to tell us about the evidences of the "book" of nature, without giving away to philosophical naturalists the conceit that they possess the full story; and (3) he exhibits a humble recognition that there is much we simply do not know or understand on both the scientific and biblical sides of the problem.
Lending credibility (if not support) to this hypothesis, remember that Paul does not say that Adam created or begat sin in Romans 5:12, but only that it came into the world through him. John teaches that Satan is the one who has "sinned from the beginning" (1 Jhn 3:8). And, of course, Satan is said to have been cast from heaven (Luk 10:18, Rev 12:7-9) and has (somehow) been given great power and authority over the world (Luke 4:6, Eph 2:2), traditionally identified as the "god of this world" (Jhn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4).

Conclusion

This view removes (or at least softens) the line we tend to draw between man and the rest of creation. Instead of making it a hapless casuality of (God's response to) Adam's fall, it sees their situations as more analogous. Both were created with a limited degree of freedom of self-direction; both were influenced by an opposing spiritual force that (for reasons entirely beyond our present scope) has been allowed access into, and even a degree of authority over, this world. This hypothesis of the origin of animal suffering and natural evil may be wrong; there may be a reading of the biblical evidence that does greater justice to both the Hebrew viewpoint and our modern concerns. But I am content with it for now, in part because it puts me in a place similar to that of Job; in the scope of these grand questions I now see myself as a mere extra on, in Osborn's words, "the stage for a drama that has involved opposing principles of freedom and sovereignty for vastly longer than we may have first imagined." It allows me to see God's mystery as it truly is, not as an excuse for behavior unworthy of His character but as the impossibility of the finite trying to comprehend the mind of the infinite.

The Bible's dual role as a divine and human book means that we can trust it to reveal not only truth about God, but also to reveal the true God, and we rightly keep it at the center of our discussion of natural evil, for it is, I'm convinced, something that God cares about. But at the same time, it is not a magic book or answers or 8-ball that gives us a neat answer to any question we may think to ask of it; it may turn back and question us and our questions. The question "why is there animal suffering and death?" is simply not directly answered anywhere in Scripture, so evidently God did not consider it crucially important to clarify. We can search for a composite answer, in the end, answer or no, we must adopt Job's silence and not make a bigger issue of this question than is warranted.