The Limit of Theodicy

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 24, 2004

I’ve been delving a bit into theodicy (that field of study that seeks to explain how to reconcile God and the presence of evil).  I’ve also been reading up on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Interestingly enough, I found a chapter on theodicy in Paul Fiddes’ Participation in God, which is one of the best books on the Doctrine of the Trinity out there.  I highly recommend it; it is both theologically rich, as well as pastorally focused.  So, while studying the Trinity, I found something helpful in my studies in theodicy.  This sums up Fiddes’ take on theodicy, a take in which I generally agree:

There can be no complete theodicy.  There can be no completely rational defense of God in a world of pain.  If there could be, it would justify suffering on the one hand, and destroy faith on the other.  In argument we may talk of the risk that God took in creation, and the way God shares the risk in suffering.  Rational theodicy is thus not divorced from practical theodicy: they are both concerned with a suffering that ‘befalls’ God or ‘happens’ to God.  But it still remains open to decide whether God’s creative decision that set all this off is worth the cost.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters (Ivan) asks the question: ‘Is the whole universe worth the tears of one tortured child?’ He has in mind the story of a rich landowner who threw a peasant child to his hunting dogs to be torn apart because the child had thrown a stone and broken a dog’s leg.  Is it all worth the tears of one child, let alone the millions in Auschwitz?  Even if God suffers, is it worth it?  Ivan thinks not, and says that he is ‘returning his entrance ticket to God with the polite observation that the price is too steep.’

The belief that God suffers with us may help us to say that the making of persons is worth all the tears.  But only faith can answer the question, ‘is it worth it?’ after all reasonable arguments have fallen silent.

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3 Responses to “The Limit of Theodicy”

  1. Chris B. on November 24th, 2004 10:05 pm

    Personally, I’m not satisfied with leaving off the questions of theodicy with a discussion on the worth of Creation. The worth of Creation in light of pain and suffering is one aspect of theodicy, but I think there are far more profound questions that interested people should engage. Unfortunately, in my experience, no modern scholar or writer has done the subject justice, and the only people who seem to be addressing it are those who tend toward the “open theism” side of theology (e.g. “God at War” by Greg Boyd).

  2. andy gr on November 25th, 2004 4:40 am is running a useful series from Tom Wright on the problem of evil at the moment - you may need to register, but it’s free.

  3. Van S on November 25th, 2004 11:39 am

    I agree, no modern scholar has done this justice. Many modern scholarship is very theodical (is that a word?), such as process theology, open theism, etc. Many theologies that tend to fall into liberal scholarship are driven by their theodicies. However, evangelicals and many conservatives haven’t risen to the challenge by addressing the problem of evil with the best of biblical, theological, and pastoral insight.

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