Frank Tupper, a Baptist theologian who taught generations of seminary students that when it comes to the problem of evil and suffering “God always does the most God can do,” died Friday, Feb. 28, just more than three years after suffering paralysis in a fall at his home that left him confined to a wheelchair.
Tupper, 79, in 1995 authored a groundbreaking book, A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God, combining more than 15 years of academic research into the providence of God with the lived tragedy of losing a spouse to cancer. A revised and updated edition was published in 2014 by Mercer University Press.
The book weighed in on the philosophical question of theodicy, a term used to describe best efforts to understand why a loving and all-powerful God permits evil.
Rejecting platitudes on suffering such as “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason,” Tupper turned to the experience of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. The answer to how a loving, omnipotent God could allow such a thing, Tupper reasoned, was because before the foundation of the world God had chosen the way of self-limitation.
“I do not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world,” Tupper said in a 2016 interview with Homebrewed Christianity. “Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world.”
God chose not to be a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God,” Tupper believed, in order to enter into authentic relationships with humankind that affirm both divine love and human freedom.
“In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do,” was thesis for the book, his theology, his teaching and his life.
Tupper re-encountered suffering during the night of Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, when fell in his bedroom and found himself unable to move. He lay there face down for an estimated 12-14 hours before being discovered by a housekeeper.
Diagnosed with a catastrophic spinal injury with paralysis, Tupper battled back to regain enough quality of life to reunite with friends, former students and colleagues at the 2018 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Dallas. At the same time the injury sped up the normal aging process, putting him back in the hospital with pneumonia in 2018.
“Even under the circumstances of my present experience it is a great joy to be alive and well and able to communicate with friends and know that I am remembered with love and affection,” Tupper posted on Facebook in response to Happy Birthday wishes on Feb. 6.
Tupper was admitted Friday, Feb. 21, to Baptist East hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, with pneumonia and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection most common in people who’ve been in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers.
Tupper was a graduate of Mississippi College with an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning his Ph.D. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His studies included a year of doctoral research at the University of Munich with Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the most influential theologians in the 20th century and the subject of Tupper’s dissertation.
Ordained to the ministry at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville in 1967, Tupper served six years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Edmonton, Kentucky, before joining the faculty of Southern Seminary as assistant professor of theology and philosophy in 1973.
In 1997 he became a founding faculty member of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, combining the university’s Baptist roots and heritage with a post-denominational, ecumenical approach to training clergy.
“The traditional Baptist student has more difficulty giving sufficient weight to the humanity of Jesus,” Tupper told Religion News Service in 1999. “The struggling student has more difficulty giving weight to the divinity of Jesus. I push my students to consider both.”
Tupper retired from Wake Forest Divinity School in 2016 with the title of Distinguished Professor of Divinity Emeritus.