A Baptist theologian who spent a quarter century reformulating the Christian doctrine of providence says most mainline theology about evil, suffering and God’s goodness is wrong.
“We’re still living in the 21st century with a vision of God in relationship to the world that was hammered out in the Patristic period, that was reaffirmed in the Protestant Reformation, that characterized the life of the church in the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th century,” E. Frank Tupper, distinguished professor of divinity emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said in a Dec. 24 podcast at Homebrewed Christianity.
“And those theological responses to issues and providence are so outdated and so unrealistic that there needs to be a revolution among theologians and in the church about understanding how God works in a modern scientific understanding of the world,” Tupper said in a two-and-a-half-hour interview discussing his book A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God, first published as a work-in-progress in 1995 and re-issued in 2013 by Mercer University Press.
Tripp Fuller, a self-described theology nerd and Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University, said he had been trying to get his former professor, mentor and friend to appear on the podcast network born out of his pub theology group since its launch in 2008.
Tupper, who before becoming a founding faculty member at Wake Forest Divinity School in 1998 taught 23 years at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recalled the peril of being a young theologian thinking outside of the box.
“I must admit that to challenge the traditional understanding of providence in my personal context teaching in a Baptist seminary meant that I was going to experience significant opposition,” he said. “The two leading lines for interpreting providence was, ‘Well, we do not understand why this had happened’ or ‘This is in some sense the will of God and we must accept it.’ I rejected both of those ideas.”
His academic resolve grew even stronger, he said, in the crucible of his wife’s two-year battle with terminal cancer, leaving behind two small children.
“Betty Tupper’s experience of suffering with cancer and dying and the enormous impact that it had on our family gave me the courage to say ‘I’m going to write and interpret providence in a way that is consistent with my understanding and my faith, and I’m going to accept the challenges and opposition that I experience,’” Tupper said.
Tupper’s study and experience led him to reject platitudes on suffering such as “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason.”
“I do not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world,” he said. “Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world.”
He explains God’s hand in life events as self-limitation in a context of personal relationship.
“All the relationships I know anything about — parents and children, husbands and wives — you have to limit yourself in order to have a positive relationship to the other and to both receive and invest in the other,” he said. “So when I speak of the self-limitation of God, I mean that God has created space between God’s self and human persons so that we can experience in that personal relationship the affirmation of love and the affirmation of the radical freedom that God has given to us.”
Tupper said he affirms the sovereignty of God, but “not the sovereignty of control.”
“The sovereignty of God is the sovereignty of God’s love,” he said.
Instead of a “monarchal” model that views God as a king in absolute control, he offers a “parental” model of God working in the world “in which the parent does everything possible for the benefit and the good of the parent’s children.”
“The God that we know in Jesus Christ always does the most that God can do in the cultural and historical and realistic circumstances within which humans experience crisis, suffering, pain and death,” Tupper said. “God is not simply an observer, but God does everything that God can do using the resources in that context to effect the most positive outcome that God can do.”
“Sometimes this means that God does something surprising, because there are resources in the context that allow for this surprising action of God that we call a miracle,” he said. “But if God does not act in such a way that it resolves the crisis but leaves us in suffering, pain and death, we cannot say that God chose to act redemptively and positively in that situation but God chose not to act positively and mercifully and redemptively in this situation.”
Tupper said part of his own struggle has been understanding why God does not act in human life today with the same kind of power and purpose as the mighty acts described in Scripture.
“Why does God not act today the way the biblical traditions present God to us, particularly in the New Testament?” he asked. “Why does God not act? Because the resources are not available to God to act.”
“To put it another way, miracles do happen, but they are consistent with the context in which they happen. But a miracle is not always a possibility, not even for God.”
Tupper said the view of mainstream theology that everything that happens somehow falls within the will of God runs contrary to the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
“God’s will is done is heaven, but God’s will is most often not done on earth,” he said.
He said another biblical illustration comes in two versions of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins the prayer, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee.” Matthew reads “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”
“The shift in the wording of the prayer says something very important,” Tupper said. “All things are not possible to God. What is possible to God is to act in such a way that enables us to face the crises of life, whether it is a suffering we encounter before we get to Gethsemane or the suffering and death that we experience on the other side of Gethsemane.”
Listen to the podcast.