Over at his Patheos blog, Scot McKnight has published a guest post by his friend, John Frye, lamenting the lack of lament in contemporary church life. It seems from the comments (and twittering elsewhere) that an earlier draft pointed the finger at Calvinism. The current version has softened that somewhat to 'submerged determinism.'
Some of the Calvinist reactions have been fierce. Indeed, one wonders how people have the time for all these tweets, even as one marvels at the skill with which hidden motives can be publicly dissected and characters assassinated in a mere 140 characters or less. My own reaction is a little different: I recognize the problem Frye highlights. I know people who react to tragedy and evil with a bald assertion of divine sovereignty. 'What's for you won't go by you' is a popular saying in church circles back in Scotland. 'Ah well, it's the Lord's will' is the sum total of the words of comfort I have sometimes heard spoken to individuals facing terrible darkness and personal tragedy.
I am a Calvinist to the tips of my fingers. I do not think that Calvinism is to blame for some contemporary Christians' inability to handle tragedy and to lament. Part of the problem is the perennial intrusion of the theologies of glory which the fallen world preaches to us and which our fallen hearts are always eager to believe.
But I do think the response to Frye should not be 'How dare you blame the Calvinists!?' so much as 'If there is a problem, and if true Calvinism should not create such a problem, what is going wrong in our churches?' Here, the difference between a church's doctrine and the reception of that doctrine by individual Christians and congregations is crucial. Calvinism, true Calvinism, is not to blame; but sadly there are Calvinists who are less innocent, who do reduce the problem of evil and suffering to tweetable soundbites which inevitably lack the complexity of the Biblical teaching, who do ignore the whole counsel of God in their teaching and preaching and choice of praise songs. And I fear that a failure to reflect the whole counsel of God in our teaching and worship has indeed left individuals conflicted over how -- and whether -- Christians should lament. The arrival of funerals that are 'celebrations of life' even within some Presbyterian circles witnesses to the reality of this problem.
In scripture, there is a richness of response to evil and suffering, of which the assertion of divine sovereignty is simply one part. Elihu is correct on sovereignty, yet God still needs to speak to Job because an assertion of sovereignty on its own is not enough. The Shunammite laments the death of her son, and the prophet never rebukes her for doing so, even though he knows God is in control. Christ weeps at the tomb of Lazarus, even after delaying his arrival and also declaring that the awful situation has come about to serve God's glory. And then there are the numerous psalms of lament, placed in scripture in part to give the church a liturgy of prayer and praise which reflects biblical horizons of expectation for the people of God in this fallen world.
Pastors and teachers need to have a strategy for teaching their people about suffering and sovereignty which does justice not simply to God's omnipotence but also to the myriad other facets of the issue, and the responses thereto, which the Bible provides. And we need to do so repeatedly, firmly, and graciously, so that our congregations come to maturity in the faith on this issue. Theologies of glory, even those which major on the truth of God's sovereignty, always lurk in the shadows. Frye and McKnight have put their fingers on a serious problem.
And I would also suggest that the issues are so theologically deep and pastorally complicated that one can know apriori that anyone who has tweeted the answer to suffering, tragedy or wickedness is definitely wrong, even if only because of all the truths that their chosen 140 character limit requires that they must have omitted.