Contend Earnestly: Can God Be Trusted?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Can God Be Trusted?

I received this book from InterVarsity Press and really had no background to the book or it's author. The full title is "Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil." This was one of the few times where I had no idea what theological convictions were of the author as he wrote. After reading the book, I am still left confused for the most part on his theological convictions on quite a few important orthodoxies.

The author, John Stackhouse, breaks the book down in two parts:

Part I: Problems (This is where evil is discussed)

Part II: Responses

I went back and forth with this book as I read it as to whether or not I would recommend it to anyone. Let me hit some of the strong points in the book and then I will hit some of the weak points.

Some of the strong parts of the book is that Stackhouse does a good job in defining and describing faith. One can tell that he has read some Schaeffer (or at least Schaeffer's sources) on this point, because his thoughts on faith remind me much of what I have read from Schaeffer on faith. Stackhouse does a good job of showing that faith is not a leap, but one that is based on at least some, if not quite a bit of, knowledge of the thing or person one puts faith in.

Stackhouse also does a good job of speaking to those whom the book is probably offered, which is the non-Christian. He speaks to them in their terms, gives respect to other religions where respect is due, and also is very open and honest about the struggles within Christendom. Within this, he also asks some very good questions to those who are non-Christians within the understanding of evil. He actually switches the question at one point to say if we think we can ask, "Why is there so much evil?" we have to also ask the question, "Why is there so much good?" I really enjoyed his discussion on that topic. He does open up some further questions for the skeptic, or the searcher, that they (actually all of us) need to ask at some point to come to an understanding of what we believe and why.

Those are the good points.

As a Christian, there was much to be alarmed at. I really don't know what theological convictions John Stackhouse has at this point. His answer to evil was quite troubling. He said that the reason there is evil was pointed to the fact of free will in all men. At one point saying that God "took a risk when creating humans with free will." This is a big stumbling block for me and this book. I am not sure how a sovereign God, who knows all things can take risks. His basic answer to why there is evil, is simply because of free will. He uses, somewhat, Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense to answer the question how God could be good, all powerful and still have evil exist. Free will in this book is taken as mere fact, with no Scriptural proof at all. The only time that predestination is mentioned is when speaking of the theologies of Calvin and Luther, as though it was their theology that wasn't found in the Bible. This mention lasts only 2 pages. What Stackhouse overlooks is the fact that predestination is mentioned in the Bible where the idea of moral free will is never mentioned apart from Adam and Eve. He continues this thought with the angels in heaven having free will and that is why they fell, and that while in heaven we will all have free will but will only choose good because of all the good before us. The question comes, "Does this mean we can fall like the angels did because of our free will?" The answer has to be yes in Stackhouse's system. Which is completely false. Quite the conundrum, especially when trying to defend that God is all powerful and evil can exist. I am not saying this makes the answer easy, but at least it is biblical.

The above is the one that really had me perplexed and one that made me question the book as a whole, but then it continued in other areas. Stackhouse would sometimes open up a can of worms without defending them but would just say, "a lot of Christians (or theists) believe..." and then leave it. He did this with the following things:

The doctrine of hell being annihilation

Whether the Old Testament should be taken as literally true. At one point saying he is just being candid and then adding, "Doesn't this all sound unbelievable, like a fairy story for kids rather than a serious explanation of reality for adults?"

The Idea of macroevolution being true

He doesn't defend Original Sin, but says that it has been debated historically

It was hard to hear him open up these topics without really commenting on them. He just would say something about them and move on (besides original sin, which he went on to describe a sort of middle ground), leaving the reader confused of why he would mention it in the first place. What then happens is one wonders what Stackhouse's actual convictions are in these areas.

Beyond those things, the things that had me concerned were his positive affirmations. Those were as follows:

His belief that the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15) was not really a pronouncement of the gospel, or meant to be understood spiritually at all, but should be taken as simply a curse on the snake. He says that "later interpreters have seen all of this as having to do with spiritual warfare between Satan and humanity, but the text itself is enigmatic. "

He also states that he believes that although the Gospel writers agree on the whole and overarching understanding of who Christ was, that they sometimes vary and contradict each other in some details. Through this we can see that Stackhouse must not believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.

As an added frustration, there are times when Stackhouse seems to defend, or at least acknowledge in part, that Christians, Contemporary Jews and Muslims all worship the same God. This seems to be a case to bring parties into agreement when there are too many lines of separation to do so.

Overall, this book will frustrate many, as it did myself. Just when you think it is getting good, he throws some odd curve ball into the mix that confuses things. I just can't get passed the bad to see the good in recommending this book to people. Although the description of faith and the resurrection are well done, the discussion of God's risk with free will, annihilation, OT kid stories, original sin, macroevolution, the Protoevangelium and the infallibility and inerrancy of God's word puts too much junk into the discussion. I cannot in my right mind recommend this book for reading. There is too much other good reading on the subjects at hand to have to wade through the bad theology in this book to get to the traditional and correct orthodoxy. Not Recommended.
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Anonymous said...

He is as far as I can tell from other articles written by him a you seem to have read him correctly.


Seth McBee said...

Yeah, it was interesting reading a book where I knew nothing about the author.

It made me go in without any preconceived notions about him or his other writings. I hope I do the same with other books that I read from authors that I like or dislike.

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