There are few people who don’t hold a view on COVID-19 and what it means for the world. Religious and irreligious people alike are espousing beliefs and theories. Two Baptist theologians from Whitley College in Melbourne, Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy, have offered a contribution to the conversation. They have written a piece for the ABC, in which they present a theological reflection on ‘Coronavirus, creation and the Creator: What the Bible says about suffering and evil’.
I read the article with interest partly because of the topic and also because I’m a Melbourne Baptist who is pastoring a Baptist church in this city. Brett and Goroncy have given a number of helpful insights, and they have also presented several theological ideas that are problematic for anyone holding to Biblical and historical Christianity. If I have misunderstood Mark Brett and Jason Goroncy in some way, I’m more than happy to be corrected. Indeed, such articles can be useful for creating ongoing conversations.
To begin, allow me to note some worthwhile insights offered by Brett and Goroncy.
4 Helpful Insights
- They suggest that one useful response to the pandemic is reviving the practice of lament. This is a great idea.
- This statement about the Bible is true and helpful, “The Bible is honest about human suffering in this world, whether it be that of the “righteous” and the “devout” or that of the “sinful” and “unrepentant.” It is equally honest about the sheer fact of dis-ease in the world.”
- They point to the fact that God in Christ has shared in the suffering of this world. This is one of the wonders of the Gospel.
- They offer a historical perspective, noting that what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is not new.
Before I turn to two crucial issues that lay at the heart of their argument, I want to briefly pushback on 3 other points. These points are not central to Brett and Goroncy’s thesis, but they do reveal something of their theological biases.
3 revealing comments
First, Brett and Goroncy set up their conversation as though Christian thinking on COVID-19 is a religious version of President Trump vs Enlightened Progressives.
For example, their opening salvo is aimed at ‘a few churches in the United States’, although by the end of the paragraph it seems as though the whole church has nothing useful to say about COVID-19,
“A few churches in the United States have attracted new notoriety by meeting together against the advice of public health officials, even presenting such dissidence as a mark of true faith. But what kind of faith is this exactly? On the other hand, some pastoral leaders have become all too aware of the immediate challenges, and have left the theological questions to one side. One might be left with the impression that the church has nothing to say about some of the most pressing questions that many people continue to dare to ask…”
It seems as though these American Trump supporting churches are stuck on their minds,
“Whole churches, it seems, have never heard of the book of Job, or perhaps they ignore such unsettling Old Testament discourse because it has been trumped by some version of apocalyptic theology.” [italics my emphasis]
“If we seek inspiration from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in this present crisis, we would not expect God to intervene like a cosmic President, to declare emergency powers and veto the freedoms of the ecological systems within which all creatures live.”
My issue here is that Brett and Goroncy almost entirely ignore mainstream Christian belief and practice. Instead, they have set up a conversation between a straw man with a deep southern accent and their own position. I’m not saying that such individuals don’t exist, of course, they do, but they are hardly representative of Christianity across Australia let alone in the United States. Brett and Goroncy’s foible is far too simplistic, which means they rarely engage with evangelical theology that is held by the vast number of Bible believing Christians. To quote a friend of mine, “Basically they just sound like Greta Thunberg if she had a PhD in theology”, but that’s probably going too far.
Second, when referring to the Old Testament, they speak of the ‘Hebrew Bible’. For Jewish people, this is an entirely appropriate term, but these are Christian theologians, and for Christians, we do not present the Old Testament as being separate from or not part of the Christian Bible.
Jesus repeatedly made the point that the Old Testament is Christo-centric book,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
“Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44)
The Apostles also understood the Old Testament as being about Jesus Christ and for Christians,
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
“from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)
Third, why begin a discussion about Jesus’ miracles with the conditional conjunction, ‘if’? “If we find miraculous healings in the New Testament…” It is impossible to tell whether Brett and Goroncy accept Jesus’ miracles as a historical fact or a myth, and that alone is problematic. Is this some academic game where we pretend to speak above all those awkward beliefs that don’t conform to post-Enlightenment thinking? Do theologians gain kudos for framing statements about miracles with suspicion?
My question here is, why provoke readers to doubt the veracity of Jesus’ miracles? Are their comments giving people greater confidence in the truth of the Bible or does it create further suspicion and disbelief, and drag old Bultmann out of the grave?
I will add that I agree with their understanding of how the miracles function in the Gospels, but as a reader, I am left in the dark about whether I should believe these miracles were real or a myth.
2 Critical problems
There are serious problems with Brett and Goroncy’s view of God and creation, such that their proposals are at times unrecognisable with Biblical Christianity. I will comment on two particular examples: God’s Sovereignty and the cross of Christ. There are other significant issues, including their view of the goodness of creation, the Fall, and human sin, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t address these here.
1. Is God Sovereign?
The Bible presents God as being Sovereign over all things. God’s Sovereignty includes his control, authority, and presence. There is nothing outside his knowledge and permission, nothing beyond his control and will.
“Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.” (Ps 115:3)
“ The Lord Almighty has sworn,
“Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen.
25 I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.”
26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.
27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Is 14:24-27)
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25)
For Brett and Goroncy, God is powerful but not Sovereign. By relying on some rather inventive exegesis, they suggest God’s power and goodness has competition before the creation of the world and even in the new creation.
When it comes to the beginning of the universe, they reject creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and instead propose “creatio ex profundis (creation out of the deep waters, creation as the germinating abyss”.
creatio ex profundis is an obscure idea that has almost zero support in Christian theology, and even less in the history of the Christian Church. It seems to have its roots in process theology, which is a small 20th Century movement in theology which rejected many key Christian beliefs, including that God is Sovereign.
The notable systematic theologian Louis Berkhof rightly notes, “the Christian church from the very beginning taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God”
As Michael Horton explains, the language in Genesis 1:2 of formless and empty, and darkness, “is itself the unformed matter that God had already brought into existence from nothing, the created stuff out of which he fashions the world.”
Not only does Genesis 1:1-2 not support the idea of creatio ex profundis, places like John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-17 make is abundantly make the case clearly,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Brett and Goroncy favour creatio ex profundis, because it opens the possibility of “natural evil” existing before creation. This is their proposal:
“we might think of creation as God’s protest against chaos — against the “churning, complicating” and “interstitial darkness” that “refuses to disappear” and which ceaselessly threatens to undo God’s “good” work by dragging creation back into the discord against which it was formed.”
God’s Sovereignty over creation is therefore denied, or least it is defined in a very narrow sense, for evil existed outside of and before God creating. God’s Sovereignty over the new creation is also disputed as they contend that death is part of the new creation,
“We would do well to remember that death was not wholly removed from the picture of a “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17–24. There, the prophetic vision sets out a minimum life expectancy of a hundred years, so that children will not be “born into calamity.” In short, this text does not promote a heavenly immortality; the new earth still very much means the renewing of our own.”
Does Isaiah 65:20 suggest that death will be part of the new creation?
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.”
In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Alec Motyer explains, “it is not meant to suggest that death will still be present. This would contradict forever (18), no more (19), and the death of death in 25:17-18. It simply affirms that, over the whole of life, the power of death will be gone.” In other words, Isaiah is using metaphor and hyperbole to make the point that there will not be death in the new creation.
If we’re going quote Isaiah ch.65, why not permit readers to be aware of those Scriptures toward which Isaiah is pointing and which make clear that there will be no more death? For example, Revelation ch.21,
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
By relying on obscure exegesis and leaping over large swathes of relevant texts, Brett and Goroncy have painted a God who is not totally in control over the world. They are not saying God is absent or completely powerless, however. They do point to Jesus and to the cross as an example of God sharing in our suffering. However, their explanation of the cross is extraordinarily reductionist and leaves the cross and God empty of saving power.
2. Don’t empty the cross of its power.
For an article that is wanting to offer hope in the midst of this terrible pandemic, I found it strange that both Jesus Christ and his cross are rarely mentioned. They write,
“Even death on a Roman cross, in this impatient theology, is simply a means to an end. It could not be an enduring revelation of the character of God. As if perhaps, in the crucifixion of Jesus, God was just faking weakness, was not really thirsty and abandoned at all.”
In the single time where they do mention Christ and the cross, it is to criticise a straw man version of a Sovereign God. The death of Christ is reduced to that of God sharing in our suffering. The idea of God understanding suffering is true enough. This is a beautiful Christian teaching, that God in Christ Jesus has participated in the world and suffered. Hebrews ch. 2 expresses this wonder,
“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered…14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death… 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Brett and Goroncy have reduced the cross to an image of God joining in our suffering. But he lacks the power to defeat suffering and evil and death.
The good news is that the real cross of Christ that took place in history and is faithfully recorded in the Scriptures is the means by which God will accomplish the end of death and evil. The cross is not only about God with us or for us in some representative way, but Christ dying in our place. Jesus’ death was sacrificial, it is an atoning death whereby God satisfied his righteous anger and where sinful beings are forgiven and set free from sin and from judgment to come.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
At the end of the day, according to Brett and Goroncy, the world’s Saviour is us. This is something we can accomplish collectively as a human race if we follow God’s lead,
“We cannot say that this world simply appears by divine imposition. According to Isaiah, human participation in the justice of God is still required, as already pointed out. What we can say, however, is that God stands firstly with the less-abled among us, and with the poor, inviting them to participate — indeed, to offer leadership — in a new society. The Spirit of God calls the rest of us, the privileged, to new practices of solidarity…”
“we would look to the God who always chooses to act in solidarity, who quietly calls us to act freely as better human beings — fellow creatures with the earth — and to embody the justice of God in every area of our lives together.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled once again the inequalities of our world. This is not the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecies — like those in the Book of Revelation, for example — but it is certainly a new unveiling of what has been termed “slow violence.” Our planet continues to burn, and our seas continue to acidify. Patterns of production and consumption continue to despoil the resources needed by future generations. A new world is calling, for which we need a fuller understanding of creation.”
There is no real hope in those words, just more misery and despair. We have had thousands of years to put things right, it is a ridiculous notion that somewhere we are now capable of change. At the end of the day, there is no difference between their solution and that being offered by the most politically energised climate change activists. I’m not a climate change sceptic, far from it. But I reject the notion that we can create a ‘new world’. Instead of proclaiming God’s ‘good news’ that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished by his atoning death and resurrection the dead, Brett and Goroncy offer just another zealous religion, high on sentiment and free from Divine power.
COVID-19 may not be a direct result of specific human sins, but it is an expression and timely reminder of a world in turmoil because of human sin and because God has cursed this creation in response. There is hope, a wonderful and undeserved hope. The hope of Christianity lies in a Sovereign God in whom nothing is beyond his care and control. The hope in Christianity is that God has done what is required: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This single event has dealt with the heart of the problem, and one day, in God’s timing, will remove all the presence and stain of sin, suffering, and death. And the new creation that has already begun in the hearts and lives of those in Christ Jesus, will be consummated and universal
John Frame puts it this way,
“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.”
Far from this forgiveness of sins making Churches complicit with environmental vandalism, it should change the way we view other human beings and the world, but we do not pretend that we can drag some less than perfect new creation into the world tomorrow. Rather, as the Apostle Paul expresses our hope in Romans ch.8,
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”