Tuesday, June 19, 2012

5 questions for Theng Huat Leow on him and his book 'The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth'

1) Dr. Leow, you wrote in the book that theodicy proper is 'actual reasons for the existence and even the prevalence of evil, ones which preserve both the goodness and omnipotence of God.' (p.1) Why did you choose to research into theodicy among all other theological subjects? Is there a personal reason for this, for instance you have been troubled by this question since young?

2) An eminent theologian from Edinburgh University, David Fergusson, endorsed you as 'one of the leading interpreters of P. T. Forsyth's works today'. So, I'm curious why did you focus on Forsyth?

I think I can answer the first and second questions together, since they have to do with my choice of research topic for my Ph.D. studies. (My book is a revised version of my Ph.D. thesis.) I am afraid my answers here will not be very inspiring. Back when I was deliberating a topic to research on, I was facing a tight deadline to submit my application to the universities. I had some vague interest in the notion of paradox in theological reasoning. I was drawn in particular to Karl Barth and his dialectical approach to theology.

A key event which then took place was a fruitful conversation I had with Prof. Roland Chia, who taught me Historical Theology and Methodism at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and who was (and is) in many ways a mentor to me. He commented that my research interest sounded quite vague and amorphous, and advised me to zoom in on a concrete topic which would be feasible to set out within the confines of a doctoral thesis. He also pointed to the exploding volume of literature on Karl Barth, and suggested that choosing a less well-expounded theologian to study might make my life a little easier. He then mentioned the name of Peter Taylor Forsyth, who is sometimes known as a “Barthian before Barth”. I must confess that this was the first time I heard that name.

I proceeded to grab the available books on Forsyth from the TTC library to get some idea of who he was and what he wrote. I was at that time also teaching an evening course on Christian theodicy. (Again, I chose this topic for my course more out of desperation—I had to find something to teach—rather than any deep abiding interest.) I realised from my scanning of the literature that Forsyth did write quite substantially on theodicy, so I just put two and two together, and hammered out a statement of research interest stating my intention to compare Forsyth’s approach to the problem of evil with that of Jürgen Moltmann’s.

I am grateful that my supervisor, Prof. Trevor Hart, accepted this hurriedly drafted research proposal. Subsequently, after I started my Ph.D. research, I discovered that there was more than enough to write on Forsyth’s theodicy, and decided to drop Moltmann as his conversation partner (although I still engaged quite substantially with the German thinker in my work).

Looking back, I realised that it was a big risk to have committed myself to do my research on Forsyth without knowing much about the man and his thought. My three years of study could have been a really painful time of grappling with a theologian whose writings do not sit well with my theological inclinations. What actually happened was that I found in Forsyth a reliable and insightful guide into the field of theology, one who has greatly expanded my grasp of this wonderful subject and strengthened my conviction to study, teach, preach and live it out for the rest of my life.

So this is my answer: Everything that happened had a strong hurried and accidental quality to it, and (sadly) I am unable to give any inspiring stories of how my research was the fulfilment of some life-long interest or goal. However, by divine providence (a major theme of my study!), things eventually turned out well.

3) Now, after having done in-depth study on Forsyth, what is the one idea by Forsyth that you are most impressed with?

There are certainly many things I have learnt from Forsyth. If forced to pick one, I would say that I am most impressed with his theocentric approach to theology. Theology, for Forsyth, is first and foremost about God, and then derivatively about human beings. It is primarily about God’s glory, his plans and his interest.

The good news that Christianity brings is that, out of God’s grace, his glory and interest coincides with ours. So, God has determined that he will be glorified together with us, and that his fulfilment will occur together with ours. So, in a somewhat paradoxical statement (I am still deeply interested in paradox!), Forsyth writes that the best way to secure man’s interest is for him to be fully devoted to God’s.

It is also interesting to note that, while Forsyth rejects the traditional Reformed teaching on double predestination, he affirms (at the same time) that it was the “most mighty of all [dogmas] for personal faith”. This was because this teaching had its basic focus right: It was concerned first and foremost with God’s glory and freedom, rather than those of his creatures.

This theocentric perspective has had a huge influence on me. Everything should be about God, and we human beings should just be grateful that God has appointed us to share in his victory and glory. I began to see how many of the teachings and practices in our churches today have the wrong starting point—we start with the human being and his or her interests, and basically put God to the side. We have become obsessed with meeting human wants—which, according to Forsyth, is (paradoxically) the best way to frustrate the true fulfilment of human beings. The evangelical wing of the Church has always accused the liberals of making man the measure of all things. But if we look closely at how many evangelical churches have conducted their life, we are actually (in practice) no less anthropocentric than the liberals (perhaps more so). A radical change in perspective is needed, and Forsyth (amongst others) can help to bring this about.

4) In your book, you have one loaded sentence where you wrote that what happened 'on the Cross is our guarantee that the end will surely justify the means, no matter how terrible they might seem to us.' (p.111)

I can imagine that others, like Gregory Boyd, would respond to you by saying that such understanding of God is the reason why people reject God. 'If God exists, [...] he would be responsible for all the evil in the world. Everything that happens would be the working out of his plan. And since [...] people can't with integrity accept that, they reject God.' (Gregory Boyd, Is God to blame? [USA: InterVarsity Press, 2003], p.15)

I have read your book and know that you have engaged such response in detail. Nevertheless, I'm curious how would you put it through to a lay Christian who comes to you with a remark like the one by Boyd?

5) Your book has certainly helped me to understand more about the relationship between God and the evil in the world. And since you are also teaching a postgraduate course on theodicy, may I ask how convinced are you with Forsyth's theodicy compared to other theodicies that you know, and why?

Again, I hope you don’t mind if I address questions 4 and 5 together, since they seem to be closely related. The “loaded sentence” which you mentioned is actually the theme for my entire book, and it must be understood in the light of everything I have written there (which I obviously cannot reproduce here).

On the issue of the persuasiveness of Forsyth’s theodicy, I must say (perhaps not so objectively) that he does bring the discussion on the subject to a higher level. This happens in two ways.

Firstly, he gives a new perspective on the entire exercise of “theodicy”. It is not merely something which Christians engage in in order to defend the power and goodness of God in the face of evil. It is also something which God himself engages in, primarily through the cross. In fact, our own involvement in theodicy can (and should) be seen as our participation in God’s own justification of himself. (Yes, Forsyth’s theocentricism shines through here as well.)

Secondly, Forsyth’s approach succeeds, in my view, in reconciling what many today consider to be diametrically opposing notions in the field of Christian theodicy. My book gives several instances of this. One example can be seen in how Forsyth integrates the notions of the suffering God and the God who sends suffering. In works which promote the notion of the suffering God and stress its importance for Christian theodicy, we frequently find a strong denial that the same suffering God could send suffering on his human creatures as well. God, in other words, is seen as having a unidirectional relationship to suffering—he is only a victim of suffering. Such a view obviously has implications on the transcendence of God—he is seen as a fellow sufferer who is able to empathise with us (which is important), but not as one who is able to send and use suffering to accomplish his purposes (which might be beyond our limited understanding).

Forsyth, in his theodicy, successfully avoids such a truncated view of God. I could go on and on about Forsyth’s other insights, but I better stop here. I make it clear in my book that I don’t agree with every point Forsyth makes. But I think his theodicy certainly has something important to say to us today.

With regard to the issue of explaining theodicy to lay persons, I am beginning to see that this is a very challenging task. In the first place, Christian theodicy is not a purely logical or philosophical exercise. I think, in fact, that theodicy is best seen not as one of the loci (or subject areas) in the field of Christian theology (like Christology or eschatology). It should rather be viewed as the outflow of a complete theological worldview.

In other words, one only arrives at a theodicy when one has in place a holistic set of Christian beliefs, covering all the major areas of our faith. When all these areas integrate well together to give a sound Christian view of reality, we have an answer (though still not a complete one) to the problem of evil.

This is what I have tried to show in my book. If you read it carefully, you will realise that it is not directly about Forsyth’s theodicy. It rather expounds his understanding of humanity, salvation, Christ, providence, and so on, and then interact them together and draw their implications for his theodicy.

So, in my interaction with lay persons who might not have a strong theological background (there are of course many exceptions), I can, in the course of a short conversation, at most offer one or two ideas which I hope would prove helpful to them (like the notion of a God who empathises with their suffering). To grasp a more complete theodicy, however, would entail years of study, not so much on theodicy per se, but on Christian theology in general. Theodicy, after all, is not an argument, but a worldview, and that takes a long time to cultivate. Perhaps I would respond to the hypothetical lay person you mentioned by inviting him or her to study theology at TTC!


Jason Goroncy said...

Thanks Joshua and Theng Huat. I appreciated reading this.

Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Great post.Book sounds great.Is it available at TTC itself?


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Yes, the book is available at TTC. I think nowadays you can purchase online from TTC website. Follow this link: http://books.ttc.edu.sg/products-page-2/ttc-faculty-publications/leow-teng-huat/the-theodicy-of-peter-taylor-forsyth/