The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith
M. Daniel Carroll R.'s review of "The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith" by Christopher J. H. Wright.
Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 224 pp. Hardback, $19.99. ISBN 978-0-310-27546-6.
Several things attracted me to this book. First, its author is Christopher Wright, International Director of Langham Partnership International, a ministry founded by John R. W. Stott several decades ago that is very committed to theological education at multiple levels in the Two-Thirds World. Wright has served as a missionary in India and principal of All Nations Christian College, a key mission training center in England. He has produced a first-rate missiology text (The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative; InterVarsity, 2006) and a comprehensive Old Testament ethics (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God; InterVarsity, 2004), both of which I use in the classroom at Denver Seminary.
On the few occasions over years that I have had the chance to speak with Chris Wright, I have found him to be gracious and open-minded, as well as deeply committed to the Bible. This book reflects those qualities (as do his other publications). Its style is conversational and winsome, but the depth of Wright’s faith in the Christian faith and the Scriptures permeates the entire work. He is willing to share his own questions and is humble toward others as he works towards viable answers. The chapters of the book are sprinkled with excerpts from hymns and contemporary Christian songs, testifying to the author’s connection to the local church.
The second motivation for picking up the book was its relevant subject matter. By this I do not mean its relevance for the conversations Christians are having with the broader culture. Rather, some of the questions the book treats are coming up in seminary classes. I have been looking for a good primer that I might recommend to those students who are wrestling with issues of the faith even as they prepare for possible ministry as a lifetime vocation. In many ways The God I Don’t Understand can fit the bill.
The God I Don’t Understand is divided into four parts: (1) What About Evil and Suffering?; (2) What about the Canaanites?; (3) What about the Cross?; (4) What about the End of the World? Each of these consists of two or three chapters that patiently and carefully walk through insights that can be gleaned from the Bible. Wright’s approach is canonical and Christ-centered. That is, Wright does not limit his answers to hard questions to a few isolated texts that have generated unease or doubts. Instead, he places every discussion within the larger sweep of Scripture, so that both testaments can shed light and nuances on the topic at hand and offer a more ample perspective as one moves toward the Bible’s concluding vision. Ultimately, resolution for all of these quandaries is to be found in the work of Christ: his cross and return. How this is beneficial is evident, for instance, in his treatment of the particularly thorny issue of the Conquest of Canaan (Part Two: What about the Canaanites?).
Part Two has two chapters. The first (chapter four) surveys “three Dead Ends”-that is, the three classical, but inadequate, attempts to minimize the moral difficulty of the violence decreed in the Joshua accounts. These are: (a) The God of the Old Testament is a god of war, whereas the God of the New is one of love; (b) the Israelites thought that they were doing God’s will but actually misconstrued it; and (c) the Conquest is best understood as an allegory of spiritual warfare. The second chapter in this section offers “three frameworks” as an alternative to these “three dead ends.”
Refreshingly, Wright begins this chapter (five) with an honest admission: “There are days when I wish this narrative were not in the Bible at all (usually after I’ve faced a barrage of questions about it), though I know it is wrong to wish that in relation to the Scriptures. God knew what he was doing-in the events themselves and in the record of them that he has given us. But it is still hard.” (p. 86) His three frameworks are putting the account into the setting of ancient warfare and as a unique event in the Old Testament, locating it within the larger context of God’s judgment on human sin, and juxtaposing the violence with his salvific purposes for the nations (the visions of peace and the end of war, the mission of Israel to bless the nations, the care of foreigners in the Law, and the significance of the cross as central to these workings of God).
As in the case of the Canaanites, each of the other sections of the book deals with fundamental problems in how the Christian faith is understood. In Part One Wright responds to those, in particular authors of the new resurgent atheism, who dismiss the existence of the Christian God because of the presence of evil in the world. Part Three explains in detail the work of Jesus on the cross, and Wright’s special object of critique is the recent position taken by some Christian authors that denies the cross as a penal substitution. In Part Four, he lays out what he believes to be the biblical hope for the future. The first chapter of this section (chapter nine) hits at “cranks and controversies,” the sensationalistic approaches to the rapture and the millennium.
All in all, this is a helpful book. The argument is manageable, and the layout is reader-friendly. Each chapter has but few endnotes, so the target audience will not be put off or weighed down with too much extra data. These endnotes, however, can serve those who might want to pursue issues further, as will the suggestions for further reading with which the work ends (pp. 222-24).
There are points at which the book’s wide scope can lose its readers or where one may have wished for more. For example, the person looking for answers about the violence of the Bible may not be interested in following with the same amount of attention Wright’s discourse on the end times. I suspect that the author’s response from his canonical commitments would be that the Bible is all of a piece, that all questions find their final resolution in the eschaton. I heartily agree; I just do not know if someone whose primary concerns are dealt with in the opening chapters will have the resolve to continue to the last chapter. The book might be used piecemeal by its various possible readers.
At other places, this reader’s thoughts naturally went to other possible arguments or resources that perhaps could enrich the book’s presentation (e.g., Moltmann’s musings on the importance of the pain of the cross for understanding God’s engagement with the world in his The Crucified God). This, of course, is a matter of personal taste, but this tendency actually may be a strength of the book. The God I Don’t Understand may stimulate us to ponder: Hmmm, how might I respond to this question? Would I add or subtract something? Would I express this differently? To cause us all to think more deeply and more biblically is a good thing!
The one section I wished would have been different is chapter nine, which assesses critically the beliefs that some Christians hold about the end of the world. I appreciate Wright’s Reformed amilennialism, and I agree wholeheartedly with much that is said. But, I would like to make some comments. First, to minimize contrary stances on the millennium and the rapture because these terms do not appear in the Bible (or just in Rev. 20:6 in the case of the millennium) is, in my view, a non-argument. Neither does the word “trinity,” which, as the other terms, is simply a human label for a theological concept. It is the concept we engage, not the label (and I say this as one who is sympathetic to his understanding of the “rapture”).
In these days there also is a tendency to associate those who hold to a future land hope for ethnic Israel with old-line, classical dispensationalism (the Scofield Bible) and its sensationalistic popular expositions (Hal Lindsey, the Left Behind series). Although Wright does not say as much explicitly, the suggestion is there, and more level-headed millennial views are not mentioned in the chapter (though a book edited by D. L. Bock is listed in the reading suggestions on p. 223). Dispensationalism has changed in major ways in the last three decades, and to revisit older views and then equate the hope for the land with the uncritical stances of popularizers is unfortunate and unfair. I am not a dispensationalist (e.g., I hold to what is called post-tribulationism), but I am in agreement with what is now called “progressive dispensationalism” on this point. I, too, bemoan and criticize the sensationalism that holds sway in major parts of the Christian church in the United States and around the world.
It is possible to hold to this hope for a renewed Israel in the land, while at the same time being critical of what the modern state of Israel does that violates what God demands and without identifying that country with the redeemed nation that is envisioned in the prophetic literature. The prophets could denounce Israel’s sins, even as they spoke of a restored Israel in the land beyond the worldwide judgment of God. The New Testament data also can be explained differently than what Wright suggests.
This disagreement in no way diminishes my endorsement of The God I Don’t Understand. I commend it as a very good entry into solid biblical thinking about a host of important issues.
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament