Should theodicy be at the heart of preaching?


Theodicy is the defence of God’s justice and goodness. It is something that we naturally think about, and yet, more often than not, it drives our preaching. You reach a difficult teaching of Jesus about hell, or a confronting passage of Paul’s about the role of men and women in the church, or even about the uniqueness of Christ, and instead of listening to the passage, you start arguing with it. And sometimes God’s word seems to magically come around to your point of view.

I have no problems with us thinking through how everything squares with God’s justice, supremacy and love. But I do have a problem when theodicy starts driving or twisting the preaching, or, more commonly, leaving out the offending verses.

I have caught myself doing it in evangelism. I have seen in it preaching, and have witnessed it in bucketloads in denominational and theological circles.

As far as I can see, the few places in the Bible that could potentially be theodicies end up with doxologies. They move from trying to defend God’s character to praising God’s sovereign character as he has revealed himself, or calling for a response. Job could have been written as a defence of God’s goodness, and yet, in the end, the creator of all declares that he does not need defending, and Job worships him in humble contrition and adoration. Romans 9-11 starts looking like a theodicy, and ends up with a marvellous statement that lets God be God (Rom 11:33-36).

If there is any passage that begs for a theodicy, this may be one. But should that be our intent?

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Rev 14:9-11)

What does this passage call for? A defence of how God could do this? Or (and this is even more common and a much worse way of arguing) that it is not saying what it seems to be saying? What does this call for? “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (Rev 14:12).

We might have an aside showing how God is just in this passage, but the thrust of what we must say is declarative: this is what will happen. Christian brothers and sisters, we must endure, keep God’s commandments and hold our faith in Jesus.

Theodicy may have some limited value as an aside, but it is not at the heart of preaching. If theodicy drives preaching, we end up forcing our values onto God’s word, rather than his word onto our values.

If you are a preacher, you are not God’s lawyer. And you are most certainly not his public relations officer—a spin doctor for the deity. You are his messenger boy.

7 thoughts on “Should theodicy be at the heart of preaching?

  1. <i>As far as I can see, the few places in the Bible that could potentially be theodicies end up with doxologies.</i>

    <i>If you are a preacher, you are not God’s lawyer.</i>

    Great lines AB, really good. I would also add that theodically-driven preaching is often not all that convincing, anyway.

    My one hesitation is this. Theodicy remains the #1 issue people raise when confronted with the gospel. Look at the reaction to JAAL for evidence of that. How do we respond to that?

  2. Well said Andrew.  Part of the problem is that we often think of justice as something independent of God rather than as God defines it.  Job 40:8-14 are key to the whole book, and deal with this very issue.

  3. My one hesitation is this. Theodicy remains the #1 issue people raise when confronted with the gospel. Look at the reaction to JAAL for evidence of that. How do we respond to that?

    I agree.  I’m reading through Tim Keller’s, “Reason For God” with a small group at church (believers and unbelievers).  I like his approach of thinking though the reasons that people have for unbelief and exposing the beliefs that underly them. 

    Perhaps there is a way forward like this.  Preach on Revelation 14 and expose the objections people have with this passage and the evaluate their underlying beliefs.

    That being said – we must not let any of our approaches twist God’s word.  I must admit that I have heard some of the great ones give theodicies for hell that turn it from something of which we should be scared to something that seems “reasonable” and tame and our choice.

  4. Part of the problem is that we often think of justice as something independent of God rather than as God defines it.

    Very true.  I’d be interested if anyone has any thoughts about what sense or system of justice most theodicies try and judge God by.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for this helpful piece. I’ve been preaching a series on the cross of Christ this term, and still feel an infant with the issues involved.

    I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about Romans 3:25-26? Espeically in relation to Habakkuk and the beginning of the section in Romans 1-3 (Rom 1:16-17) drawing on Habakkuk?

    In Ex 34:6-7, when God reveals his glory to Moses, there is a tension left in God’s character as Yahweh with regards to his justice: he forgives wickedness, but doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

    When Habakkuk raises this issue, Habakkuk ends in the same place you’ve suggested – doxology. But is there a sense in which God doesn’t question the question, but questions the timing of the answer? (Hab 2:3)

    So when we get to Rom 3:25-26 the cross, as the demonstration of God’s justice, is the resolution of that tension: of how God can be just to forgive; of how God could have been just to overlook former sins. He doesn’t just display (make known) his justice, but he demonstrates it (actually provides atonement so as to be just in justifying the unjust).

    But thinking about the cross as the display and demonstration of God’s character / glory (justice Rom 3:25, but love Rom 5:8), means that the cross also needs to define his love and justice.

    In that sense, to pick up on your excellent imagery, God is his own lawyer, and the cross is the answer to his own story of redemption and the tensions posed by it. But never in that do I act as judge, but always stand under him: he teaches me what justice is, and he answers a question he himself was willing to leave hanging in the old covenant.

    And in that imagery, I’m never his lawyer: he is always mine. As his messenger boy, I only ever stand as the recipient of his representation (and substitution!).

    So my task as teacher is let him defend himself by making the gospel known: a gospel that doesn’t just demonstrate God’s justice, but teaches me what justice is?

    But on the ‘where people itch’ issue (to pick up Craig – and Job!), I’m wondering if my task as the teacher/pastor is over time to take people through to the point where they can wrestle with this issue in a godly fashion: that may start out in anger, grief, denial, or even abstract presumptive speculation, but end in humility before God, and wrestle with the question with listening ears to what is said rather than demanding answers. That is, Job and Habakkuk don’t just teach me where I should be, but also helps me (and others) to get there?

    Lots of thoughts half expressed – what do you think?

  6. Hi Andrew and Scott (and others),

    First: thanks Andrew for this, it’s really important.

    Second: Scott, I think you’re onto something. But I also then have a question about Romans 9 and the first part of Romans 3 (esp. vv5-6). While he doesn’t question the question in 3:25-26, I wonder if he effectively questions the question by questioning the questioner in 3:5-6 and Rom 9?

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