What would George do? (Part 6)

G. H. Morling on suffering and divine providence

 

In previous posts (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), I outlined aspects of the thought of Australian Baptist theologian G. H. Morling on the causes and purposes of suffering. In this and the next post, I discuss Morling’s thought on suffering as it relates to divine providence. Bear with me: like the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, while this may bore and frustrate some, it is fascinating to others, and it doesn’t go on forever.

For Morling, the experience of suffering raises questions about the providence of God, and about whether and to what degree humans are free agents. The doctrine of providence arises from the notion of God as creator. It examines, among other things, what it means for God to love people, the extent to which God exercises a governing activity in human history and individual lives, the problem of suffering and injustice in a world sovereignly ordered by God, the role of prayer in evoking an appropriate human response to providence, and the realm of the miraculous in the natural world.

Reformed theologians (that is, for my purposes here, those whose theologies are principally shaped by the theology of John Calvin and his successors) generally hold providence to be “‘meticulous,’ reaching down to every detail of the creation, including, crucially, to human free actions.”[1]

A more Arminian view of providence (a significant alternative approach to theology, after the teachings of Jacob Arminius) has God accommodating human free will, “foreknowing but not foreordaining it.”[2] Advocates of open theism further limit God, arguing that God cannot be responsible for evil and for historical events on the ground that God does not know precisely what will take place.[3] Each of these approaches has important things to say about human suffering.

In 1963 American theologian Langdon Gilkey noted “the curious fact that today the concept of Providence is notable mainly in its absence from theological discussion.”[4] This absence arguably reached back into the nineteenth century, but is not reflected in Morling’s theological thought. Two of Morling’s theological sources are the works of A. H. Strong and E. Y. Mullins, both American Baptist theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although Strong was of the north and Mullins of the south.

Strong wrote at length on providence, separating it from the doctrine of preservation.[5] Mullins treated the doctrine more cursorily and emphasised human freedom, claiming, “God has limited himself in his methods with free beings. Here compulsion is out of the question. Sovereignty and predestination do not annul freedom.”[6] Morling shared Strong’s concern to locate providence centrally among the works of God; he also shared Mullins’s commitment to reconciling human freedom with divine sovereignty.

For Morling, the doctrine of providence affirms that God takes a personal interest in the broad sweep of human history, and also that “man’s personal life is under the direction of a beneficent God Who concerns Himself even with its details.”[7] There is “a divine purpose running through all history and all life,” and “minute events are also within the scope of God’s providence.”[8]Morling includes a long quote from Mullins asserting that the logic of providence may be discerned through attention to the combined witness of reason, Scripture and personal experience.[9]

Similarly, in an address to a Katoomba Christian Convention audience in 1932, expounding Ephesians 1:10, Morling observes that “History is not mere chance … there is the divine rulership of the ages. The world was prepared for the first coming of Jesus Christ, and God is controlling history. Even [NSW Premier Jack] Lang cannot do as he likes; there is a God above Mr Lang.”[10]Commenting on Paul’s divine calling to apostleship in Ephesians 1:1, Morling suggests that “Every man’s life is a plan of God.”[11]

Yet Morling acknowledges that “the doctrine of providence is beset with difficulties.”[12] The two main problems are the presence of evil in a world created by God, and the correlation of divine sovereignty and human freedom. The problems are connected.

On evil and suffering, Morling appears to draw on works by British philosopher and theologian Herbert H. Farmer (1892-1981) and British Presbyterian minister Carnegie Simpson (1865-1947).[13] Morling notes the Scriptural teaching that God created a world which enabled human flourishing, but allows for the possibility of frustration and defeat. He adds that “God must express His benevolence through the ‘total drama of a world containing free agents in spite of and by means of their rebellion against Him’,” and that natural disasters are indifferent to human wellbeing.[14]

On the other hand, Morling holds that “by and large nature is beneficent and is friendly to man”; and that humans may be directly responsible for some disasters, such as shipwreck, floods and bushfires.[15] I mentioned this in an earlier post.

Regarding the problem of reconciling divine sovereignty and human suffering, Morling distinguishes physical suffering (and the associated “heart suffering,” presumably emotional in nature) from spiritual suffering. He speaks of the spiritual suffering of “great souls”[16] who find themselves to be “a permanent misfit” in their world, and mentions melancholy moods and relevant biblical passages in Psalm 37 and the Book of Job.[17]

In the same document, Morling offers five summary comments on personal suffering in the context of divine providence. First, “suffering must never be regarded as being the primary will of God” (cf James 1:17). Second, “God takes suffering up into His providential planning for His children and makes it of positive value … God allows suffering because this world is a ‘vale of soul-making’.” That is, there is a creative purpose to suffering.[18]

Third, there is no place in the biblical doctrine of providence for “a mechanistic arbitrary manipulation of ‘all things’: but to an overruling of ‘all things’ to those who love God in the interest of character development.”

Fourth, God participates in the suffering that humans experience, and suggests a preference for revising the classical doctrine of divine impassibility (the idea that God is not subject to forces, such as emotions, that have their source in the world external to God’s own nature).[19]

Fifth, the solution to the human problem of suffering lies in “the Divine action of the cross, and, through the subsequent bestowal of the Holy Spirit, the recreation of rebellious man and the re-alignment of the human to the divine will.”[20]

Morling goes on to encourage students to consider a paradox set forth by British apologist and novelist C. S. Lewis: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”[21]

For Morling, the resolution of this paradox lies in a proper understanding of divine omnipotence and love, but he declines to elaborate other than directing students to Lewis’s book, and a chapter on providence in H. H. Farmer’s The World and God, where Farmer acknowledges the possibility that “the ultimate explanation to the mystery lies in the assumption of another dimension [of reality] which takes us beyond the material and the temporal.”[22]

Lewis treated the subject of suffering most fully in The Problem of Pain, but also in other works, such as his “Answers to questions on Christianity,” originally published as an educational pamphlet. Responding to a question from an audience member at a public event, on the problem of unjust fate, such as “bereavement, illness, deranged domestic or working conditions, or the observation of suffering in others,” Lewis replied:

… I used to think it was a ‘cruel’ doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were ‘punishments.’ But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a ‘punishment,’ it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[23]

This sounds similar to Morling’s perspective.

On Romans 8:28, Morling expresses an optimistic view of fate, claiming that “although many things which come to us have not their origin in God, by the time they reach us who live in His will, God is in them and causes them to work for our good” (cf Gen 50:20).[24] Elsewhere Morling attributes such good fortune to earnest Christian discipleship.

Speaking on Romans 12:1-2 at Katoomba in 1932, he argued that full consecration to God results in a life of non-conformity to the world; a “transfigured” life whereby the inner beauty of Jesus shines forth outwardly in the Christian’s life; and “a life which realizes the Divine Will.” He adds, “It is a tragic thing to have life going on in a haphazard way. On the other hand, it is glorious to be restfully living in God’s will and the consecrated life makes that possible.”[25]

Morling maintains that providence finally remains a mystery: “it arises primarily out of the deep insights and necessities of the soul of man as God calls it into awareness of Himself and of its own significance, and not from any observation of the general course of external events.”[26]

In my next post, I discuss aspects of Morling’s thought on human freedom, experience, and prayer for healing and deliverance from suffering – and how these themes relate to divine providence.


Rod Benson is a Baptist minister and Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. This article may be freely reproduced in any form provided that proper attribution is made to this website.


References

[1]      Paul Helm, “Providence,” in Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell & T.A. Noble (eds), New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic(second edn; London: IVP, 2016), 715.

[2]      Helm, “Providence,” 715.

[3]      Chad O. Brand, “The work of God: Creation and providence,” in Daniel L. Akin (ed.), A Theology for the Church (revised edition; Nashville, B&H Publishing, 2014), 243.

[4]      Langdon B. Gilkey, “The concept of providence in contemporary theology,” Journal of Religion 43 (3), July 1963, 171.

[5]      A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 419-443; on preservation see 410-419.

[6]      E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Boston: Roger Williams Press, 1917), 268.

[7]      G. H. Morling, “The doctrine of God: The doctrine of the Trinity; The Attributes of God,” 23.

[8]      Ibid.

[9]      The Mullins quote is not referenced but is from The Christian Religion, 266.

[10]    G. H. Morling, “Spiritual millionaires,” in H. S. Begbie et al, The Katoomba Convention 1932: Notes of some of the addresses revised by the speakers (Sydney: Katoomba Convention Council, 1932), 51. John T. Lang (1876-1975) was Labor Premier of NSW from 1925-27 and 1930-32. He was dismissed from office on 13 May 1932 following radical actions by the Lang Government to combat the effects of the Great Depression. See Jack Lang, The Turbulent Years (Sydney: Alpha Books, 1970).

[11]    A quote originating from the title of an 1856 sermon on Isaiah 14:5 by Horace Bushnell, published in Bushnell, Sermons for the New Life (New York: Charles Scribner, 1858), 9-28.

[12]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 23.

[13]    Carnegie Simpson, The Facts of Life in Relation to Faith (1913); and H. H. Farmer, The World and God: A Study of Prayer, Providence and Miracle in Christian Experience (London: Nisbet, 1936); and Towards Belief in God (London: SCM Press, 1942).

[14]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 26.

[15]    Ibid., 24.

[16]    “Great souls,” for Morling, are those rare individuals able to express uncommon magnanimity toward others, after Aristotle’s use of the term in Nichomachean Ethics. A twentieth century example may be Mohandas Gandhi.

[17]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 24.

[18]    Morling has in mind John Keats’ philosophy of suffering as a creative force; see Jeffrey C. Johnson, “The vale of soul-making,” The Paris Review, 25 July 2014, text available online. The phrase “vale of soul-making” is from a letter by John Keats, the oldest brother of orphaned siblings, to his sister Frances in 1821 following the death of his brother Thomas.

[19]    Morling draws on Burnett H. Streeter, The Suffering of God (publication details unknown), 33ff; and H. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering Human and Divine (London: SCM Press, 1940).

[20]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 25f.

[21]    C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Centenary Press, 1940), 16. Lewis was channeling Scottish philosopher David Hume here.

[22]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 26.

[23]    C. S. Lewis, “Answers to questions on Christianity,” in Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (ed. Lesley Walmsley; London: Harper Collins, 2000), 320.

[24]    G. H. Morling, “Great themes of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Study No. 1: The sovereign will of God,” Bible Studies , n.d., 77.

[25]    G. H. Morling, “True consecration,” in H.S. Begbie et al, The Katoomba Convention 1932: Notes of some of the addresses revised by the speakers (Sydney: Katoomba Convention Council, 1932), 183f.

[26]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 24.

 

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