I finished reading Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God. I need to remind you of a couple of Fretheim’s earlier themes.
One of them is the idea of the intensification of God’s presence. God is always present, but in certain places and on certain occasions his presence becomes more intense. The intensification of God’s presence may be in the sanctuary, or in an experience of seeing God in nature or in a vision, or it may be in a person like a prophet.
Another idea is that God suffers in three ways. God suffers the pain of rejection when his people turn away. God suffers with his people when he grieves with them in their suffering. God suffers for his people when his mercy trumps his justice so that through divine anguish they can find forgiveness and redemption.
In his last chapter Fretheim applies these ideas to the prophets. In the prophets, he says, God’s presence is intensified in a sacramental way. You can say that the prophets embody the word of God. This is especially true of the prophetic figure of the “servant of God” who appears in several songs or poetic discourses starting in Isaiah 42. This intensified presence of God is the point of Isaiah 42:1, “I have put my Spirit upon him.”
Furthermore, Fretheim makes the case that the prophets represent God when they suffer in all the ways that God suffers. They suffer rejection when they speak for God. They suffer with the people when they anticipate the judgment that will come. Jeremiah 4:19: “My soul, my soul, I writhe in anguish.” And, most importantly, they mirror God;s suffering when they suffer for the people. Moses is the prototype for all the prophets here. Moses interceded for the people offering his own life in exchange (Exodus 32:30-32). Moses suffers the complaints and rebellion of the people, which is really more against God than Moses. And Moses suffers not being able to go into the land with the people. This, according to Deuteronomy, was because God was angry with Moses on the people’s account (1:37).
Ezekiel has to lay on his side in the street (for more than a year!) as a sign of the city of Jerusalem’s plight. This is so he can “bear the iniquity of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 4:5).
But it is in the servant songs of Second Isaiah that this suffering for the people becomes most straight forward. Christians hear words from Isaiah 53 read on Good Friday or sung in Handel’s Messiah. “Surely, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”.
So the message that the prophets suffer and that they represent God when they do so prepares the way for the passion of Jesus. The idea of redemptive suffering is already profound in the prophets.
There is a lot to like in Fretheim. His point is that to see the Old Testament God as vengeful and vindictive is wrong. Fretheim revives Luther’s image of God as one who struggles within his divine self in order to free his people from guilt and bondage. Calvinists never liked this. But Fretheim is a Lutheran.
I think that in spite of the many problems with Luther’s thinking that I have, he did read the Bible on its own terms and retain its more dynamic view of God. Others tried to fit the biblical God into a preformed, philosophical idea of who God has to be. This is a problem today because many fall for the argument that if God were good and all-powerful, then God would not allow suffering and evil. Therefore, God (or at least that god) cannot exist. That whole argument depends upon philosophical premises about God that do not match the God of the Bible.
Fretheim’s question is “What kind of God?” Yes. That is the right question.
But, as I have said all along, there are different voices within Scripture. I am not sure Fretheim does justice to all of them. He has set up a continuity between the suffering of the prophets and the suffering of Jesus. The logical conclusion might be that the intensification of God’s presence in the prophets reaches its culmination in Jesus. Jesus is the most intensified instance of the presence of God. But there are voices in the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, that speak of identity, not just intensity.
Fretheim would likely agree with this. But I think it is worth pointing out the Incarnation, in the deepest New Testament Christology, is more than just a further intensification of God’s presence in the line of prophets. It is the ultimate intensification of God’s presence, where Thomas can fall down before the risen Jesus and say, “My Lord, and my God.”