The Problem of Hina: Theodicy in John 9

Small exegetical decisions often result in radically different theologies.

Consider the implications of John 9:1-3 (NIV):

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

For many, this passage implies that God gives people sicknesses (like blindness or cancer) in order to work towards a greater good.

In this popular understanding, evil (like sickness) is an unfortunate but necessary part of God’s will. God gave this man blindness so that Jesus would be able to perform this miracle later in his life. Perhaps you have heard this common refrain: “You might not understand right now why God allowed [X] to happen, but it is all a part of His plan.” Representing this view, Matt Chandler (an influential evangelical preacher) found personal comfort during his own fight with cancer knowing that it was part of the pre-determined will of God.[1]

Yet, is this an acceptable view of God and his relationship to evil?

The problem of evil is one of the many issues highlighted in passages like this one. How is God “good” if he causes/allows suffering? Why can’t an all-powerful and all-wise God find ways to accomplish his purposes that do not involve evil and suffering?

For some, like myself, the theology presented above costs too much. It safeguards the sovereignty of God (everything that happens is a result of his will), but at what price? It paints a picture of a God whose character is at best drenched in moral ambiguity. How can we legitimately call such a God “good”? Theodicies such as these also seem to distort the biblical logic of creation and redemption. The biblical narrative portrays a God who does not create nor desire evil (such as death, sickness, and suffering). It also portrays a God at work in history in order to abolish all evil as he establishes a new, eternal creation. Why then would God, in the present, be working against his own purposes?

Is there another way to read John 9:1-3?

Yes! In fact, I think this passage has been mistranslated and thus misinterpreted. It serves as a perfect example of how small exegetical details can end up exerting an enormous amount of influence over important theological conclusions [See also: “N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?”].
How so?

A closer reading of John 9:2-3 reveals that the problem of evil is actually a problem of hina.

Hinaνα ) is a greek particle commonly seen as a form which functions to introduce purpose clauses. Most first-year Greek students have already memorized the primary semantic meaning of hina: “in order that” or “so that” [see this excellent post – Greek Vocabulary: Are We Cooking The Books?).

Let’s look closely at the greek construction of John 9:2-3.

[9:2] καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες,
Ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος  οἱγονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ;
[9:3] ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ,
ἀλλ’ ἵνα φανερωθῇτὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ.

There are actually two hina clauses, one in each verse. The first occurrence of the particle cannot logically be indicating purpose (that the man or his parents sinned in order that he would be born blind). Thus, most translators render it as a “result clause” – a perfectly acceptable reading. In fact, throughout the New Testament and other early Greek literature, hina is regularly used in ways that cannot be understood as introducing a purpose clause. This is why it’s so important to remember that the context and function of a form is more important than any pre-determined semantical meanings.

Margaret Sim has argued persuasively that we should abandon our attachment to associating hina clauses with purpose statements.[2] By her count, only 40% of hina clauses in Luke and 62% in John indicate purpose. This evidence leads her to suggest that we begin to rethink the usage of this particle – not as a container of semantic content, but as a particle that functions to represent what the speaker thinks or expects. Thus, hina can (and does) regularly function to indicate purpose, but it also (not infrequently) indicates commands or wishes.[3]

The second hina clause, in John 9:3, is an independent clause. This creates a problem for reading it as expressing purpose. Most English translations skip over this grammatical conundrum by providing the phrase “it happened.” But this is not necessary or advisable, and as Sim says, “if the primary function of hina is seen as indicating the purpose of the main verb, then it is essential that a main verb in fact be present so that the reader can access such a function. If the main verb or clause is absent, then there is no syntactic context in which purpose can be expressed in a grammatical sentence.” We must let the actual function of the particle and the context of the clause (not a fixed semantical meaning) determine our readings. Thus, Sim renders the verse:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but the works of God must/should be revealed in him.” 

The theological implications of this translation are staggering:

“The hypothesis of the imperatival hina . . . releases the text from the fatalism which had obsessed it, and dissolves the picture which had become familiar through all our English versions, a man destined from birth to suffer for the sole purpose of glorifying God when he was healed.”[4]

What if John 9:3 is not a statement about God’s mysterious sovereignty, but about his clear desire to overcome any and all evil that has invaded his world. Such an interpretation would have the advantage of the lager context of the Gospels – where the clear assumption is that sickness and disease are the works of the devil, not God.

David Bentley Hart summarizes the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’s relationship to evil nicely:
“It is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death. It would seem that he provides us with little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[5]

What sort of fragmented view of the Trinity results if we try to reconcile that 1) Jesus establishes the Kingdom (in part) by healing sicknesses (cf. Luke 10:9), yet 2) the Father is the one who has caused these ailments in the first place. Is the Father working against the Son? Perhaps this is why it has taken so long for the Kingdom to be consummated, the Trinity is not yet on the same page! On the other hand, what if Jesus’ opposition to evil is an expression of God’s true will – his desire to bring his reign to earth as it is in heaven? We could then understand the nature of the Triune God as unequivocally good and wholly opposed to all evil. This would require many of us to rethink our concept of “sovereignty” – perhaps sovereignty does not mean that God controls and dictates every action and event of history. Perhaps his sovereignty is more like that of an all-wise, master chess player, who is working towards a goal in which he cannot be stopped, no matter the opponent or challenge.


[1] See this AP article by Eric Gorski on Chandler’s attitude toward his cancer: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/2010-02-01-pastor31_ST_N.htm.
[2] The full paper can be read here: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/docs/RT%20and%20independent%20ina%20clauses.pdf.
[3] See Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 141-142; see also Blass, Debrunner, & Funk, A Greek Grammar, 195-196 (“F – The Imperative, 3).
[4] Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights, 145.
[5] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, 87.

11 thoughts on “The Problem of Hina: Theodicy in John 9

  1. Perhaps we are so consumed by abiding in Christ, loving people, the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the orphan, the widow, that we don’t really care. We simple come….simply. As a child. We seem to always look for God to exhibit Himself to His children, but in reality, God only exhibits Himself “IN” His children. —-Be God’s—–

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  2. Wow, Mike. Some linguistic and grammatical heavy-lifting going on here. I think I need to review the parts of speech! But if I get the gist of what you’re saying.. English translations had to add “it happened” in order to try to make sense of the passage? I’m curious, what would be a literal reading of the second verse? How does Sim’s interpretation account for the second occurence of “hina” in 9:3?

    Brain-cramping exercises aside, I have long had a problem with the idea that God causes evil, suffering, and pain. No doubt he can work with those things and turn them to good, but to be the actual author of those things does indeed seem to contradict the whole idea that God, as revealed in the person of Jesus, is love. I’ll resist the urge to restate that old Hume conundrum regarding God’s will vs. God’s omnipotence as I’m afraid that would open up another can of worms at this point!

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    1. A “literal” (tongue-in-cheek) translation of v.3 would read: “Answered Jesus, not man sinned or the parents of him, but [HINA] revealed the works of God in him.”

      The ESV acknowledges the issue and kind of punts the interpretation. They read it as “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

      Sim (and lots of others, including Greg Boyd) would read it as a command/imperative/wish/desire – “let” the works of God be revealed in him or the works of God “must/should” be revealed in him.

      The “higher work of God” (Boyd’s wording) would then be healing (not afflicting).

      I agree with your uncomfortableness with most theodicies – reading the Brothers Karimazov screwed me up pretty bad.

      Thanks for the comment, as always – Matt!

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  3. I think the discussion over translation is interesting, but I am not quite convinced yet. The Old Testament attributes lots of suffering and death on the part of the (relatively) innocent to God. When a few Israelite hide some idols, God kills everyone in the extended family, even the children. A plague comes because David takes a census. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I am sure we can think of more examples. While it makes me uncomfortable and I wish I had a better way to explain these things, it seems to be that God causes suffering on people in order to advance His plan.
    Thoughts?

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  4. I haven’t read Sim, but by your representation of her argument it seems that she is not arguing that ἵνα marks independent clauses. Rather it marks content clauses. That is object clauses for verbs of speech and cognition. An example of this is Mark 5:23.

    Mk 5:23
    καὶ παρακαλεῖ αὐτὸν πολλὰ λέγων ὅτι τὸ θυγάτριόν μου ἐσχάτως ἔχει, ἵνα ἐλθὼν ἐπιθῇς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῇ ἵνα σωθῇ καὶ ζήσῃ.

    Here the ἵνα clause is not introduced with a verb of speaking, but it is non the less reported speech. This example is also a command introduced by ἵνα. I major difference in Mark 5 and John 9 is that the verb within the ἵνα clause is in the imperative mood.

    That is the biggest reason that I would not read the second ἵνα clause in John 9:3 as an imperative. The main verb is in the indicative.

    To your point about verb supplied by the translators of the NIV, the “it happened…” This sort of thig happens all the time, not just in Greek, but in all language. It actually happens in the main clause right before the second ἵνα.

    Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ

    There are two clauses here. In the second the verb has been elided because it is unnecessary to repeat it. Because it is the same verb the author gives the reader only the relevant information for the clause because the rest is easily understandable from the context. It is the same with the main verb introducing the ἵνα clause. It has been elided so that the reader has only the important information.

    You should read Steve Runge’s section on the connector ἀλλά, and his section on point counter point sets in his discourse grammar.
    http://www.amazon.com/Discourse-Grammar-Greek-New-Testament
    It will help you think through the passage as a whole.

    P.S. just because I don’t agree with your grammar doesn’t mean I don’t agree with your theological point. And it doesn’t mean that exegatically you have to ignore this passage. It just means you have to go back to the drawing board.

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    1. Jimmy, as you might see below I agree with you about ἀλλά, and that the second ἵνα is by no means in an independent clause. And of course I agree that the verb here, being subjunctive, should be read as subjunctive rather than imperative. But “back to the drawing board” seems a bit harsh, considering that a) Sim uses “should” which is a reasonable subjunctive gloss, and b) the subjective may also be hortative, which is not terribly far from imperative. Both are directive moods; the subjunctive is merely more polite about it.

      When the clear agent of action is God, and without the more remote optative, it seems perfectly reasonable to interpret Jesus as calling down the grace of God by implication. It shall be done. And he shall do it, and God’s work shall be made manifest by the resulting action. Now, of course, Sim uses “should/must” in a prescriptive sense, which is clearly not true to the context of John 9, and does not reflect the subjunctive as I’ve just given it. But Mike appears to have this sense already.

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    2. Hang on. There is no “main verb” that has been elided but still governs the ἵνα clause. By no means. If what you’re pointing to is that Jesus interpolates ἥμαρτεν into his denial of “οὗτος ἢ οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ,” where the disciples leave it in the fronted query, you’ve missed the boat here.

      Translators have indeed attempted to read in a “it happened” that is neither explicit nor implicit in order to make a functional purpose clause here. If Jesus denies that this man or his parents sinned, then that can’t be the protasis to which the ἵνα clause is the apodosis. Therefore we often reach back to the prior ἵνα clause for a protasis, “this man was born blind so that….” Which is, of course, improper. But as subordinate clauses, both ἲνα clauses here are complete with their own verbs, in the aorist subjunctive. The incorrectly-interpolated verb Mike notes is a function of assuming that there has to be a protasis somewhere, and making up a generic one.

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  5. Excellent. We do well to note that Jesus’ use of ἵνα is responsive to the disciples’ use of it. The clear fact in the question is that this man was born blind, which is the substance of the ἵνα clause. The question is how he got that way. Jesus denies the presupposition of the question with οὔτε … οὔτε, and then contradicts the ἵνα clause. If you’re going to question the resultant particle, though, it will help you to also question the comparative particle ἀλλά. The man is and has been blind from birth, but the preferential reality, which always follows ἀλλά, is that the deeds of God shall be manifested for him (dativus commodi).

    If you ask me, this is mockery of the disciples’ use of ἵνα, as though blindness were a result, as though God blinded this man (divine passive). We fail so often, as credulous readers of scripture, to discern the rhetoric of insincerity. Because of this, we also fail to see the pedagogy at work in passages like this. If one believed that this man was made blind (by God) for some reason, one might have to believe that Jesus substitutes a reason for the one the disciples suggest. But Jesus does not appear to believe that this man was made blind (by God) for any reason, as he goes about negating the entire construction used. God did not blind this man, for his sin or anyone else’s; rather, God’s work is shown in healing.

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