Remembering C. Everett Koop (and Lewis Smedes)

Remembering C. Everett Koop (and Lewis Smedes)

Yesterday, Monday, February 25, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died at his home in New Hampshire. He was 96. Anyone who paid attention to public controversies knew of him in the 1980s as a rock ribbed conservative evangelical appointed by President Ronald Reagan—perhaps as a bone thrown to his evangelical supporters. At least that’s how some regarded his appointment. He turned out to be a strong advocate for AIDS research in spite of his well-known moral opposition to homosexual behavior. He also led a public campaign against smoking. He did not turn out to be quite what conservatives hoped for—a strong public voice against homosexuality and abortion.

I knew of Koop before his appointment to public office. He was vaguely associated with Francis Schaeffer on some pro-life projects. Also, his 1976 book Right to Live, Right to Die was hailed as a major pro-life book by conservatives before his appointment. It probably had much to do with it. If I’m not mistaken, I knew of him through the pages of my favorite Christian magazine Eternity which was published out of offices of The Evangelical Foundation which was housed at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Koop’s home church.

Koop was a hero to those of us who considered ourselves part of the conservative Christian pro-life movement during the 1970s and early 1980s—before it was largely taken over by anti-abortion fanatics who would criminalize abortions for young rape and incest victims as well as banning some methods of birth control that prevented implantation of fertilized eggs. (Yes, I was a pro-life activist in the 1970s. I participated in public demonstrations against abortion-on-demand and in united church services, one at a Catholic cathedral, that called for overturning the infamous Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision.)

When Koop came to speak at the college where I taught theology in the 1990s I was excited to hear him in person. I had a vague hope of perhaps meeting him, but that dimmed when I saw the crowds that showed up to hear him. The auditorium was packed to the rafters. He lived up to his reputation as a spell binding public speaker. However, he didn’t talk about any of the expected subjects—respect for life, AIDS, homosexuality, smoking, etc. His subject was “God Killed My Son.”

Koop spoke that day for almost an hour about God’s sovereignty and his son’s death. (He also wrote a book about it that was published around the same time.) According to Koop, God arranged his son’s tragic death in a mountain climbing accident so that it was immediate and painless (according to the coroner). Most of his talk was about God’s sovereignty over all things: meticulous providence. His son was his case study.

According to Koop, whose pastor James Montgomery Boice was one of the most vocal advocates of high Calvinism among American evangelicals and one of my seminary professors, every event is foreordained and governed by God. That, he said, is the only thing that gave him comfort when his son died—that it was no accident. It was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a divine and good purpose. As I listened, I wanted to stand and ask him (and would have asked him had there been a Q & A session afterwards) whether he would get the same comfort out of thinking God killed his son if his son’s death had not been immediate and painless. He made such a huge issue of that. After all, many sons’ (and daughters’) deaths are not immediate and painless.

A few years later I stood in a hallway in a children’s wing of a hospital and heard a small child, probably no more than two or three, screaming in agony in a room down the hall. There was no question about the source of the screaming—it could only be extreme pain. It went on and on the whole time I was visiting my daughter’s friend with her. I wanted to stop my ears from hearing it.

If Koop was right, that, too, was from God. If asked, would he tell the parents of that screaming child that her pain was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a good purpose?

I can’t say for sure that Koop’s son’s death wasn’t foreordained by God. Perhaps it was. Without a special revelation, I doubt we can know for sure. But I am confident that God did not foreordain and render certain that tiny girls’ pains. With Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper (A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God) I believe God is not a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.”

In my opinion, the proper response to that little girl’s pain (other than medical intervention which I’m sure was being tried) was prayer, not explanation.

A few years after hearing Koop (whom I respected and admired even as I disagreed with him) I had the unique privilege of spending a fairly long time one-on-one with (then) retired Fuller Seminary ethics professor Lewis Smedes. (I was serving as his chauffeur from a large airport to the small city where I teach. He was coming to give our seminary’s annual endowed lecture series.) Smedes was not as famous as Koop, but he was known and still is remembered as one of the leading Christian ethicists. He was also a member of a Reformed church. (He was an ordained minister of the Christian Reformed Church.)

Smedes and I talked about Koop’s theology. He told me that when his son died, he stood beside the open grave into which he had just been lowered and swore that he would never tell another person that God took their child. He wrote an article about God’s sovereignty that broke decisively with meticulous providence. I explained open theism to Smedes and he expressed strong sympathy with that view and said he would probably have to write an explanation to his synod about his theology as it deviated from what he believed when he was ordained. Smedes and I exchanged e-mails about open theism and his last one to me stated that he embraced that view (without embracing the label). He died soon after that.

One thing I find interesting is how some Christians (and no doubt others) find comfort in believing God kills people, including children, while others are repulsed by the idea. Equally devout, equally God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people like Koop and Smedes not only hold different beliefs but react so radically differently “from the gut,” so to speak, to childrens’ deaths. And, of course, they interpret Scripture differently. Which comes first, I wonder? The experience or the hermeneutic? Or are they ever really separate?

One thing I look forward to finding out is how many of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation will hold onto their strong belief in God’s absolute, meticulous sovereignty as they mature and experience life—including tragedies in their personal lives. I predict many of them will, like Smedes, change their beliefs.

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  • jamie orr

    It is tragic and sometimes unbelievable, the pain and misery we see ourselves and others go through, even though we know God is good and there may be a purpose behind it. As we read what Christ himself, peter and paul hand to endure, even though it appears it was unwarranted. As Paul said ” shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword keep us from the love of christ?” I feel sometimes when you are persecuted unjustly and you have no where to turn but God, and you feel he is not listening to your prayers, it can realyy shatter your confidence.

    So does it mean in a sense that God has put the devil in charge of this earthly realm, and lets him wreak havoc even when a man is righteous, as in the case of Job. Could it be that our minds are just to dull as humans, to understand fully what God is letting happen to us and when we are on earth we are not supposed to know, like you say with the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.

  • James Petticrew

    One of my lecturers in Bible College in Glasgow had been a PHD student of William Barclay of The Daily Study Bible fame. I remember him telling me how upset Barclay was sent numerous letters when his 21 year old daughter was killed in a boating accident telling him it was God’s will to kill her due to his theology. One of these letters is reffered to in his biography
    ” “I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.”
    Barclay says in reply, “If I had known the writer’s address, I would have written back in pity, not anger, saying, as John Wesley once said, ’Your God is my devil.’”
    I am with Barclay on this one and not just because I am Scottish!

  • Jon Van Dop

    I grew up in a Christian Reformed congregation that taught the Heidelberg Catechism. “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” was a commonly asked question. As I read your article, I found myself sympathizing with Koop because I could understand the comfort that comes from knowing that God is in control. We don’t have to understand God’s plan, we just have to accept it- as hard as that might be.

    Then, I heard a Methodist sermon on grace and free will. It turned my perception of the theological world upside down because while it challenged my comfortable Calvinist perception regarding the nature of God, it also struck a deep note within me that it was true. Now I consider theodicy questions in light of how our human nature may have caused suffering rather than how God might be smiting this person in a Job-esque fashion.

    And yet, I need to leave room for God too. I can’t go so far as to say that God never intervenes in the workings of this world. The Watchmaker argument doesn’t hold water for me. I recently read Heitzenrater’s, “Responsible Grace” and thought that it summer up how God reaches out to us and we then choose how we will respond. It makes sense and yet leaves room for comfort in the midst of crisis.

    At the end of the day, even now as a Methodist pastor, I struggle to give up the sense that I am not my own. I still like to think that I belong, “body and soul to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” And perhaps that much at least is true. We belong to God, but we are also responsible to God as well.

  • Jack Harper

    When I went to bible college in the 80’s, I met a homeless man who was a Calvinist. I took him back to my dorm room so he could shower, but the dorm dad said he would have to leave. The homeless man resounded that he and I were the only saved people in this little college. He was obviously hurt by the rejection as I’m sure Koop was in losing his son the way he did. We have the privilege to look back and seeing that Dr. Koop was probably looking for a way to coup with his sons death and we can sympathize with him. You have to give credit to those who think God would kill their child and yet not be bitter towards him.

  • Steve Rogers

    “In my opinion, the proper response to that little girl’s pain (other than medical intervention which I’m sure was being tried) was prayer, not explanation.” Well said, Roger. I agree. AS subjective and inadequate as our theodicies may be, however, I find no fault with leaving the unexplainable in God’s hands. God’s sovereignty working all things for good is a much more comforting ideal than random accident or the devil’s whims being the reason why.

    • rogereolson

      It’s one thing to believe God can bring good out of innocent pain and suffering and something else to believe God planned it and rendered it certain. The former is a good God; the latter is hardly distinguishable from the devil.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Too many times I’ve been caught up in this as you were making an absolute out of what you were saying. However, when I see this as simply your understanding and making the best of what you see, it helps me respond with what I understand and see. I would say that our suffering, not merely for our faith but in the tragedies of life, is something that ministers to a lost and dying world. If we suffer well, God ministers through it. My understanding of Scripture would therefore lead me to know that whatever comes into my life is from the hand of a good and loving Father who knows what is best for me. If this wasn’t the case and all I have to blame is the devil, that would seem hopeless to me. No doubt satan has his role but God brings it to pass through him. As far as Dr. Koop goes, who knows what kind of mental and physical anguish he went through before he reached that conclusion he stated. What about God rendering certain the very death of His own Son? Acts 2:23;Acts 4:27-28. If God can render certain the death of His very own Son, who am I to bemoan Him for the things in my own life?

        • rogereolson

          Wasn’t it God (Jesus) who rendered certain his own death by means of his triumphal entry? That’s how I see it–not as “God” (I suspect you mean the Father) killing his Son but as the Trinity working together to offer a perfect sacrifice which Jesus the Son volunteered to be. Of course, as Calvin right said, such language is “baby talk,” but that’s all we have.

          • J.E. Edwards

            This understanding of seeing all the Scripture through Jesus on the cross is something I’ve been looking deeper into lately. I’ve just listened to a few Greg Boyd sermons on this and know it’s somewhat your own position. I know you both are believers in the Trinity, but that view seems to elevate one aspect of the Trinity over the others. Definitely not to their neglect, of course. Although one, yet they are distinct persons. I’m sure not telling you anything you don’t know and may believe yourself. No doubt the plan of redemption was a Trinitarian effort, but the Father did deliver over the Son (Is. 53:10). Richard Sibbes put it well: “Outside of Christ, God is terrible.” That’s the distinction I’m seeing.

          • rogereolson

            That was Luther’s view, too. But I would interpret as meaning that God, conceived go apart from Christ, is terrible, which is why we have Christ–to show us that God is not terrible.

  • Cal Boroughs

    Mentioning Schaeffer reminds of his letter of Jan. 21, 1980 where he spoke of his own cancer and argued that he “did not think Christians take the Fall and the present abnormality of the world with practical comprehension and seriousness.” This led him to say: “I do not believe for a moment that God gave me my lymphoma. It is a result of the abnormal flow of things, just as my eventual death will be from some [abnormal] cause (if Christ does not come back first)”. A helpful perspective from a Reformed perspective.

    • rogereolson

      But it hardly fits with Schaeffer’s strong Calvinism–insofar as it was the same as Sproul’s and others. I don’t know Schaeffer’s theology well enough to know if he was a divine determinist or not. I agree with what he wrote in that letter, though. By the way, I had his granddaughter as a student. She was a delight to have in class but it was a little intimidating to have Francis Schaeffer’s granddaughter in my theology class!

  • Harvey Stob

    Which comes first, I wonder? The experience or the hermeneutic? Or are they ever really separate?
    I remember Smedes’ deep compassion for people–might that determine how we read Scripture and how we experience events? Smedes spoke at my Seminary graduation (Calvin Sem) and his words stayed with me throughout my ministerial career. He said, (something to the effect) “As a preacher know that in your audience will be/is a woman who just received word that she has breast cancer, a man who lost his job last week, a couple who don’t know where their son is…etc.” People and their challenges (his own, too!) seemed to be central to Smedes personality and writing.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, that is how I experienced him–an exceptionally compassionate person. Very sensitive to human pain. Are you by any chance related to the late Calvin professor Henry Stob? The feststschrift in his honor edited by Orlebeke and Smedes (God and the Good) has been especially influential in my own theological journey–especially the essays by Daane and Wolterstorff.

      • Harvey Stob

        Yes, he was my uncle. During the last weeks of Henry’s life, Smedes wrote him almost every day. Henry was very disappointed when the CRC did not appoint Smedes as his successor.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks. I did not know your uncle, but I loved the book in his honor and return to it often. And I loved Smedes. He was a very generous and open-hearted and open-minded theologian. I wonder if you ever crossed paths with any of my relatives in Grand Rapids? They all went to Calvin and stayed in GR. Anita Brink is my cousin. She and her husband David owned a store in GR–I think a Christian music store or something like that. I believe they are retired now. I have two other cousins (her sisters) who also live in GR and went to Calvin. Their mother was my stepmother’s oldest sister and I have very good memories of vising their home in Kanawha, Iowa–a very CRC town. It always amused me that they belonged to a youth group called “Young Calvinists.” But I’m sure much about us (Pentecostals) amused them, too.

          • Harvey Stob

            Brink is a common Dutch last name and I don’t think I know your relatives. I left Grand Rapids in ’72 and have only visited there occasionally. “Young Calvinists” (The CRC answer to the Boy Scouts) is nothing: how about “Calvinettes” for young girls!!

  • I’m not sure if I exactly qualify as YRR even though I’ve always been Calvinist in my thinking. I appreciate the difficulties some brothers and sisters have with meticulous providence and am sometimes even sympathetic to the perceived offensiveness of it.

    Tragedy does not, however, alway make someone change their tune when it comes to this issue. The loss of my first child to miscarriage strengthened my belief in God’s sovereign even as I became more sensitive to those who have suffered loss.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I find it curious that in the two examples of Koop and Smedes, both started in a similar position theologically, but ended up differently when confronted with similar life-tragedies. Surely both believed in God and loved Him deeply, but (at least) one “misoverheard” when God gave out commands to the angel of death. For the one, he risks conflating the Good One with the Bad One. For the other, he risks conflating the Acting, Pursuing, Judging, Independent God with a Well-wishing, but Constrained God. Each should be blessed on His journey, knowing that every path has its own perils – some requiring better navigation skills than others.

    From the child who died too soon to the elder whose time had come, I wonder at what point one passes from the former to the later. Maybe the issue rests not so much with the age of the dead, but with the age (or relation to the dead) of the grieving.

  • Scott C

    So could God have stopped the agony of the child and if so why didn’t he?

    • rogereolson

      Please read Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame? It is the best, simple-to-read presentation of what I believe about God’s providence. A bit longer and more difficult is E. Frank Tupper, A Scandalous Providence: the Jesus Story of the Compassion of God.