Sunday, July 17, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (13): Fate, Necessity, and Evil

Below is the thirteenth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George

I appreciate you coming back to me with scripture. From what I can make out, your whole understanding about evil being necessary hinges on Romans 9:22. I want to interact with your exegesis of Romans 9, but that will have to wait for another letter. In this letter I want to clear up some misunderstandings.

First, you spend quite a while trying to show that the reformed view of the decrees is not fatalism, as if that answers the arguments in my last letter regarding necessity. Yet even if you are correct, that seems to be a separate issue to the specific concerns I raised about the necessity of evil. However, with regard to the issue of fate, I find it interesting that while apologists like yourself have attempted (legitimately) to distance the reformed view with the pagan concept of fate, if you read what Martin Luther said about predestination in The Bondage of the Will, it differs very little from the pagan concept of fate. In fact, Luther specifically appealed to the pagan concept of faith to prop up his views. For example, he wrote:

"But why should these things be difficult for we Christians to understand, so that it should be considered irreligious, curious, and vain, to discuss and know them, when heathen poets, and the common people themselves, have them in their mouths in the most frequent use? How often does Virgil alone make mention of Fate? 'All things stand fixed by unchangeable law.' Again, 'Fixed is the day of every man.' Again, 'If the Fates summon you.' And again, 'If you will break the binding chain of Fate.' The aim of this poet is to show that in the destruction of Troy, and in raising up the Roman empire, Fate did more than all the devoted efforts of men. . . . From which we can see that the knowledge of predestination and of the foreknowledge of God was no less left in the world than the notion of divinity itself. And those who wished to appear wise went so far into their debates that, their hearts being darkened, they became fools. (Rom. 1:21-22) They denied, or pretended not to know those things which their poets, and the common folk, and even their own consciences, held to be universally known, most certain, and most true."

I actually agree with much of what you wrote in your last letter, though I dispute the conclusions you draw. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between saying:

1. (a) The final judgment reveals God’s wrath, and this somehow mysteriously shows the Lord’s glory/character because everything God does shows His glory/character; or (b) because all things work together for good for God’s children, it follows that all the pain and suffering of the world, including the sin and damnation of some, will somehow further God’s good purposes for His children.

versus saying

2. (a) It is necessary that evil eternally exist so that God’s wrath can be displayed in forever punishing it; or (b) a world without sin would have been horrible because then we wouldn’t know that God hates sin; or (c) without evil there would be no way to know that God is just.

If the arguments you presented in your last letter prove anything, they only prove 1 and not 2. To articulate the former, as you did in your last letter, is not to redeem your previous articulation of the latter. Although 1 and 2 may seem to be saying the same things, and although 1 may seem to logically entail 2 in your mind, there is an important difference. Jonathan Edwards’ thought clearly falls into the category of 2 when he says “So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature,” as does Piper when he argues that the evil and misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. Similarly, when Douglas Wilson says it “would be horrible” if there had never been any sin, we are going way, way beyond 1. The difference may be subtle, but the difference is crucially important. Romans 9 and Proverbs 16:4 get us to 1, but they can only take us to 2 if we ignore many other passages of scripture and the Bible’s meta-themes about the character of God.

The reason it is important not to conflate 1 and 2 is that it ends up making goodness eternally dependent on evil, leading to the type of functional dualism that we find in St. Augustine where evil has to balance with good to achieve a type of metaphysical symmetry. As he writes in City of God:

“God would never have created a man, let alone an angel, in the foreknowledge of his future evil state, if he had not known at the same time how he would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. ‘Antithesis’ provides the most attractive figures in literary composition: the Latin equivalent is ‘opposition,’ or, more accurately, ‘contra-position.’ The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is beauty in the composition of the world's history arising from the antithesis of contraries—a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words."

Or again Augustine writes:

“And thus evils, which God does not love, are not apart from order; and nevertheless He does love order itself. This very thing He loves: to love good things, and not to love evil things—and this itself is a thing of magnificent order and of divine arrangement. And because this orderly arrangement maintains the harmony of the universe by this very contrast, it comes about that evil things must need be. In this way, the beauty of all things is in a manner configured, as it were, from antitheses, that is, from opposites: this is pleasing to us even in discourse.”

You seemed to come pretty close to Augustine’s view of evil being a metaphysical necessity in your last letter when you wrote, “God's wrath is just as much a part of Him as His love…. These two dimensions of God's nature need to be embraced in tandem…. God's justice/righteousness meant that the only kind of creation that would reflect the totality of His nature would be one in which his justice would be justice indeed, full-orbed with both sides of the equation being equal.”

Now maybe all you are saying is nothing more than what I articulated until #1 above. But it does seem to veer pretty close to #2, with creation and evil being necessary to reflect a certain side of God’s nature. And, of course, if God’ nature includes these two dimensions - that is, if wrath is something God is like love rather than something He does (which seems to be the corollary to thinking that only a world marred by evil can “reflect the totality of His nature”) – then one might ask how God’s character could be fully expressed before creation if the members of the Godhead weren’t wrathful against one another.

Another reason it is important not to move from #1 to #2 is because it slides us down the slippery slope to having to affirm that God is the author of evil, a position you come precariously close to in your last letter while discussing Proverbs 16:4. But to do justice to that issue, I will have to wait until my next letter.


Canterbury Chris

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