Monday, July 25, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (14): Is God the Author of Evil?

Below is the fourteenth 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,

You asked, “Within your Arminian system, how do you reconcile evil with the existence of a sovereign God?” Well, to start with, I never advocated anything like an Arminian soteriology when I disputed your explanation of evil. That is a different question altogether. However, on the question of how I explain evil, I do not try to explain it. All I can say is that for some mysterious reason, God has seen fit to allow evil and work good out of it, and this somehow fits together within His sovereign plan.

But while I do not attempt to explain evil, I do reject all explanations which make God the author of evil. I promised in my last letter to respond to that, so let me have a shot at it now.

To start with, if God is the author of evil, then He fosters wickedness in people's hearts. But if so, then God is sinful by the Biblical definitions of sin and evil. Consider that in the Proverbs the ones who incite and tempt to evil, like the fool's friends or the prostitute, are just as morally guilty as the simple man himself who falls prey to those temptations. James says that God does not tempt us, but if God is the author of evil then He is doing a lot more than merely tempting us: He is fostering the evil in our hearts and inciting us to sin. If God does this, then the words "God is good" are no longer intelligible because God is violating His own self-revelation of what constitutes goodness.

Consequently, if God really is the energizing principle behind both the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent then we would have to conclude that the Biblical categories used to describe God are ultimately non-descriptive. Moreover, it would make a mockery of the anti-thesis that we find throughout the war-Psalms if God is the causal force behind both sides. This would be similar to how the Rothschilds secretly financed both sides of the American civil war.

Moreover, if God is the author of evil then we would have to conclude that evil is just as much an intrinsic part of God's character as His goodness. But in that case, we are left without a standard for distinguishing between good and evil. Using God's character as the standard for distinguishing good and evil would then be akin to using a tape measure in which inches and centimeters were all mixed up. God can only be the standard for distinguishing between good and evil if the former and not the latter is fundamental to His character.

(Check out chapter 3 of C. S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain on some of the necessary preconditions to goodness behind intelligible. While Lewis doesn't put enough emphasis on the noetic effects of sin, he makes some good points which relate to this question.)

It is on these grounds that I would object to the position taken by Gordon Clark in his book Religion, Reason and Revelation, and the whole Superlasparian tradition that he was part of. Clark writes:

"God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. ... The men and angels predestined to eternal life and those foreordained to everlasting death are particularly and unchangeable designed. ... Election and reprobation are equally ultimate. ... There was never the remotest possibility that something different could have happened. ... God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. ... Since God caused Judas to betray Christ, this causal act is righteous and not sinful. By definition God cannot sin. At this point it must be particularly pointed out that God's causing a man to sin is not sin. There is no law, superior to God, which forbids him to decree sinful acts."

I have always found it problematic when thinkers like Clark appeal to God's actions rather than His character as the source of justice. Biblically, the standards of justice and goodness as well as God’s actions proceed from the same common cause: God's own nature. C.S. Lewis pointed out that if "good" means only "what God wills", then the statement "God is good" means merely "God wills what God wills", which is meaningless, for the devil also wills what he wills.

But there is a deeper problem with Clark’s position. While there is some truth mixed into this quote (error usually has truth mixed with it), it does seem to trivialize evil. When Job or the Psalmists are asking God “Why, oh why are you letting the wicked prosper in his way?”, the answer, according to Clark, would be simply “Evil exists because God makes people sin because God wants them to sin. End of story.” This trivializes the very personal and agonizing prayers that we find in the Bible in general and the Psalms in particular. This is one of the reasons I don't think it’s helpful to go down that road, because it is not the road that the Biblical writers go down.

This same trivialization of evil is apparent in other less extreme supralapsarian thinkers. Just today someone shared with me a Facebook status posted by a well-known reformed teacher who said that because God is sovereign, even those things which are not as they ought to be really are just as things ought to be. He went on to say that there are ultimately no bad things, since God is completely sovereign. Now if all he meant is that even bad things work out ultimately for good, then I have no problem with that. But there is a great different between saying, on the one hand, that God works good out of evil, vs. saying that that since God is the author of all things that evil isn’t really bad, or that everything which happens ought to be.

To say that God created and authored evil is a reductionistic approach that removes a necessary paradox from Christian theology. Any theological framework that takes seriously God’s goodness, His control over all things and the reality of evil in the world is going to have some degree of tension resulting from the interplay of these realities. That tension (which is not just intellectual, because many of the Psalmists struggled with this tension in an intense personal way) is necessary, not least because all the great heresies throughout history have arisen from a person or a group extrapolating the implications of one principle and, in the name of consistency, overriding other foundational doctrines. Put somewhat more technically, all heresy arises from a failure to preserve dialectical tension. The early Christological disputes are a perfect example, with different heretics defining the relation between Christ's humanity and His divinity in a way that failed to do justice to both. Other examples would be the relationship of Christ to the Eucharist or the relationship between the one-ness and the three-ness of the blessed Trinity. On all such questions we have to preserve a significant aspect of paradox and mystery. Where the Bible remains mysterious, we ought to remain mysterious.

Your comments about Proverbs 16:4 seem to ignore what the verse actually says. It says that God has made all for Himself including the wicked, but it doesn’t say that He creates their wickedness. Even if the passage did say that, we would be obligated to interpret it in a way consistent with the Bible’s meta-themes about God’s character.

It seems that part of the problem may be that Calvinists have a tendency to be rationalistic, so they will extrapolate principles to their logical extension rather than letting things be fuzzy at the edges to maintain the dialectical tension necessary for preserving important meta-themes about God.

Of course, this raises the question: if God is not the author of evil, where does it come from? Again, I’ll be upfront with you and say I don't know what causes evil. Nor is my overall position undermined by my ignorance on this point. In fact, my position wouldn’t be undermined even if someone could present a seemingly airtight argument to the contrary, such as: if God created everything ex nihilo, then if we trace everything back far enough He would seem to be the cause of everything like clockwork; ergo, God is the author of evil. Although such an argument has a certain logic about it, John Byl has rightly pointed out in The Divine Challenge that “if the falsity of the conclusion is more plausible than the truthfulness of the premises, then it is rational to reject the premises. ... The advantage of this method of refutation is that one need not pinpoint exactly where the initial error occurred."

At this point an atheist could say that this simply proves that the existence of evil is incompatible with a good God, but the problem here is that without God as a standard the very concept of evil is meaningless. If God’s goodness is not our starting point then there is not a problem of evil because there is no ultimate standard in which the categories of good and evil can have any legitimacy. And that is a crucial point, for many atheists and skeptics throughout the history of Western philosophy have used the problem of evil as grounds for concluding that God is either not all-good or not all-powerful or not all-knowing. David Hume's famous formulation of the difficulty remains the most iconic of such arguments. The difficulty here is that the philosophical problem of evil assumes a neutral framework in which we can meaningfully critique God's actions in the world and conclude things about his character, ability or omniscience as a result. But in reality, once any or all of these attributes are doubted, we no longer have a framework in which we can meaningfully talk about moral values at all, or the privation of such values in the existence of evil.

There is a big difference between the problem of evil that the Psalmists struggle with (see Psalm 74 and Job 21) vs. the standard philosophical formulations of the problems. The former rightly assumes that God is good and in control no matter what happens and even if what is happening is difficult to reconcile with God's faithfulness. (Here again C.S. Lewis is most helpful, in particularly the last paragraph of his chapter "The Rival Conceptions of God" in Mere Christianity). Thus, either we have God, with evil as a problem, or we have no God and no evil at all since without God the concept of good and evil is meaningless.

OK, I’ve kind of wandered off topic. I guess that means it’s a good time to end.

Blessings,

Canterbury Chris

No comments: