Friday, April 22, 2005

Is God the author of sin?-1

I. Is God the author of sin?

“And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!), but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger “ (Canons of Dordt, article 15).

“The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with its a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing them, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (WCF 5:4).

“The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (LBCF 5:4).

II. Semantics & Dogmatics

Calvinism must often defend itself against the charge of making God the author of sin.

To the libertarian, the Reformed denial is disingenuous. To be sure, a Calvinist will never say, in so many words, that God is the “author” of sin, but doesn’t his belief-system imply that God is the author of sin? If God foreordained the fall, and brought it to pass according to his providence, then does that not make him the author of sin? So how can a Calvinist, in all sincerity, deny the charge?

But what, exactly, is being affirmed or denied by the “authorship” of sin? What does this form of words even mean? And why does so much attention center on this particular form of words?

It is odd how often this charge is leveled against Reformed theology, and denied by Reformed theology, without either side defining its terms. It’s almost like one of those old idioms, such as “shooting the bull” or “skin of our teeth,” which everyone continues to use although no one remembers where it came from or what it originally meant.

This is not a simple question to answer. To begin with, at least three languages figure in the answer: English, Latin, and French. We might even thrown in Italian inasmuch as the debate was conducted, in part, between Italian Catholics (e.g. Bellarmine, Castillio) and Italian Calvinists (e.g. Turretin, Peter Martyr).

It also operates at several potential levels. There is the relation of contemporary English usage to historical English usage, as well as period French, Medieval Latin, and Classical Latin.

There are both direct and indirect sources of influence. You have Latin mediated into English via the Norman Conquest. You have Calvin, as a Frenchman, writing in French and Latin. Ditto: Beza. You have the impact of Calvin’s formulations on later Reformed usage. And although the Westminster Confession was written in English, it was written by men who read, wrote, and even spoke Latin.

In contemporary popular usage, an “author” is synonymous with a “writer.” Now, when modern-day libertarians say that Calvinism make God the “author” of sin, and when a contemporary Calvinist denies the charge, is the libertarian alleging that God is the “writer” of sin? And is the Calvinist denying that God is the “writer” of sin?

Literally speaking, it is nonsensical to characterize God as the “writer” of sin. Even for the sake of argument, that description would amount to a category error. So, presumably, the libertarian has something else in mind. And what could that be?

Well, contemporary usage also employs “author” as a metaphor for certain causal connections. The meaning is still literal (a “writer”), but the application is figurative. So is that what the libertarian has in mind?

But what is objectionable about this literary metaphor in application to God? After all, Scripture itself uses literary metaphors to describe God’s economic relations. God “spoke” the world into being (Gen 1; Ps 33:6). Jesus is the Logos (Jn 1:1,14). There is a book of life as well as a book of judgment (Ps 69:28; 139:16; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12-13,15; 21:27). Natural revelation is analogous to divine speech (Ps 19:1-4; 147:15,18).

John Frame has outlined an authorial model of God’s relation to the world. Cf. The Doctrine of God (P&R 2002), 156-58; 179-80.

Perhaps, then, the operative sense goes back to some older meaning of the word. According to the OED, the etymology of the word traces its way back through modern French (“auteur”), Old French (“autor”), and Anglo-French (“autour”) to the Latin noun “auctor,” from the verb “augere.”

This is not to say that etymology governs the import. Indeed, the OED goes on to note a nodal point of semantic interference, due to “Medieval Latin confusion of ‘auctor’ and ‘actor’,” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford 1971), 1:143.

The OED gives four basic meanings: (i) “a person who originates or gives existence to anything”; (ii) “one who begets; a father, an ancestor”; (iii) “one who sets forth the written statements; (iv) “the person on whose authority a statement is made.”

In context, (ii) and (iv) are inapplicable. So only (i) and (iii) would be in play. We’ve already discussed (iii).

Under (i), several semantic variants are listed: (b) “the Creator”; (c) “he who gives rise to or causes an action, event, circumstances, state, or condition of things”; (d) “he who authorizes or instigates; the prompter or mover.”

Since the OED drew attention to conflated connotations, it’s worth visiting the entry for “actor,” for which such senses are given as “agent or factor,” “a term in Roman law,” “one who acts, or performs any action, or takes part in any affair; a doer,” “one personates a character, or acts a part; a stage-player, or dramatic performer,” ibid. 24.

Of course, the entry is for the Latin derivative and not the original. Still, there is at least some degree of semantic association and area of overlap--especially as a direct carryover from Roman law. And, indeed, “attorney” is one of the denotations for “actor” in Medieval Latin. Cf. Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill 1984), 14.

Incidentally, this branches off into such Latin derivatives as the Italian “atto” (“act, action, deed”) and the English word “attorney.”

Moving to Medieval Latin, “auctor” has several senses, including “the perpetrator of a crime,” and the “one who gives assent,” Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill 1984), 69.

Shifting to French usage, “auteur” is a 12C load-word from the Latin “auctor.” Among other senses, it carries the meaning of the instigator or chief party (“instigateur, chef de parti”), as well as the person responsible for a choice, or the one who commits a reprehensible crime (“personne qui est responsable d’une chose, qui a commis un acte reprehensible”), Grand larousse de la langue francaise (Paris 1971), 1:320.

Of course, The Larousee is principally concerned with modern French usage. For period usage, such as we would find in Calvin or Beza, we turn to the entry in another reference work:

“Auteur” first occurs in the 12C (“apparu douzieme siecle”) where it is a load-word from the Latin “auctor” (“est un emprunt au latin auctor”), derived, in turn, from “augere” (“Le mot est derive du verbe augere”), Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise (Paris 1992), 1:145.

The entry goes on to describe the original meaning of the word, first in sacred and later profane usage (“Le sens initial due latin, qui l’apparente a augur [>augure] serait religieux, ‘celui qui fait croitre’ [‘one who causes to grow’], puis social, ‘celui qui fonde et etablit” [‘one who functions as an authorized representative or founder’).

The final meaning of the Latin word, which is retained in French usage, comprises the Christian Latin sense of “auctor” to denote God, along with the associative sense of the agent or doer of the deed, by assimilating the Latin word with the French verb “agir” (“le mot a enfin pris les valeurs que le francais retiendra, y compris celle du latin chretien, ou auctor sert a designer Dieu, ce qui a pu entrainer de confusions avec actor, derive de agere ‘agir” [>acteaur, a acte]”), ibid. 145.

Although this semantic association is in the nature of a folk etymology, based on assonance, it figures, nonetheless, in how the word was understood and intended.

Turning to classical Latin, the standard reference work gives no fewer than 15 basic definitions for “auctor,” not including additional semantic variants under a given heading. Among the more relevant senses are: an authority-figure, or one who authorizes another; an advocate; a prime mover or agent, originator, initiator, cause, or source; the doer (of an action), performer, agent (in spec. contrast w. some person less directly concerned with it, or in contrast w. the action itself); the Author of our being, the Creator; a paragon; fundamental standard or basis. Cf. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford 1983), 204-206.

And under “actor,” the same reference work gives such definitions as “performer, doer, transactor, agent,” ibid. 30.

Sothen, based on comparative linguistics and semantic cross-pollenization, what might it mean to allege or deny that God is the author of sin?

1. The prime cause. The Creator. The agent who originates a state of affairs.

2. The agent or performer who does the deed, as in the commission of a crime.

3. The responsible agent or principal party.

4. An authority-figure who authorizes who either acts on his own authority, or deputizes another to act in his stead.

5. The instigator or chief party.

6. The exemplar.

Is a Calvinist being disingenuous when he denies that God is the author of sin in one or more of the above senses of the word? Keep in mind that there is more to this debate than the bare meaning of a word. No one word will describe a full-orbed concept God’s relation to the world. What we need for that is a causal model.

It is difficult, at this distance, to say just what exactly was the operative definition by early critics of Calvinism—a definition which was assumed by the Calvinist in his denial. And when it comes to modern-day critics who continued to reiterate this charge, it is hard to suppress the impression that they are handing down a traditional allegation without any clear cognizance of what the original allegation amounted to.

Perhaps, at this stage of the debate, the best we can do is to speak for ourselves. Some of these definitions are applicable to God in an absolute construction or a general sense, viz. God is an agent or responsible agent, Creator, authority-figure, exemplar, prime cause. But are they as suitable when modified in specific relation to “sin”?

A Calvinist would generally affirm (1). God is the prime cause of the world, and everything that happens therein. But implicit in this designation is the distinction between primary and secondary causality.

Mainstream Calvinism affirms this, although there is an occasionalist strain in Edwards, Clark, and Guelincx.

The affirmation of (1) entails the denial of (2). The sinner is a secondary agent.

There is a sense in which a Calvinist would affirm (3). God is responsible for whatever happens in the world. But as per (1), God is not wholly or solely responsible for whatever happens; Hence, God can be responsible without being blamable.

(4) Is true of God—as is (6), though not in direct relation to sin. God is the exemplar of holiness, where sin represents a declension from that standard.

There’s a sense in which a Calvinist could affirm (5), although such an affirmation would come with various caveats attached.

Remember that, in this exercise, we are commenting on how the critic of Calvinism chooses to characterize our position. Can any acceptable sense be extracted from the critic’s usage? Up to a point, it can.

But, of course, this is not necessarily how a Calvinist would choose to characterize his own position, especially given the invidious connotations of “authorship.”

As I say, I doubt that any one word will adequately capture God's relation to sin. But in broaching an answer, we need to ask ourselves just what it is we want to affirm and what we want to deny in God’s relation to sin. I'd suggest three things:
i) Sin was predestined/decreed/foreordained by God.
ii) Sin is a means to a higher end.
iii) By virtue of creation/providence, God bears some causal relation to sin and evil, yet not in such a way as would make him blamable or the sinner blameless.

There is no one word which will satisfy all these conditions. I also don't think there are any words that cannot be abused or misconstrued by the ignorant and malicious. So the most we can hope for is some accurate terminology, which can be further explained. Here I propose a 3-point definition:

1. God is the ordainer of sin.

This answers to (i).

2. God is the final cause of sin.

This answers to (ii).

3. God is the primary cause of sin.

This answers to (iii).

III. God’s relation to sin.

At this point we now need to unpack the threefold definition.

1. Is God the ordainer of sin? For this there are two lines of evidence:

i) There is Scriptural attestation to the fact of predestination and providence in general. Sin would be a subset of this general framework. If the scope of predestination and providence take in every event whatsoever, then they take in evil events as well.

ii) There is Scriptural attestation to the fact of predestination and providence in relation to the Fall, and its aftermath, in particular. I will have more to say about (ii) under (3).

As for (i), a good place to begin is B. B. Warfield’s essay on “Predestination,” Works (Baker 2003), 3-67, where he marshals much of the Biblical evidence with his accustomed mastery of the materials.

2. Is God the final cause of sin?

i) There is a psychological distinction between divine and human motives in the issuance of sin. Scriptural instances would include: Gen 50:20; Exod 8:15 (cf. 4:21; 7:3); Josh 11:20; 1 Sam 2:25; 1 Kg 12:15; 2 Chron 10:15; 25:20; Isa 10:5-7.

The distinction between the sinner’s intent in the commission of sin, and the Lord’s intent in the foreordination of sin, has been elaborated by historic Reformed theologians.

For example, Calvin asks:

“How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil? Easily, if we consider first the end, and then the manner of acting…So great is the diversity of purpose that already strongly marks the deed. There is no less difference in the manner…Therefore we see no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to God, Satan, and man; but the distinction in purpose and manner causes God’s righteousness to shine forth blameless there, while the wickedness of Satan and of man betrays itself by its own disgrace,” Institutes 2.4.2.

Calvin’s distinction is elaborated by Edwards and Turretin. As Turretin puts it,
“Since his [God’s] will can have for its object nothing but good, it cannot will evil as evil, but as terminated on the permission of that which is good. God, therefore, properly does not will sin to be done, but only wills to permit it. And if at any time sin is called the means of illustrating God’s glory, it does not follow that God (who wills the end) ought also to will sin as such (which is the means to it). For it is called the means not so much causally and effectively (as if concurring finally to effect that end) as materially and objectively (because it is the occasion from which God illustrates his own glory). Again, it is not the means of itself because this rather obscures than illustrates the glory of God, but by accident from the wisdom of God (who elicits good from evil, as light from darkness). He who wills the end wills also the means, but not always by the same volition. If the means are of a diverse nature, he can will the end by an effective volition because the end is of itself good; but he wills the means only by a permissive e volition (if it is evil) not so much willing the means itself as the use of the means (to wit, the permission and ordination of sin itself,” Institutes (P&R 1992), 1:517.

Whatever we may make of the old Aristotelian categories, the drift of the argument is clear enough. It would be simple-minded to insist that God’s attitude towards sin qua sin is identical with his attitudes towards sin considered as instrumental to a greater good. Both the means and the ends are divinely intended, but with a view to the end.

Edwards has expressed this distinction even more crisply:
“They who object, that this doctrine makes God the author of sin, ought distinctly to explain what they mean by that phrase, ‘the author of sin.’ I know the phrase, as it is commonly used, signifies something very ill. If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant ‘the sinner, the agent,’ or ‘actor of sin,’ or ‘the doer of a wicked thing’; so it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.

But if, by ‘the author of sin,’ is mean the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I do not deny that God is the author of sin (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense).

And, I do not deny, that God being thus the author of sin, follows from what I have laid down; and, I assert, that it equally follows from the doctrine which is maintained by most of the Arminian divines.

There is no inconsistence in supposing, that God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet that it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all the consequences.

Men do will sin as sin, and so are the authors and actors of it: they love it as sin, and for evil ends and purposes. God does not will sin as sin, or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that, he permitting, sin will come to pass, for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he does not hate evil, as evil,” Works (Banner of Truth 1984), 1:76,78,79.

There are two intertwined aspects to this argument: one psychological, the other teleological. Psychologically speaking, there is the claim that motives figure in the moral valuation of an act. And it is, indeed, a commonplace of value theory that the character of intent has a bearing on the moral character of the deed. That may not be a sufficient condition of ethical action, but it is a necessary condition. When, therefore, Reformed theologians draw this distinction, they are not invoking some makeshift distinction to salvage their position, but rather, applying a generally accepted principle of ethics to this particular case.


  1. Your reasoning is, despite your evident learning and research, quite laughable. To attempt to dissect the word 'author' until you come up with a definition that makes Calvin's ideas reasonable rather underlines your own knowledge that his rationale cannot be directly defended.

    Calvinism, to my mind, should be seen purely as an attempt to 'prove' the Reformation was not a revolution but a return to primitive Christian beliefs via such VERY early Christian thinkers as Augustine.

    I believe Calvin had a deeply positive effect on Christian thought in the sense that he encouraged a genuine curiosity in the original texts and scripturally substantiated argumentation, which was frankly moribund in the contemporary Roman catholic church, but we surely should have emerged from our teacher's care by now!

    Your essay, I regret to say, is a disappointment, because I was hoping, FINALLY, to read a genuinely reasoned answer to the central objection in Calvin's thought.

    I have no doubts of your sincerity to our Saviour, or to the French divine, but this essay has been no help to me at all.

    In the name of our Risen Saviour

  2. Suddenly,

    Any reason(s) why this essay "has been no help to (you) at all"?

    Anything beyond unsubstantiated emoting would be helpful in explaining yourself so that others can understand you.