Friday, April 22, 2005

Is God the author of sin?-2

Secondly, the psychological distinction shades into a teleological distinction, for rational agents are goal-oriented. This is not to say that the ends justify any means whatsoever, but the consequences of an action are another necessary element in the moral valuation of an action. Teleological ethics may not be an all-sufficient system of ethics, but it does draw attention to a further precondition of ethical action.

To put a sharper point on this, it devolves a distinction between first and second-order goods, where the greater good is a second-order good, internally related to the first-order good. Scriptural support for this line of reasoning can be found in such verses as Jn 9:3,39; Rom 7:13; 8:28; 9:17,22-23; 11:32 & Gal 3:22.

Such a theodicy has received succinct expression from a number of Reformed theologians:

“The fact that from the race of man—and of them equal fallen and involved in guilt and depravity—God of his good pleasure had predestinated some men to everlasting life, and passed by the rest and left them to perish in their sins…supplies, in the purpose to save some men with an everlasting salvation, a new and most impressive manifestation of the divine character and moral government, which could not, so far as we can see, have been furnished in any other way,” W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Banner of Truth 1967), 577-73.

“How could it be permissible to create these moral beings and put them in this probationary economy, with the knowledge, not that they might possibly fall, but that they certainly would fall? The only tenable ground here is the Calvinistic ground that such action on God’s part involves the divine intention, in this sense, of the fall—that is, its predestination. And the only conceivable direction in which to look for a theodicy is in that of an end great and glorious enough to justify the incidental evil arising from this course,” B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (P&R 1980), 2:112.

“It is not within the power of omnipotence, for example, to secure a manifestation of the divine justice and grace without objects of such kind that upon them justice and grace may be secured. These things do not belong in the sphere of ‘power.’ The reason why God is supposed not to attain that better thing which is attained by the presence of sin in the universe, without sin, is not, then, because he is supposed to lack in power, but because the attainment of this end in itself requires sin as its condition…[So] it does not follow that the very idea of a theodicy derived from the use of sin as a means to a glorious end otherwise obtainable is inconsistent with the conception of an omnipotent God,” B. Warfield, Works (Baker 2003),10:153.

“Not only is mankind subject to logic, God is as well. As it is impossible for a person to be forgiven who has not committed a fault, it is impossible for God to forgive, to show mercy, in a universe in which there is no fault. If one supposes that it is a good thing for God to display his mercy and grace, and that both the universe and its creator benefit if God manifests his forgiveness and grace, then this also provides a reason for permitting evil. That is, any Christian theodicy must not only have a manward emphasis but also, and perhaps predominantly, a God-ward aspect as well. In the permission of moral evil lies the prospect of God’s own character being revealed in ways which, but for the evil, it could not be,” P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994), 215.

Not only does this line reasoning strike me as lucidly logical at a general level, but it dovetails quite nicely with the Reformed doctrine of God. So this is not a stopgap to paper over internal tensions in Reformed theology, but rather, a solution to the problem of evil which issues from the inner logic of Reformed theology.

Although Alvin Plantinga is not a Calvinist, and has, indeed, been the leader in formulating a freewill defense, he does come out of the Dutch-Reformed tradition, and it is striking that he has, of late, embraced a supralapsarian theodicy, which represents the logical apex of Reformed theology:


Granted, the atheological arguments are unsuccessful; but how should Christians think about evil? I therefore want to suggest still another response, or rather I want to reinvent the wheel and propose for further consideration a response that has been with us for a long time.

You can't have a world whose value exceeds L without sin and evil; sin and evil is a necessary condition of the value of every really good possible world. O Felix Culpa indeed! But then this gives us a very straightforward and simple response to the question: "Why is there evil in the world?" The response is that God wanted to create a highly eligible world, wanted to actualize one of the best of all possible worlds; all those worlds contain atonement, hence they all contain sin and evil. I've claimed elsewhere that theodicies are unsuccessful: "And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil--theodicies, as we may call them--strike me as tepid, shallow, and ultimately frivolous [Profiles, p35]." But doesn't the above furnish us with an answer to the question "Why does God permit evil?" The answer is: because he wanted to actualize a possible world whose value was greater than L; but all those possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement; hence all those worlds contain evil. So if a theodicy is an attempt to explain why God permits evil, what we have here is a theodicy--and, if I'm right, a successful theodicy.

And as a bonus, we get a clear resolution of the Supra/Infra debate: the Supras are right. God's fundamental and first intention is to actualize an extremely good possible world, one whose value exceeds L; but all those worlds contain incarnation and atonement and hence also sin and evil; so the decree to provide incarnation and atonement and hence salvation is prior to the decree to permit fall into sin. The priority in question isn't temporal, and isn't exactly logical either; it is a matter, rather, of ultimate aim as opposed to proximate aim. God's ultimate aim, here, is to create a world of a certain level of value. That aim requires that he aim to create a world in which there is incarnation and atonement--which, in turn, requires that there be sin and evil. So there is a clear sense in which the decree to provide salvation precedes the decree to permit sin; but there is no comparable sense in which the decree to permit sin precedes the decree to permit evil.

Alvin Plantinga, "Supralapsarianism, or 'O Felix Culpa,'" Christian Faith & The Problem of Evil, P. van Inwagen, ed. (Eerdmans 2004), 5,12-13.


3. Is God the primary or necessary cause of sin?

Question 3 is related to question 2. Question 2 draws a distinction between divine and human intent. And the metaphysical basis for this distinction is, in turn, embedded in the difference and the interrelation between primary and secondary causality, or necessary and sufficient conditions.

Scriptural support for this distinction, with special reference to sin, would include such verses as Judges 9:23; 1 Kg 22:20-22; Ezk 14:9, Acts 2:23; 4:27-28 & 2 Thes 2:11.

The Westminster Confession offers a couple of classic expressions of this position:

“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of his creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3:1).

“Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (5:2).

This is, of course, in the nature of a claim rather than a demonstration. Is it consistent with Calvinism? On the one hand, it coheres well with the Reformed accent on divine transcendence—often expressed as the Creator/creature distinction.

On the other hand, a critic might object that all the Confession does here is to repackage the original problem by sticking two things side by side and positing their mutual congruence, just as we can talk about square circles, yet to do so is to predicate incompatible properties of the same object or relation. In particular, is free agency at odds with predestination and providence?

This question intersects with the general debate over determinism and indeterminism, as well as the specific debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism. In fact, a distinction between primary and secondary causality would supply the metaphysical framework for compatibilism.

Obviously, this is a book-length question. But to address the immediate objection at hand, I’ll content myself with a few observations:

i) The decree, taken by itself, is not an efficient cause of anything. Predestination brings nothing into being, but is only the blueprint. It is still up to God, by his creative fiat, to instantiate the decree.

ii) Although Reformed theology is committed to a doctrine of God’s general and particular providence, it does not offer an exhaustive and positive paradigm of how God, in fact, executes his decree. There are anecdotal examples in Scripture. And there are special restrictions on human freedom, due to original sin. But we’re moving into the field of philosophical theology, where any causal model will be underdetermined by the exegetical data.

iii) It is often felt that the fall of a sinless agent into sin (e.g., Adam, Lucifer) presents a special difficulty. But, speaking for myself, I don’t quite see why it should. To be a sinless agent, one must know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. So even a sinless agent can entertain a thought of sin, without entertaining a sinful thought.

A sinless agent can also conceive of alternative goods to a comparative or superlative degree--lesser and greater, better and best. And by that same token, he can imagine himself even better off than he already is—by seizing some additional, illicit good.

The question, then, is whether some extra factor is needed to account for his acting on that knowledge, should he choose to do so; or rather, if some extra factor is needed to prevent him from so acting. If the latter, then the fall of Adam or Lucifer demands no special explanation, as if God had to push them over the edge. For the absence of restraint is a privative condition.

iii) Historically, this debate has swirled around the intuitive assumption that the freedom to do otherwise (which is, of itself, susceptible to more than one definition) is a precondition of moral incumbency.

It is worth noting, though, that moral intuitions lack the same compelling force as logical intuitions. In ethics, we often find ourselves saddled with conflicting intuitions due to what seem to be conflicting obligations. A simple blocking move is to introduce an exception or counter-example that challenges our original intuition.

In relation to the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate, these are known as Frankfurt-type cases, inspired by a classic essay of Harry Frankfurt’s. He constructed a simple thought-experiment, involving a failsafe device that deprives the agent of his freedom to do otherwise. Yet in his hypotheticals, the failsafe is never activated; hence, it has no affect on the outcome. To quote from Frankfurt:


Suppose someone Black, let us say — wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily.

What steps will Black take, if he believes he must take steps, in order to ensure that Jones decides and acts as be wishes? Anyone with a theory concerning what "could have done otherwise" means may answer this question for himself by describing whatever measures he would regard as sufficient to guarantee that, in the relevant sense, Jones cannot do otherwise…Let Black give Jones a potion, or put him under hypnosis, and in some such way as these generate in Jones an irresistible inner compulsion to perform the act Black wants performed and to avoid others. Or let Black manipulate the minute processes of Jones’s brain and nervous system in some more direct way, so that causal forces running in and out of his synapses and along the poor man’s nerves determine that he chooses to act and that he does act in the one way and not in any other. Given any conditions under which it will be maintained that Jones cannot do otherwise, in other words, let Black bring it about that those conditions prevail. The structure of the example is flexible enough, I think, to find a way around any charge of irrelevance by accommodating the doctrine on which the charge is based.

Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be quite unreasonable to excuse Jones for his action, or to withhold the praise to which it would normally entitle him, on the basis of the fact that he could not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to act as he did. He would have acted the same even if it had not been a fact. Indeed, everything happened just as it would have happened without Black’s presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.

In this example there are sufficient conditions for Jones’s performing the action in question. What action he performs is not up to him. Of course it is in a way up to him whether he acts on his own or as a result of Black’s intervention. That depends upon what action he himself is inclined to perform. But whether he finally acts on his own or as a result of Black’s intervention, he performs the same action- He has no alternative but to do what Black wants him to do. If he does it on his own, however, his moral responsibility for doing it is not affected by the fact that Black was lurking in the background with sinister intent since this intent never comes into play.


iv) William Hasker has said that “one reason” for believing in freewill, “certainly a weighty one for many libertarians, lies in the very experience of choice…This experience seems to carry with it the strong conviction that the various alternatives are indeed within our power—that there is nothing at all which prevents us from choosing one way or the other,” Metaphysics (IVP 1983), 45.

To this, several comments in order:

a) “The freedom to do otherwise” is ambiguous. It can either mean the freedom to do otherwise had I wanted to do otherwise (compatibilism), or the freedom to do otherwise under the very same circumstances (incompatibilism).

b) As to the experience of freedom, we feel most free when we feel an inevitability to our actions, in terms of our duty, or the logic of a situation, or the creative process.

c) To be a self-conscious agent means that we can mentally abstract ourselves from the stream of action. But the ability to “objectify” our situation is, of course, something of an illusion, for the agent is not, in fact, a closed-system--in isolation to his surroundings or his subliminal thought-process.

This experience is analogous to our sense of time. We can mentally detach ourselves from time as though we were standing still, while time is passing us by. But the ability to mentally insulate ourselves from time is another illusion, albeit a useful illusion. For the ego remains in time all the while it entertains this thought-experiment.

d) Brand Blanshard wrote a great deal on the experience of introspection, and how, upon reflection, our seemingly spontaneous choices are constrained by prior reasons. As he once put it, in response to Hartshorne’s view that necessity applies to the past, but not the future:


I cannot accept this view of causality. It seems to say that, looking back from the present, I can see that this present is determined, but that looking forward from it, I can see that my future is not determined. But if, when I look back an hour later, I can see that the apparently free decision and the events that followed it were determined, I am left with a contradiction on my hands. Retrospective determination and prospective freedom are not both possible if applied to the same events. I cannot accept both accounts, and if I must choose, it is surely the determinist account based on memory that is the better informed, since both causes and effects are there laid out before me, while in looking forward from the present, so much is veiled. It may be recalled that Sir Francis Galton once noted…in his diary decisions that at the time of making felt perfectly free, and then after a short interval (perhaps at the end of each day), tried to recapture the situation that had existed just before each decision. It was so easy to bring to light pressures of which he took no conscious thought in making the decisions that he adopted a determinist conclusion. Of course determinism, like indeterminism, admits no empirically proof, but the conclusion becomes harder to resist the more the empirical evidence is studied.

The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, P. Schilpp, ed. (Open Court 1980), 637.


v) There are philosophers who regard the notion of freewill, not as a precondition of personal responsibility, but irresponsibility. And it isn’t only the Calvinist to takes this view. As A. J. Ayer put it,
“They require not only that men be often free to do what they have chosen, but also that their choices themselves be free. But what are we to understand by this? That sometimes men’s choices are causally inexplicable? That they do not always have reasons for choosing as they do? The first of these propositions must be held to be doubtful; the second may well be true. But even if they are both true, what is that to the purpose? Do we really want to conclude that men are responsible agents just to the extent that their actions are inexplicable?…What sort of responsibility is it that is conferred only by chance?” Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Vintage Books 1984), 17.

vi) Some secular philosophers deny freewill on the grounds that if the actual world is all there is, then there is no remaining place for alternative possibilities to inhere. By definition, counterfactuals can’t be true of this world, and since there is no other world, they have no truth-value, period.

Of course, a Christian philosopher has ontological resources denied to the secular philosopher. For him, the possible is indexed to the absolute power of God. But by that same token, it is up to God what possibilities will eventuate.

vii) Finally, Paul Helm has offered a two-step argument for divine compatibilism:


The debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is a perennial one, as is the wider debate between determinists and indeterminists. The model we are considering does not attempt to settle that debate, but takes one side of it, in the belief that it is not unreasonable to assume the truth of one side of an issue which is perennially debated. What it then proceeds to argue is that the fact of divine agency does not pose an additional difficulty for compatibilism (hence “divine compatibilism”).

The champion of this view among the theologians has undoubtedly been Jonathan Edwards. In his book The Freedom of the Will, he takes the view that the human will is the outcome of motives:

“Let the person come by his volition or choice how he will, yet, if he is able, and there is nothing in the way to hinder his pursuing and executing his will, the man is fully and perfectly free, according to the primary and common notion of freedom.”

There is no denying the plausibility of the view that, if one person causes another person to act voluntarily, then that person bears some of the responsibility for what occurs. But this by itself is not sufficient to rule out the compatibility of the “no-risk” view of providence and human responsibility, since it is evident that God does bear some responsibility for what happens in the universe that he has created. We may even say that God bears ultimate responsibility for it, since everything that occurs is ultimately due to him. This is true on any orthodox theistic view of God’s relation as creator to the universe, whether deterministic or not.

There is thus good reason to conclude that the “no-risk” view of divine providence assumed in this discussion (because it best accords with the classical view of divine providence) creates no additional problems for the issue of freewill and responsibility that are not already raised by determinism in general.

P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994), 174,176,177.



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