Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Divine permission

Arminians often regard the notion of divine permission in Calvinism as incoherent, given the Reformed doctrine of predestination. Here's a careful delineation of what the concept means:


As a preliminary to considering the first argument it is necessary to get clearer on the meaning of willing permission. God positively governs some acts by permitting them. Yet for such permission to be consistent with meticulous positive government, it has to be a particular kind of permission; it has to be willingly given, and it has to be permission of particular actions and not merely the permission of certain types of action. But doesn't introducing the idea of permission unacceptably modify the idea of divine positive government by introducing an element of conditionality? It does introduce an element of conditionality, but perhaps necessarily so. So far as God may ordain but not cause evil there is an element of conditionality about what happens, since what happens is conditioned upon what agents other than God do. Such conditionality is present in God's relations to all human actions, presumably. Nevertheless such conditionality is risk-free for God.

Divine permission is compatible with the absence of risk for God as long as there are types of actions which God can prevent but which he nevertheless cannot cause, even though he may be willing for them to occur. Then God controls an evil action by permitting it - by deciding not to prevent it - and the evil action occurs because it is caused by the natures and circumstances of those who perpetrate it. The evil action is then not caused by God although he willingly permits it as a necessary component part of some broader overall will. This leaves us with questions of why God has willingly permitted evil, and of exactly how evil comes about in a world created by an all-good God. Thankfully, attempting to answer these questions falls outside the scope of this paper.

So God may willingly permit an evil act; indeed since God cannot perform an evil act, if an evil act occurs, he must have permitted it and if his government of that action is positive, necessarily only permitted it, but willingly so.

So for S willingly to permit an action A is: for A to be the action of someone other than S; for S to ordain the occurrence of A and to have been able to prevent A; and for A not to be contrary to what S intends. On this conception God foreknows everything, and unconditionally governs everything, but does not causally determine everything in the sense that he is the efficient cause of everything. Nevertheless, nothing happens that God is unwilling should happen.

But it may still be insisted that if God willingly permits X, then God is the cause of X. It is tempting, but I believe crude and misleading, to assimilate the working of such permission to intramundane models of causation, and particularly to theories of physical determinism. Such permission has this in common with physical determinism, that what is physically determined and what is willingly permitted will each come to pass. But willingly to permit an action is not to cause that action in any straightforward sense of 'cause'. As part of his critique of the no-risk view John Saunders describes the Lord, in willingly permitting a rape, as himself a 'rapist'. Such ill-judged language is based on a thorough misunderstanding.

We can express some of the difference between willing permission and causation like this. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B and C are mundane events) A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C, there is no necessary transitivity in the case of the causal aspects or features of the divine willing permission. It is thus not necessarily the case that if God positively governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather God may will C by willingly permitting that B causes C.



  1. Dear Steve:

    "Permitting" is a kind of "cause," especially in divine governement. If A cannot come to pass without the permission of B, then the coming to pass of A is dependent upon B. I hold a rock in my hand. I am keeping it from falling. If a rape cannot occur without my permission, then my permission becomes a kind of cause of the event. The herd of swine were permitted to enter the pigs. They could not have entered the pigs without this permission.

    Permissive will of God is still the will of God, of some sorts.



  2. I tend to agree with Stephen. I'm not really clear on what Paul means by saying that willing permission does not entail any kind of transitive causation. Neither am I clear on why he thinks it's necessary to maintain this. Admittedly, though, my knowledge of causality is a bit limited.

    Isn't it generally held in Calvinism that God's action is the primary cause for any sin, while man's action is the secondary cause (where primary and secondary refer to metaphysical priority)? Put another way, two causes of different kinds, God's action and Man's action are required to produce the effect of sin. God's action is an existential cause, and man's action is a natural cause:

    Man directly n-causes sin, where "n-cause" refers to the natural action of man's volitional faculties.

    God cannot directly n-cause sin because it would contravene his nature and is an incoherent concept.

    Man cannot e-cause sin, where "e-cause" refers to the unique existential action of God in instantiating something in reality.

    God directly e-causes sin.

  3. Some quotes from Helm's debate with Hasker in the Blackwell Debates in Philosophy of Religion:

    First, the claim that an appeal to divine willing I the sense defined is a case of divine determinism. It is tempting, but I believe crude and misleading, to assimilate the working of such permission into intramundane models of causation, and particularly to general physical determinism. Such willing permission has this in common with determinism: that what is physically determined and what is willingly permitted will each, in virtue of the determinism and the occurrence of what is willingly permitted, come to pass. However, willingly to permit and action is not to cause that action; it is to provide necessary, but not sufficient , causal condition for the action. Whereas physical determinism has a string tendency to be reductionist and has difficulty in finding a place for a range of objects having their own causal powers, the divine willing permission is most certainly not reductionist in this sense” (ibid, 234).

    “One way of expressing this difference might be as follows. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B, and C are events) A causes B, and B causes C. then A causes C, there is no necessary transivity in the case of any causal aspects or features of the divine willing permission, if there are any (there are some causal features if wicked people are upheld and conserved in being by God). It is not necessarily the case that of God governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather, God may will by permitting that B causes C and so willingly permit C. God’s willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of causation…” (ibid, 235)

    So those who hold that God governs whatever comes to pass may nevertheless make a distinction, within the overall government, between what God causes and what he permits. William Hasker says that the central idea of Calvinism is quite simple: ‘everything that happens, with no exceptions, is efficaciously determined by God in accordance with his eternal decrees.’ … To say that everything is risk-freely governed by God is not to say that everything is efficaciously determined by God” (ibid, 235).

    “So words like ‘cause’ or ‘decree’ or ‘permit,’ when used of God the uncreated cause, are used in rather different ways, with rather different logical implications, from those in which are ordinary notions of cause are used” (idid, 240).

    “It needs to be emphasized that to suppose that divine causation must be analogically related to ordinary causation between events is a perfectly general point about divine causation, and is not a case of special pleading on behalf of a no-risk position. For all theists, including Hasker, are faced with the problem of characterizing in a philosophically adequate manner the unparalleled causal feats of God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo, and of his conserving his creation in existence by upholding what he has created. It is hard to see that these are cases of ordinary causation, even supposing that we understand what ordinary causation is” (ibid, 241).