Thursday, September 02, 2010

God, evil, and Olson

Another salvo from Olson:

“Contrary to the accounts of Calvinism offered here by some, Calvin himself strongly denied that God merely permitted the fall of Adam and Eve. His language against that is quite strong; he scoffs at the idea that God would ever merely permit something. We Arminians are confused and even bemused by contemporary Calvinists’ use of 'permission' when referring to God’s relationship to sin and evil."

I'm not crazy about permissive language myself. However, Helm has carefully explained what he means by that terminology ("Willing Permission," Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 233-34), so I assume that Olson is simply ignorant of that analysis.

"But that’s not sufficient to say God is not the author of sin and evil."

Typical of Arminians, he doesn't bother to define what he means by "authorship." This is a traditional term in historical theology, so it has to be defined according to its historical sense. I assume it was used by Calvin and the Westminster Divines in the Latin sense to mean that God is not the actor or doer of evil.

By contrast, Olson seems to be using it in a metaphorical sense. But that introduces an equivocation into his objection. Even if God is the author of sin (whatever that means) in his metaphorical sense, this doesn't mean God is the author of sin in the sense in which Calvin and the Westminster Divines denied that appellation to God.

Moreover, to say that God is the author of sin in a metaphorical sense doesn't show what's wrong with that characterization, even if it were true. So what? Where's the argument that this (i.e. figurative authorship) would be unacceptable?

"Sin and evil, in the Calvinist view, in contrast to the Arminian view, are positively the will of God to glorify himself (by overcoming them)."

What does he mean by "positively willed"? Does that stand in implicit contrast to "negatively willed?" And what would that mean?

I think one of Olson's problems is his failure to distinguish between causes and intentions. God intends sin and evil (though not for their own sake). However, the way that's brought about is a different issue, and a complicated issue. (Just consider different philosophical theories of causation, and the whole determinist/indeterminist debate).

"What I still want to know that, no Calvinist here or anywhere, in my experience, has sufficiently answered, is why anything is considered truly evil in the Calvinist account of God and creation."

I don't see how that's difficult. Something can be evil in its own right, but contribute to something better. Consider Gen 50:20, as well as the preceding events leading up to that summary statement.

When Joseph's brothers wanted to murder him out of envious resentment, their attitude was sinful. But God's motive in decreeing that attitude was quite different from the motive he decreed. It set into motion a series of events which turned out for the best.

Perhaps, though, what Olson means is that something can't be "truly" evil unless it has no redeeming value whatsoever. But in that case, God allows horrendous events for no good reason. No greater purpose.

"If everything is planned and rendered certain by God for his glory, including sin and evil (even as only absences and not substances) why not praise God for sin and evil? "

Why does Olson assume a Calvinist wouldn't (or shouldn't) praise God for sin and evil?

Again, though, he oversimplifies the issue. Sin and evil aren't praiseworthy in their own right. Likewise, the motives of the sinner or evildoer aren't praiseworthy. However, the occurrence of a sinful or evil event can be praiseworthy if God meant it for good. We can praise God for his subtle wisdom in ordaining the Joseph cycle, with all its twists and turns.

Olson’s basic error is that he only sees the problem of evil in terms of God’s involvement in evil. And if we can disassociate God from evil, that’s exculpatory.

But, of course, that doesn’t solve the problem. It simply relocates the problem. For there’s a sense in which God ought to be responsible for whatever happens.

I think one of his problems, and this is a problem with Arminians generally, is that they treat evil as if it were a ritual impurity, like a contaminant or infectious disease, and the way to remain pure is to avoid physical contact. As long as God wears latex gloves, that exonerates him.

And this this is subconsciously reflected in the legalism I sometimes run across among Arminians, where holiness is a matter of avoiding certain physical activities, like drinking or watching R-rated movies.


  1. In regards to the whole thing about God decreeing and willing evil for second-order goods:

    As I think you all have maintained, God's essence (His glory) cannot be known fully without the existence of evil. At first glance, that doesn't look problematic. White is highlighted all the more against black.

    Upon further reflection, though, doesn't this imply that God is incapable of revealing all facets of His essence to man without the necessary existence of evil? Surely, if He were capable of revealing His glory to man without the existence of evil, He would do so. Why decree evil if it were wholly unnecessary?

    So then, it seems we have placed evil in the same uncreated sphere as God Himself by necessity.

  2. The "evil" in question is not an abstract object, like Pi, but concrete, time-conditioned creatures.

    The "necessity" in question is a teleological necessity, a means/ends relation, not an absolute metaphysical necessity, as in something which obtains in every possible world.

  3. Piper has a footnote in his book The Justification of God in which he approvingly quotes Davidson as saying "'Mercy apparently cannot be conceived apart from its pure negation, σκληρύνει. Hence even the merciful disposition of God cannot be rightly apprehended, except through the conception of the absence of mercy…' Similarly, Jonathan Edwards (Works, II, 528) argued as follows: 'It is proper that the shinning forth of God's glory be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all; for then the effulgence would not answer the reality. For the same reason it is not proper that one should be manifested exceedingly, and another but very little. It is highly proper that the effulgent glory of God should answer his real excellency; that the splendor should be answerable to the real and essential glory, for the same reason that it is proper and excellent for God to glorify himself at all. Thus it is necessary that God's awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God's glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God's holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God's grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever be bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired, and the sense of it not so great…"

    (p 215-216 n. 33)