The Author of Evil Reconsidered

January 18, 2011 — Leave a comment

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Recently, as you might have gathered from the blog, I read through Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Up until now, my understanding of Arminianism was only filtered through its critics and as Olson points out, that should never be the case (pg. 13). I saw Olson’s argument in the book as a whole as dealing with one of the three questions that you could have regarding Arminianism. He states his purpose is “to correctly delineate true Arminian theology and to being to undo the damage that has been done to this theological heritage by both its critics and friends” (pg. 43). In other words, he is answering the question, “Historically, what has true Arminianism taught?” This of course is a good question to answer, especially for someone who considers himself not only a Calvinist, but also a soon to be “master of theology” (whatever that title is worth affixed to my name). Ignorance of a broad stream of theology is certainly not acceptable. “Before speaking or writing about another theology,” warns Olson, “we must be sure we have read it and are able to describe it as its own best representatives describe it” (pg 243).

If nothing else, while this book lacks exegetical arguments, it does lay bare the Arminian’s presuppositions, which I think are more important than which texts they marshal as evidence for their position. Texts, for the most part, do not speak for themselves. As Olson points out, “even though biblical exegesis alone cannot prove either Calvinism or Arminianism, biblically correct exegesis undergirds each system of theology” (pg. 70). In other words, the perspective one brings to reading the text of Scripture has a significant bearing on what one sees in the text. From my perspective (!), the Arminian brings (2) key presuppositions to the table.

As Olson points out, “at the bottom of these doctrinal differences lies a different perspective on the identity of God, based on God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ and Scripture that colors the rest of Scripture.” So, for the Arminian, the first presupposition he brings concerns how you construe the attributes of God. In his vision, of the goodness of God is a, if not the controlling attribute (pg. 72, 102). Olson sees this as possibly a difference in emphasis with the Arminian equally emphasizing love alongside glory (pg. 52) and so highlighting God’s love and mercy more so than other Protestant (i.e. Calvinist) theologies (pg. 60). As such, the way the Arminian interprets several theological issues is determined by his commitment to protect God’s reputation from defamation of character (pg 38, 74, 98, 100, 102, 104-105, 108, 110, 113, 115-19, etc. etc.), specifically in reference to God “authoring” evil. As Olson puts it, “One side starts with God’s greatness and conditions God’s goodness in that light; the other side starts with God’s goodness and conditions God’s greatness in that light” (pg. 73). This is, for either side really, a presupposition. I think the argument for starting with greatness is stronger (although I would call it “aseity”), but knowing true Arminianism has a strong commitment to God’s goodness as the determinative attribute is helpful (the argument would then shift to whether or not that is a sound presupposition, realizing Scripture could be construed to support either side).

The second presupposition is the belief in a libertarian version of free will; something not taught in Scripture, but clearly by Olson’s admission, held in order to protect God from being the author of evil. Olson seems very preoccupied with removing the charge of God being the author of evil (pg. 18-19, 39, 99, 101-107, 114, 118-124, 128, 132, 135-36, 146, 164, 191, 202, 244, and more). To be fair, he has exemplary motives in doing so; he is defending his perception of God’s character against something he views as impugning upon it.

To work within his analogy though, if history is conceived of as a book with God as the author, if God does not author everything that comes to pass (like most authors would in relation to a book), who does? On a libertarian view, the characters in the book are capable of authoring parts of the story themselves. Olson sees this as necessary for God and man to have “genuine personal relationship” (pg. 38, 65-66, 106, 120, 123, 164). This however, is also a presupposition concerning what is required for a relationship to be genuinely personal. Since God is a personal God, and we are personal creatures, the only type of relationship we can have with God is personal. No one is related to God non-personally, regardless of your view of sovereignty or free will. To posit a certain kind of free will to make a relationship “genuine” or “personal” seems to be misguided. Our relationship is genuine, because it is an actual relationship, but it is a relationship between a creature and a Creator and so will have some discontinuities with other creaturely relationships.

To tease out the author and story analogy a little further, just how does evil in a story relate to the author of the book? The classical Arminian view regarding evil and the sovereignty of God is that “God permits evil and brings good out of it” (pg. 100). To play the devil’s advocate for a moment though, from an author’s perspective, what is the difference between permitting a character’s murder (something you do as part of your sovereignty over the story) and actually authoring a character’s murder into the story? In either case both take place as part of the author’s plan for the flow of the story, one is just framed in terms of casual allowance and the other in terms of direct agency. In neither case is the author thought of as morally responsible for the murder.

Is it just a difference of emphasis? Either way, the goodness of moral purity of the Author himself is not slighted. No one charged C. S. Lewis for all the murders committed in Narnia. The actions took place in a world he created and were written into the story by his own hand, yet no one maligns him as the author of evil when they read Narnia (except maybe for that universalism bit in The Last Battle). While the created world’s relation to God is different in a couple respects (real history as opposed to imaginative and having a personal relationships with the author), I think the analogy holds true to an extent, both as a way to clarify the authorship of evil and also as one of many arguments against a libertarian free will. If you do not need to it defend God’s character, there is no Scriptural reason to support that version of free will, nor is there adequate philosophical grounds for doing so either.

I’m still mulling all this over a bit, but what do you think? Obviously the author/story model is dealing with a non-reality while our questions of God and evil are dealing with a real and at time painful reality. I understand the idea of God being the “author of evil” are not palatable, but if he is not the author of evil directly, at bare minimum God authored characters in a story that commit evil. And interestingly enough, the one place we often to fail to look in this conversation tells of God author unspeakable evil. In Acts 2:23, Peter in his Pentecost sermon tells the Jews that Jesus was delivered up to be killed according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

In other words, at the cross, God authored unspeakable evil as part of his divine plan to redeem humanity. To me that’s a hard argument to overcome, as we wouldn’t want to say that God let Jesus be crucified, or permitted the crucifixion. Gethsemane shows it was very much the explicitly and agreed upon plan and it involved multiple people sinning and committing acts of evil against the son of God. I can see how it is not desirable to say God is the author of evil, and we feel much more comfortable speaking of him “allowing” evil. But only someone who is completely sovereign can allow evil, and there is not much difference in the final analysis between “allowing” and “authoring.”

Time to go re-read Romans 11:31-36

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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