Monday, October 09, 2006

Roger Olson, Calvinism and the Orgins of Evil

Scot McKnight is reviewing Roger Olson's book, Arminian Theology. Though I haven't read the book, I've been following along in Scot's review. Here's a thought or two. Olson writes,
If God is the all-determining reality and creatures have no incompatibilist (libertarian) freedom, then where did that first evil motive or intent come from? If the Calvinist says from God, which is logically consistent with divine determinism, then God is most certainly the author of sin and evil. If the Calvinist says from autonomous creatures, then this opens up a hole in divine determinism so large it consumes it (135).
The difficulty I have with Roger's argument here is that he seems to assume that evil exists as an ontological reality—as though evil were a thing in and of itself. Augustine—and I think others in his tradition such as Calvin and Edwards—viewed evil as a privation of the ultimate good (in the same way that darkness is not a thing in itself but is only the absence of light, or cold and heat, etc.). Thus the first evil intent should not be viewed as something that God must be the "author" of it in order for it to exist--as though God created it.

From an Augustinian perspective, prior to creation, evil could not exist for there was no thing outside of God that could experience a privation of God—the ultimate good. But when God created autonomous moral agents, the possibility for privation sprang into being. Man/Angels now possessed the potential--and indeed exercised this potential--in a way that moved them out of the union with God--thus the void of evil opened.

As to why man would exercise the potential to fall, I think that this surely must have something to do with the utter “otherness” of the divine nature. God is so ontologically other—so vast and infinite—that mere human perfection cannot hope to attain to his fullness, nor maintain an unassisted fellowship. The finitude of our nature by necessity takes us out of orbit of the divine light and into the darkness, out of the divine heat and into the cold. Like an object moving at a finite speed which cannot freely maintain “fellowship” with an infinitely speeding object, so too the God’s granting of freedom to finite creatures (his “releasing” of us to our finitude) inevitably means that we will fall away from his infinite trajectory.

Thus left to himself, the finite perfection of the first Adam could not uphold humanity. Unlimited moral Freedom for finite moral beings became a gift too great—a blessing that necessarily became a bane. Yet the example of the second Adam (and our subsequent perfection in his image) points to a day when humans will retain both unlimited freedom and moral perfection.

Thus within a Calvinist/Augustinian construal of the origins of evil, God knowingly and sovereignly permitted the fall of humanity into the void—a void that necessarily sprang into being through the creation of that which was not eternal, all in accordance with his divine and foreordained plan.

I suspect that such a construal will not alleviate the moral objections that many Arminians have with divine determinism, but I do think that it goes some way toward explaining—at least on metaphysical level—how it is that evil came into being in a way that is consistent with the divine deterministic paradigm.


Mike L said...

What you're saying, in effect, is that God's granting freedom to prelapsarian Adam guaranteed the Fall. For all I know, that's perfectly acceptable in Calvinist terms; but it's incompatible with both the Catholic and the Orthodox understanding.

Of course you may well have known as much already, taking the view: "So much the worse for them." But I hardly think that a philosophical disagreement about freedom is reason enough to reject the testimony of the ancient churches.

Gerald said...


Sorry for the long delay in responding--I've been out of town for a week.

First, I'm not convinced that my conclusion regarding the inevitability of the fall is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Of course, you would know better than me, but I can't help but think that the Augustinian/Thomist tradition leaves some room for such a conclusion. I supposed its a matter of how one states it, but certainly both Augustine and Thomas spoke of certain things (indeed all things) coming to pass infallibly (though not irresistibly), and Thomas himself states that "there is no distinction between what flows from a secondary cause and from a first cause." His point being that all things are indirectly and ultimately caused by God, (with the exception of sin, sin being a privation and thus not in need of being “caused"—yet its particular point of “existence” still falls under God’s sovereignty).

I suppose I would want to say something along the lines of "God granted sufficient grace to Adam, but not efficacious grace, all the while knowing that even perfected man would not make use of the sufficient grace given to him if given unlimited freedom along with it." So I would still want to stand by my statement that the vast ontological difference between God and man made the fall inevitable--not because God "forced" man toward the fall (as the denial of freewill would suggest), but because our finitude (perfected though it was) hampered our ability to eternally and infallibly make use of sufficient grace. The fall was our fault, not God's, but we were destined for it the moment he took the fetters off.



Anonymous said...

Gerald you said "must have something to do with the utter “otherness” of the divine nature. God is so ontologically other—so vast and infinite—that mere human "

Do you suppose that there is a "hidden God" as Luther assumed? It seems like in your post.

Is that Biblical? Or it is the only logical way to explain what you think?

I do not think that just because something is logical and the Bible permits it (by being silent about it) it must be true.

I think that the Hidden God is ultimately a heresy. Will not God interact with us ONLY in the way He reavealed Himself to us?

Please, explain your view of the Hidden God, if i am reading you correctly.

George Jensen

Gerald said...


I am not familiar enough with Luther's theology to know what you (or he) means by the expression "Hidden God."

If you provided a bit more detail perhaps I could state my own views in relation to it.