Wrote the below in my slightly more ‘aggressive’ days (smile)…I’m a bit more sedate of late against my Reformed brethren, but I doubt I’d modify the substance of my arguments all that much…
Does Calvinist theology make God responsible for evil?
I’ve got an axe to grind with Calvinism in that I cannot escape its logical conclusion that God is exclusively responsible for evil. Consistent Calvinism makes God the only true agent in the universe and so it's a pure contradiction to suggest that anyone else is guilty for the wrongs in the world (for without agency, how can there be guilt?). Man cannot choose anything other than what has been determined for him by God, so how can he still be genuinely responsible and punishable? In fact, it would seem that the picture of God presented here is one of an absolute dictator who arbitrarily sends people to Hell totally independent of what they choose to do or not do. 'God is Love' simply doesn't compute for me in such a theology.
Anyway, below is a rather longish exchange I had with a good friend of mine who happens to be one of the most committed Reformed up-and-coming theologians I've come across. Our discussion centered on the following three concepts, as he sought to defend the non-responsibility of God for evil within his theology:
First I'd like to spell out definitively some Calvinistic terms I will be using throughout the rest of the discussion. Consistent Calvinism has it that God's decree is:
· Universal - it is all-encompassing; it embraces everything in life
· Efficacious - it is 'unstoppable' because it is GOD who wanted it to be so; events and actions happen by virtue of the fact that they're included in the decree, and simply cannot be jeopardized. (This is apparently flexed when it comes to sin, where elements of permission will replace efficacy - but more on this later).
· Eternal - it is set from before the beginning of time
· Unconditional - it is made totally independent of anything or anyone; God's actions and choices are determined without any influence whatsoever from Man or even God's own foreknowledge of the future.
I will be repeating and repeating these terms over and over again, because I suspect that many Calvinists have sincerely forgotten their very own major premises, esp. that of unconditional decree.
Ok, now let's dive straight in (my friend's paragraphs are in bold). All quotes are taken from ‘The Nature of Divine Sovereignity’ by Jack Cottrell in Grace of God, Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock.
"The Calvinistic understanding of free will is that the will is free as long as a person is able to CHOOSE VOLUNTARILY or to DO WHAT HE WANTS TO DO, as influenced by his MOTIVES and DESIRES. In other words, as long as I choose what my desires urge me to at a particular point of time - regardless of what actually 'shaped' or 'caused' those desires - then I'm still free."
This definition sounds 'neutral' enough until we bring in Calvinism's add-on, which is : Although I freely choose what I may desire at any point of time, it is actually God who determines what desires and motives will prevail at any given time. He determines specific choices by sovereignly determining the situations, motives and desires which will infallibly cause those choices.
This basically means that when I 'choose' to order a hot dog, it was actually 'unconditionally decreed' from eternity, and on that evening God simply provided me with the irresistible environment, saliva outflow, smell enticement and oriental desires such that I could not have chosen otherwise. But(!) as long as I 'felt' my decision was perfectly 'in tune' with my desires at the time, then that constitutes 'free will' because I was doing what my internal desires were spurring me on to do. The fact that God has already planned this specific choice and there was no way of me choosing a non-hot-dog is irrelevant, because to ME, I 'longed for' the hot dog and willed the necessary physical functions in order to obtain it!
I will not have been able to choose other wise because it is unconditional i.e. God's plan is not affected by or conditioned by anything OUTSIDE of Him. This is like saying that a gun is considered 'free' as long as it was its barrel which let loose the shot - but who pulled the trigger?
I think it's quite obvious from the illustration above that Calvinism's formulation of free will raises serious questions, as there seems to be no way of reconciling this understanding of free will with God's non-responsibility for sin.
Because if everything I do is done without any possibility of contrary choice, if all my desires were actually 'given' to me by God or determined by Him (notice that divine 'permission' of evil acts still doesn't absolve God, because the 'permission' is no different from a 'decree', given that God's specific plans are unconditional and 'from eternity' and are not influenced by anything else, not even His foreknowledge!) - then, tentatively, I see no alternative but to declare God directly responsible for evil. E.g. it wasn't really Hitler who ordered the slaughter of the Jews or the Manson family who murdered people - it was God who 'supplied them with the desires, motives, and environmental impetuses' to carry out what they 'wanted' to do.
One could also argue that just as a brain-washed or hypnotized person has no 'real' free choice in his subsequent actions, we can also object to the Calvinistic notion of freedom because is sounds exactly like a form of 'divine hypnotism'. Faith loses any real significance of meaning because it was 'implanted' or, well, to keep the verbs simple, determined.
This is the main tenet of a non-Calvinistic stand : Based on a consistent
understanding of its doctrine, ultimately Calvinism is theological
determinism. This draws the inevitable conclusion that God planned all
evil actions, even the specific ones(!), which of course clashes head-on with
our understanding of the fact that 'God is love'.
"I've taken a long time to decide if divine 'hypnotism/brain-wash' is a fair representation of Calvinism. The problem with the analogy is (1) the negative connotations in the terms employed (2) in my understanding the terms imply that the individual loses his personality and becomes like zombies."
I can understand the spontaneous revulsion of comparing hypnotism with the decrees of our Lord (and any unintentional offense caused by that is deeply apologized for), but my aim was to illustrate, with a non-theistic example, the 'free will' available to Man if an 'unconditional decree' theism applies.
When a person has been hypnotized and then asked to shoot some innocent by-standers by the hypnotist, we on the 'outside' and 'ontologically superior' to the hypnotized would NEVER hold that person accountable and 'chargeable' in court, would we? We wouldn't do so even if that hypnotized dude 'feels' that he killed people on purpose. Why? Because - assuming that the hypnotist's work was good - it was something he simply couldn't have helped. There was no way he could have done otherwise, although he would've 'felt' very 'conscious' while doing it.
There is no power of contrary choice, nor is there the ability to choose between options and opposites. This is virtually similar to at least the concept of hypnotism or brainwashing because even if within their own consciousness people are doing what they want to do, their actions are still being completely determined by another Agent.
To quote Geisler, this view "really reduces to a strong Calvinistic determinism in which we are not actually free at all".
"You are absolutely right to say there's no absolute difference between 'permission' and an irresistible 'decree'- God must have intended evil to happen. The distinction is this: Permission is passive decree- active in His intention but passive with respect to His actions."
I personally think that this is one of the hardest Calvinist teachings to defend. This constitutes a modification of the efficacious decree, in that when applied to sinful acts, the decree ceases to contain the element of efficacy, but instead is filled with passivity. The 'passive' decree is applied only to sinful behavior, and the 'active' to grace dissemination, etc. But I simply don't see how this distinction can be used.
If the decree of every act (including the sinful ones) was unconditional,
then we simply have no basis to state that the good things in life were
actively decreed and the sinful ones only passively. 'Active' and
'Passive' decree reduce to mere labels we use to avoid confronting the charge
that God is responsible for sin under such theology.
It looks suspiciously like an attempt to cop-out from the problem.
Personally, I believe whole-heartedly in the permissive/passive decree, but only when it is taken without the need for it to be unconditional as well. And in a delightfully strange way, I think that Calvinists implicitly discard the unconditional element in their teaching when they apply God's permission selectively to sins and not to good acts! Because if God CANNOT sin and HATES sin- and I absolutely believes this as one of the bedrocks of my faith - then the decree can only be a response to a human act, and not 'determined' nor unconditionally desired by God Himself.
Here is the dilemma of Calvinism. On one hand unconditional decree is cannot be 'flexed' or 'qualified', yet God's responsibility for sin still has to be defended.
We know that no way will Calvinist allow gracious and holy actions by humans to be considered as part of the passive decree of God - that wouldn't be acceptable because God's glory is 'robbed'. But if it is unacceptable for one kind of act, why is it acceptable for another? The element of unconditionality to God's predetermination logically rules this out, doesn't it? So, Berkouwer :
"...the idea of permission is always being qualified as being ACTIVE in nature and as forming no limitation to God's purposeful activity. Divine permission is in fact meant by Reformed Theology as a work of Divine Majesty" (emphasis mine).
Furthermore, if it is applied to sin - and we all know that sin is something which God HATES - then are we suggesting that God chose to unconditionally and eternally decree something which He hates (however passively the decree may be)?
In summary, I think that a decree with elements of 'permission' and 'unconditionality' is a striking contradiction in terms.
However, I believe that divine 'permission' can be made valid in a Neo-Arminian understanding which states that God's decrees are not unconditional at all. Which is why we can legitimately say that God let something happen even though it grieved His heart, because He really didn't want it to happen. In fact, the very notion of 'permission' implies conditionality(!).
"Adam is a 'secondary cause' to the Fall because apart from God (the primary cause of all being) he would not even exist. Secondary causes are real albeit dependent on the primary cause since God alone is the ground of all existence. The Fall shows that the intentions of both flow together."
The issue of Primary & Secondary Causes is an ingenious Calvinist explanation to account for human responsibility and absolve God of blame from evil. However, I hope to show that it really constitutes inconsistent Calvinism, as it conveniently ignores the issue of UNCONDITIONAL decree.
Consider two scenarios:
1. If two men, one strong and the other weak, push a rock over a cliff - then we have two distinct causes. Although one played an obviously bigger part (the Primary), the other fella still has a legitimate claim to the event and is hence jointly (though perhaps unevenly) responsible for it as well.
2. If one guy uses a lever or any kind of machine to push the rock over the cliff, then who is 'responsible'? Of course there's only one person responsible - it would be rather absurd to attribute like 'responsibility' to the lever, wouldn't it? In short, there is only 'real' Cause. The lever didn't 'cause' anything at all.
I'm convinced that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional decree makes only the SECOND scenario possible, even though many good Calvinists like you are promoting the first. There's no way that Adam can be held accountable for something which he is completely helpless to avoid, and even his very struggle with temptation, disobedience, etc. would have been planned and 'fed into him' by God(!). There was no time when Adam made anything other than an illusionary contribution to the Fall.
"The foreordination of God does include the FREE ACTIONS of moral agents, wherein men and nations are the mere INSTRUMENTS...in the hand of God to do His will" (emphasis mine)
"In EVERY instance the impulse to action and movement proceeds from God".
Even strong Calvinists see Man as only instruments because they acknowledge that NONE of the threads in the pattern from Man - not even the sinful ones. As Miner Raymond says:
"The divine will is the SOLE Agent in the universe - all that is not God acts only as acted upon" (emphasis mine).
Think about this:
God had already decided without any foreknown input whatsoever(!) from Adam that the Fall would occur, that he and his babe would be the ones to begin it, and that he will NOT be able to resist doing it. The 'cruncher' for me here is that God determined that A&E would eat the fruit and bring about the fall of humanity and creation, and He decreed that A&E would not be able to avoid doing so (this is why it's called 'unconditional').
How then can Mr. First Man and Ms.First Lady be held responsible?
Now, if God in His foreknowledge simply pre-visioned that A&E would eat the fruit, but then in wisdom and mystery allowed it to happen anyway - then fine! If God's decrees at least partially depended on His foreknowledge - which I believe it does - then I think we wouldn't have too much of a problem.
But this is not the case in Calvinism. The unconditional and eternal decree dictates absolutely and inevitably that they would fall even before they were even created. God's foreknowledge is completely dependent on His decree, remember? And it wasn't just a general "There will be a Fall..." - it was a very specific, "You, Eve, will eat the fruit and at so-and-so time, and you, Adam, will follow suit at so-and-so time...you both will have so-and-so feelings, fears, etc...and this is all because I want it to be so...".
The unconditional and efficacious decree of God makes events and actions completely beyond question that it will occur for it is God who WILLS these things to occur completely apart from any consideration of factors OUTSIDE of God Himself i.e. nothing and no one had a chance to 'influence' God at all or change His mind.
And this decree affects every single iota of space-time existence...from people's urge to pick their noses, to the faults in a machine, to the mistakes people make, to the graphical flashes which people have in their heads, to every sexual fantasy, to every dictator's murderous intentions, to each and every nuclear atom as it raged through Hiroshima, through even the splinters flying out of the wood from which the Cross at Calvary was made.
It encompasses truly EVERYTHING in existence. Hence, almost by definition, the Calvinist's absolute decree
makes human free will an illusion and a myth. There is simply no room for true
responsibility - this has to be left to the One True Agent and Cause in the