One time, while I was listening to a Matt Chandler sermon, I noted something with interest: As he talked about his battle with brain cancer, he taught that God could use what happened to him for good. No disagreement there. However, one point of emphasis caught my attention:
“God allowed… he didn’t cause… he allowed… this to happen to me.”
I like Matt Chandler, but since I know his theological framework, this made me raise my eyebrow. Oh really, Calvinist?
One of the most frequent questions posed to the theist is the problem of evil: If God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, shouldn’t he want to get rid of evil, have the power to, and know how to? Since there is evil, it is not reasonable to believe God exists. The typical theist response is roughly that God has good reasons for permitting or allowing evil, though we may not know exactly what they are. (See Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil for a refutation of the logical problem of evil as well as for his Free Will Defense.)
In any case, while I do think that is a good response to the problem of evil, it is not a response, I believe, that is available to those who hold to theological determinism. I’ll specify what I mean here by theological determinism: Determinism is the idea that everything that happens is necessitated by prior causal factors; theological determinism makes God the ultimate cause for everything. That does not merely mean that he created everything, but that he is actively causing all that comes to pass, either immediately or through instrumental causes. That, by the way, includes evil human choices and events.
Or at least it should. Calvinists and other theological determinists (I’ll assume that they are bound to theological determinism, which is fairly standard) often dodge this implication of their theology because it leads to the very uncomfortable notion that God is actively causing evil. Instead, they use the language of permission or allowance to argue that God isn’t causing evil, though he permits it for good reason. Not only is Chandler an example of this, Reformed theologians like R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem have often shied away from flatly saying God causes evil. Piper has been confused on the topic, stating in one sermon on the fall of Satan that he doesn’t find it helpful to distinguish between God directly causing something and permitting something, but then stating in a prior one that God “permitted” sin and evil. Indeed, while the idea that God permits evil for good reason still might demand some explanation, it is far thornier to say that God unilaterally and intentionally causes all the evil that we see. It gets almost impossibly difficult when we apply that to the Fall, but I will pass that by for now because I’m a nice dude :).
Is this way out available to them? It doesn’t seem so. In ordinary language, to say that someone “permits” or “allows” something implies that what they are allowing does not originate from them; it is something outside of them that they have decided to let run its course. For example, I may allow a guest to eat my ice cream, but that does not mean that his desire and decision to eat ice cream comes from me; it actually means quite the opposite. If I could make it such that I am causing him to eat my ice cream, or causing him to have the desire to eat my ice cream, then “allow” becomes misleading. I’m not allowing anything; I’m simply doing. (I am not considering facetious uses of “allow,” like “I’m on a diet, but I allowed myself a giant donut,” because clearly “allow” there is meant to be somewhat of an understatement.) Jerry Walls explains this well:
Now this sort of permission does not make sense on compatibilist assumptions, for God determines everything, including all choices, exactly as he wishes. If he does not wish a given action to be taken, he can determine things so it will not be. Given the compatibilist understanding of freedom, God can determine all persons to freely do precisely as he wishes, and need not ever “permit” them to do what he does not prefer. ¹
(Btw, “compatibilist” means someone who thinks freedom and moral responsibility is compatibile with determinism.)
This “permission” business, then, is not supported by their theology, since nothing runs contrary to his will but rather everything is what God preordained and caused, including the very desires and wills of his creatures. This sort of “omnicausal” view of God’s sovereignty is a very distinctive tenet in the theology of most Calvinists. It would therefore be far more consistent for theological determinists to be like Paul Helseth and confidently say that “evil must be regarded as something that is not contrary to, but an essential component of, God’s will” (emphasis mine).² I can understand why most Calvinists would not have the stomach to say something so brazen, but I think this is what their theology entails. They may still try to argue that God can be the ultimate cause of all evil and yet still remain blameless, and they all do in fact take this route (which I think is unsuccessful, but beyond the scope of this blog post), but they should at least be clear and say forthrightly that God causes evil, including the Fall of man, and does not merely permit it.
1. Walls, Jerry. “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist.” Philosophia Christi 13, no. 1 (2011): 92.
2. Paul Kjoss Helseth, “God Causes All Things,” in Divine Providence: Four Views, ed. Gundry, Stanely, N. and Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 18.