Calvinism and God as the All-Good “Author” of Evil

A while ago, I wrote about how it seems that Calvinists cannot consistently claim that God is all-loving in their system, which at least some Calvinists agree with.  I posted an online comment from a Calvinist to illustrate this, and also noted in passing that he utilized the author analogy to remove moral responsibility from God: Just like authors aren’t held accountable for writing characters that get raped and murdered, it makes no sense to pin evil on God, who is the author of creation.  I have seen this analogy several times, including recently where the poster stated that blaming God for horrific evils that he causes is like blaming Shakespeare for Claudius’ betrayal in Hamlet.  Since nobody thinks Shakespeare is guilty for Claudius’ sin even though Shakespeare wrote Claudius in that manner, it is equally silly to think that God is implicated in sin and evil even though he is the cause of it all.

It is important to review why this argument is even necessary: An all-determining and all-causing view of God’s sovereignty is foundational for classical Reformed theology, which leads to the idea that God causes evil.  Many Reformed theologians shrink from this and try to say that God only allows evil but doesn’t directly cause it, but as I have argued before, this option is not legitimately available to them and certainly wasn’t an option that Calvin himself thought highly of in his Institutes.  Those who are a bit more consistent bite the bullet and say that God indeed unilaterally causes sin and evil, so then this author analogy becomes relevant to them: Because God is the Author of everything, he can do whatever he pleases with his “novel” and that does not impugn his goodness.  The “God as Author” analogy is very common among Christians who merely want to affirm that God is the Creator, but here, it is used very specifically as a way to show that God can be the cause of evil but remain blameless.

This seems straightforward, but a little digging shows that this analogy is very inadequate.  All analogies break down at some point, as many people often simplistically intone, but that doesn’t mean analogies cannot be evaluated for their usefulness and accuracy, and in my estimation, this one falls way short.

Are authors immune from moral evaluations via their works?

One point where the analogy may break down is that it is not altogether obvious that authors cannot be morally evaluated by the stories they create.  For example, many people, Christian and not, have expressed concern over George R.R. Martin’s use of grotesque evil in his book series, The Song of Ice and Fire, which most people know through the TV show The Game of Thrones.  We’re talking about characters (including children) being horribly tortured, raped, killed in brutal ways, and broken.  Basically, the sheer gratuitousness of the evil that Martin often portrays in his books has led to moral criticism of Martin himself, even if people ultimately find the stories to be gripping.  Martin is certainly not the only author to come under moral criticism for what he has written, but his example will suffice for now.

One may quickly object that there is a key difference here: Martin is still being evaluated by moral principles that lie outside his work, not within his work.  God similarly cannot be held morally accountable for things inside creation, but unlike Martin, there is no morality external to him to which he must answer.  This is superficially true, but there remains some problems here.  First, we already see the intended analogy fraying a bit on the edges.  Second, the moral principles in the work flow from Martin, and thus it is conceivable that what he consistently writes is a reflection on his own character.  How God treats his “characters,” then, can reflect on his own character: If God says he is wholly good but yet causes incredible evil unilaterally in his creation, that may be as confusing as an author who says he hates violence but permeates all of his works with large amounts and horrible examples of it.  God is not bound to an external morality, but certainly one can expect that God would not act contrary to his character.

More could be said here, but this discussion can get abstract and convoluted.  My point here is not to resolve the issue of how morally accountable an author is of a story he writes but only to show that it is a question without an obvious answer.  If so, using the author analogy to duck criticisms of one’s theology isn’t on the sturdiest ground.

The big difference: Fictional characters are not real agents

The section above is not where the real problem lies: Where this author analogy truly breaks down is by simply pointing out that fictional characters created by men are, well, fictional, unlike the human beings God creates.  Even if one were to agree that human authors are never responsible for what happens in their works, this would be due to the fact that the world and the characters are not real.  Imagine if every time a human author wrote a novel, an actual new world was created that was teeming with real life and moral agents.  If this were true, then a human author who unilaterally decided to cause horrific evil in his work, despite saying that he hates evil, would hardly be considered above moral evaluation.  However, if this is the case, what exactly is this author analogy trying to show?

When God creates, he creates a real world with real moral agents.  Even Calvinists with their determinism cannot afford to remove the agent status of human beings or else they have nobody else to pin evil on but God.  When human beings create, they create a fictional world with fictional characters who don’t have souls, wills, or the image of God.  Real humans, on the other hand, have intrinsic moral value and real moral obligations, which is why it is problematic to conceive of God causing them to do terribly sinful things to one another.  For this analogy to work, the Calvinist has to do either affirm that human authors create real moral agents by writing stories, which is absurd, or deny that human beings are actual moral agents, which is equally absurd and leaves only God as the agent of evil.

Conclusion

This “God is the Author and can write whatever he wants” argument isn’t very helpful for theological determinists like Calvinists.  There are too many substantial differences for that analogy to make its intended point, and any attempt to match the analogs more cleanly leads to absurdity.  They might as well punt to mystery, which many do, but that at least will be an acknowledgement that this is a significant weak point in their system of theology.

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One thought on “Calvinism and God as the All-Good “Author” of Evil

  1. Excellent!!
    Please take a look at “Monarchical Absolutism” and how it appears down through history, starting perhaps with Pharaoh, various man-gods, Caesar, and then later kings of France and England. In particular look at the doctrine called “The Divine Right of Kings”. Here I think you will see something interesting. It may well be that Calvin saw this as a model of divine governance which he superimposed upon God and his cosmos. The monarch is not accountable to any known standard of ethics or morality. This was said to be a “doctrine of Grace”, defended by reformed Christians. Interesting parallels!. A doctrine I now call, “The divine right of UN-accountability”.

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