Book Write-Up: Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson, ed.  Calvinism and the Problem of Evil.  Eugene: Pickwick Publications (an Imprint of Wipf and Stock), 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Calvinism is a Christian belief system that holds that God, before the foundation of the world, predestined the specific individuals who would be saved and damned.  It thinks that people are so sinful that they are unable to repent and believe in Christ apart from God’s transforming grace, and that conversion is inevitable when God’s regenerating grace works on a person.  There are many Calvinists who also maintain that God foreordained everything that would happen.

The problem of evil is a philosophical problem that asks how evil can exist, if God is omnipotent and benevolent.  If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, would not God stop evil, which hurts so many people?

Many Christians address the problem of evil by appealing to libertarian free will.  The idea is that God allows people freely to make their own decisions, since they can only accept God authentically if that is the case.  Their version of free will is called “libertarian” because it presumes that people’s decisions are uncaused and that people were able to choose differently from the choice that they actually made; this, the idea goes, is why people are morally responsible.  Not only have many Christians appealed to libertarian free will to explain why God permits evil choices today, but they also believe that it is relevant to God allowing Adam and Eve to sin, in a sin that brought evil and chaos into the world.

Calvinism differs from this approach.  It tends to reject libertarian free will, embracing instead compatibilism, which holds that there are causes to (or, perhaps, influences on) the choices that people make.  Rather than regarding people as morally neutral and thus able to choose equally between good and evil, it holds that people have a propensity towards evil as a result of original sin, and yet that God can change the desires of those whom God elected unto salvation.

As David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson state in their introduction to Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, Calvinism has been rather marginalized in Christian discussions of the problem of evil.  The reason is that many Christians think that Calvinism makes the problem of evil worse rather than solving it.  If Calvinism believes that God not only permitted, but foreordained, that evil should exist, does that not make God the author of evil?  Does Calvinism make people into robots rather than rational agents with choice?  Moreover, how can God send people to hell for something that they cannot control, namely, God’s decision to choose them for damnation rather than salvation?

This book interacts with these questions, and others.  In terms of another question with which the book interacts, there is the question of how Adam and Eve could sin, when God made them good.  Calvinists can understand how people born with original sin and a corrupt nature can sin: it is their nature.  But how could good people sin?

In this review, I will comment about each chapter.

Chapter 1, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory,” by Daniel M. Johnson, is lengthy, yet well-written and lucid.  Unlike some of the later essays, it tends to avoid arguments in which letters stand for concepts.  It lays out different Calvinist perspectives on such questions as how Adam and Eve could sin.  It said that God has a reason to damn at least some people as an object lesson of God’s justice, and the reaction that immediately occurred in my mind was: “But Calvinism does not just say that some people will be damned, but that a lot of people will be.  Why would God do that?”  A later essay in the book would address this question.

Chapter 2, “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin,” by Greg Welty, argues that Molinism has the same problem that many think Calvinism has.  Molinism holds that God foresaw different possible worlds and chose to create a world in which people freely sinned.  For Welty, one can accuse Molinism of presuming that God is the one who is responsible for sin, which is what critics of Calvinism say about Calvinism.  Welty perhaps could have made this point without all of the elaborate argumentation, but he still raises an interesting question, one that subsequent essays will raise, as well: Do non-Calvinist Christian beliefs run into the same problems that many think are inherent to Calvinism?  This chapter is also effective because it cites Scriptures in which God is portrayed as somehow causing, or being behind, people’s evil deeds, only God uses those deeds for a positive and just end.  The question that occurred in my mind was this: Even if there are cases of determinism or compatibilism in the Bible, does that mean that all decisions are foreordained or influenced by factors beyond the decider’s control?  Maybe God can use a person who has voluntarily become evil as a tool for God’s just purpose.

Chapter 3, “Theological Determinism and the ‘Authoring Sin’ Objection,” by Heath White, proposes that God foreordained evil but did not intend to do so.  This does not imply that evil was God’s accident, but rather that God had a just and righteous purpose in mind (God’s glorification and display of God’s righteous character), and God foresaw that a world that had evil would best achieve that purpose.  In my opinion, this model somewhat presents God as limited by the alternatives in front of God.  This chapter was rather helpful in concisely explaining the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.

Chapter 4, “Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism,” by James E. Bruce, concerns the thought of Francis Turretin (1623-1687).  According to Bruce, Turretin said that God acts on people, and yet people remain free and rational agents.  Like Welty, Bruce cites Scriptures in which God seems to cause certain people’s evil acts.  Of particular interest was Bruce’s discussion of Turretin’s interaction with Proverbs 21:1, which states that the king’s heart is like water in the hands of the LORD, who turns it wherever the LORD wills.  According to Turretin, God here is not tempting the king to sin, for that would be impossible: James 1:13, after all, emphatically denies that God tempts people to sin.  Rather, for Turretin, what is going on is that God is providing the king with righteous ideas knowing fully well that the king will use those ideas in wicked ways.  That view was new to me!

Chapter 5, “Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil,” by David E. Alexander, essentially argues that many Christian beliefs presume compatibilism or are more consistent with compatibilism than with libertarianism.  These are Christian beliefs that even non-Calvinist Christians hold.  They include such beliefs as original sin, the inspiration of Scripture, Christ’s sinlessness, and God’s sovereignty.  This is a legitimate point, yet questions can be asked.  Does God have to determine everything, to be sovereign?  Cannot God be sovereign over the big picture without controlling every little detail (even through secondary causes or means)?  Cannot God mitigate original sin and provide people with more ability to choose with prevenient grace, or common grace?  This chapter also addresses the topic of hell and proposes that God shows some love to people in hell by keeping them alive there.  This is a difficult concept for me, since they are being eternally tormented in hell.

Chapter 6, “Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity,” by Paul Helm, likens God’s love for the elect to people legitimately loving their own family more than outsiders.  Helm seems to question whether a world in which there is absolute equality among people is even possible.  Helm also challenges the idea that Calvinists believe that God forces the elect to convert, or brainwashes them: it is rather a matter of enlightenment, of awakening.

Chapter 7, “On Grace and Free Will,” by Hugh J. McCann, is noteworthy because it recognizes and wrestles with different dimensions of human decisions.  On the one hand, we did not technically decide what the desires that influence our decisions would be: those desires are just there.  On the other hand, it does appear that our decisions are spontaneous and that we are active in making them.  McCann seemingly attempts to posit that determinism and compatibilism can co-exist with human free will.  Another noteworthy element of this chapter is that McCann rejects any idea that God deliberated prior to creation, for McCann believes that God knew what was correct and made what was correct, without really needing to deliberate.  That seems to differ from Heath White’s model (chapter 3) of God surveying various options, depending on how literally White took this model.

Chapter 8, “The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists,” by Alexander R. Pruss, engages the question of how Adam and Eve could sin, being good.  This chapter is detailed and complex, but it is still useful because it interacts with options.  Pruss does appear to have a problem with Jonathan Edwards’ model, in which God somehow influences Adam and Eve to sin by withdrawing grace from them.  This shows that there is diversity among Calvinists.  (UPDATE: Actually, Pruss is a Catholic.) Pruss also seems rather open to libertarian free will being something that Adam and Eve possessed.

Chapter 9, “Calvinism and the First Sin,” by James N. Anderson, also addresses how Adam and Eve could sin, being good.  Anderson relays a helpful analogy from Alfred Mele, in which an ordinarily self-controlled woman named Ann gives in to alcohol when she is pressured.  Anderson also elaborates on the authorial model of God’s providence, a model that was briefly mentioned by previous contributors, but which Anderson explained more fully.  In this model, God is likened to an author: a character is acting as he is acting because of what the author wrote, and yet the character is still acting according to his own free will.  In reading this, I thought of the show, Once Upon a Time, in which an author wrote what the characters did, and they did it, while acting freely.  Moreover, Anderson interacts with Molinism, the belief that God foresees but does not foreordain evil, and open theism, which denies that God even knows the future.  These are non-Calvinist views.  Anderson believes that divine foreknowledge is rather deterministic itself, for, if God foresees something, does that not make it inevitable?  (I one time debated this question with an Intervarsity sponsor, and his answer to the question was “no.”)  Anderson also holds that open theism presents God as a gambler.  To that, I ask this question: Can one legitimately believe that God does not know every detail of the future and yet still exercises sovereignty over the big picture?  God can control how God will act, after all, whether or not God entirely knows how we will act.

Chapter 10, “A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense,” by Christopher R. Green, explores interesting questions.  Green interacts with the question of whether God could have used nightmares to teach people about God’s righteousness and justice rather than actual evil.  He makes a point about animal suffering, contending that it may be an example of God showing God’s consistency and faithfulness through the regularity that exists in nature, which Jeremiah 33:20 states is the case with the day and the night.  (As an animal lover, I consider that to be a grisly way for God to demonstrate God’s nature; still, animal suffering is a theological problem.)  Green also talks about how God can use a person’s story for future generations, without that person’s knowledge, as God did with the characters in the Bible.  One’s participation in the divine drama, in which evil is a reality with which people deal, may show people what God is like and edify future generations.

Chapter 11, “Calvinism and the Problem of Hell,” by Matthew J. Hart, articulates the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards to argue that so many people are damned to hell to edify the glorified elect: to enhance their appreciation of their redemption, as they realize that they themselves could have been damned, apart from God’s grace.  To this, I ask whether glorified Christians will have any love for the people in hell.  Are we not on earth, after all, to learn to love others, and is that not more important than for us to relish our own advantages?  Hart also addresses the question of whether God is responsible to love everyone God brought into being and sustains, even the non-elect.  Hart invokes an analogy in which a capsule produces adult males.  Are the creators of the capsule required to love those adult males, to the same extent that they love their own families, even though they technically created the adult males?  Hart’s answer seems to be no, and he believes that this resembles God’s stance towards the non-elect.  This analogy made me question the effectiveness of analogies in explaining the Bible: Is a sci-fi analogy, like this one, a bit anachronistic?  Should not something on the radar of the biblical authors be cited, instead?

Chapter 12, “Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy toward Arguments from Evil,” by Anthony Bryson, challenges an idea held by some Calvinists that the Bible is self-attesting: that Christians know it is true because it is God’s word, period!  According to this view, to appeal to, say, reason or evidence to substantiate the Bible is to say that there are criteria for truth above God’s word, and this is wrong.  For Bryson, this belief influences some Calvinists to conclude that the problem of evil is not a significant problem.  If we know that God is real because the Bible is God’s word, after all, then the problem of evil cannot challenge God’s existence.  Bryson disputes this.  This chapter will be challenging and difficult for those who are unfamiliar with epistemological externalism and epistemological internalism.

Overall, this book does provide food for thought.  It explores and interacts with various possibilities.  A possible disadvantage is that the book was rather clinical and abstract in its discussion of evil, rather than acknowledging the real-life damage that evil brings.  Whether the book successfully makes the God of Calvinism look any better is a subjective judgment: I did not always think that it did.  A definite positive of the book, however, is that it shows how diverse Calvinism can be, and it highlighted some interpretations that were new to me.

I apologize for any unintentional distortions on my part in describing Calvinism or the views of these authors.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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