Book Write-Up: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God

Guillaume Bignon.  Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil.  Pickwick, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Guillaume Bignon is a French analytic philosopher and computer scientist.  He used to be an atheist but is now a Calvinist.  I am sure that is an interesting story and am happy to find that it is on the Internet, on various sites.

In Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, Bignon attempts to respond to a notorious criticism of Calvinism.  If Calvinists are correct that God has foreordained all things, including evil, the criticism runs, does that mean that evildoers lack personal responsibility for their evil acts?  How can God judge them for doing what God essentially decreed or caused them to do?  Bignon also addresses the question of whether God is a moral monster for foreordaining evil.

Bignon employs a variety of arguments in responding to these questions.  First, Bignon argues that God is not compelling people to commit evil acts against their will: they are acting willfully and voluntarily, knowing that what they are doing is wrong.  That makes them responsible.  Second, Bignon states that the burden of proof rests on those who claim that a person must be able to make the opposite decision in order to be responsible for his or her evil deed.  As far as Bignon is concerned, that burden of proof has not been met.

Third, Bignon contends that non-Calvinist Christians run into the same problems that they accuse Calvinism of having.  Do they believe that one needs to have libertarian free will—-the neutral ability to choose one path or another—-in order to be personally responsible?  How, then, can they consider God to be praiseworthy for God’s good deeds, when God is unable to do evil?  How can they believe in original sin, which inclines people’s hearts towards sinfulness?  Even though they believe in that, they still hold that human beings are responsible for their evil deeds, for Christ died for their sins.  Do they think that Calvinism incoherently posits two wills in God (a decreed will and a moral will about what is right and wrong for humans to do)?  Do not they do the same thing when they maintain that God desires free-will, on the one hand, and moral righteousness on the other, yet tolerates evil in the belief that free will is a positive good?  Arminians criticize the Calvinist God for causing evil, but does not their God permit evil?

Bignon settles on two answers to the questions that the book addresses.  First, Bignon believes that God can decree evil and yet be blameless because God is God: God has concluded in God’s wisdom and foresight that a world with evil is better, at this point, than a world without it.  Critics of Calvinism try to critique Calvinism by comparing the Calvinist God to human beings who cause evil, even for a good purpose, and Bignon maintains that those are apples and oranges.

Second, Bignon holds that God does not directly cause people’s evil decisions but simply withholds God’s grace, allowing them to fall back on their innate sinful desires.  They are making the sinful choices, in short, and God is letting them do so by withholding God’s grace.  When they do good, that is a result of God’s grace, so they have no cause to boast.  At the same time, perhaps because the Bible itself praises doing good and criticizes doing evil, Bignon still tries to maintain that a person who does good is praiseworthy.

Occasionally, Bignon interacts with Scripture.  He refers to passages in which God somehow causes events, through either intervention or refraining from direct intervention.  Near the beginning of the book, he interacts with Romans 9:17-23, in which Paul likens God to a potter shaping clay, in discussing God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  In response to those who inquire how God can find fault with anyone if God operates that way, Paul asks, “Who art thou that repliest against God?” (KJV).  Bignon disputes Arminian interpretations of that passage because he believes that Paul would not have received the objection that he did, or answered as he answered, had he been saying what Arminians claim.  Bignon backs away from saying that Paul’s response is “Shut up and don’t question!”, for Bignon states that Paul is responding to those who try to excuse their evildoing by chalking it up to God’s providence.

The book has a lot of logical arguments—-and by this I am not talking so much about the quality of his arguments, but rather his practice of using letters and symbols for premises and conclusions, both in his own arguments and in conveying (or improving upon) the arguments of others.  At the same time, there is also a lot of lucid prose in the book.  Moreover, Bignon engages Arminian or non-Calvinist philosophers and thinkers, even going so far as to highlight nuances in their positions.  Readers may find the book to be informative on that front.

On the whole, the book is somewhat unsatisfactory.  Bignon was asserting that the burden of proof rests on those who claim that libertarian free will is essential for there to be moral responsibility, but he seemed to be making claims that certain elements were necessary for moral responsibility (i.e., knowledge that an act is wrong), without really defending them (as far as I can recall).  (I should add, though, that Bignon at one point declines to offer an all-encompassing basis for human responsibility, as Bignon doubts that he can find one that encompasses every situation.)  Bignon spent a lot of time highlighting the contradictions in non-Calvinist perspectives, but the book would have been better had he himself engaged certain questions, such as: Why exactly is God praiseworthy, if God is only doing what God by nature does and cannot do otherwise?  Why does God blame humans for acting according to their human nature, which is sinful?   There were resources from which Bignon could have drawn to address these questions, such as Jonathan Edwards (and Bignon did refer to Edwards, Calvin, and other Calvinist thinkers elsewhere in the book).

Bignon never claims to be making a comprehensive defense of Calvinism, at least in this book.  Rather, his goal is to dismantle the objection that, under Calvinism, humans are not responsible for their evil deeds.  Still, the book would have been better had Bignon at least provided possible reasons that God might ordain evil: what good end is God seeking to accomplish?  (Bignon has written a book on suffering, so that might be worth reading.)

And, ultimately, while Bignon may have a point that God ordains evil for a righteous purpose, his discussion does not leave me with the impression that humans are truly responsible for their actions, in his scenario.

Those who have read a lot about Calvinism may not find much that is new in this book.  It is still a thoughtful engagement of arguments, even if I cannot point to any insight in it that swept me off my feet, or blew my mind away.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.




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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