What is God?

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Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil

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St John of Damascus on the Providence of God

“God is both Creator and Provider,” writes St John of Damascus, “and is power of creating, sustaining, and providing is his good will. For ‘whatsoever the Lord pleased he hath done, in heaven, and in earth’ [Ps 134:6], and none resisted his will. He willed all things to be made and they were made; He wills the world to endure, and it does endure; and all things whatsoever He wills are done” (On the Orthodox Faith II.29). Here John confesses the triadic Deity as eternal Creator. God is power who has brought the world into being from out of nothing and perpetually sustains it in existence—but not only this: he also providentially leads creation to its proper end and fulfillment. His providence is general and particular, metaphysical and historical. Conse­quently, John affirms, everything that has occurred “has quite necessarily come about in the best manner and that most befitting God, so that it could not have happened in a better way” (II.29).

John deduces the providence of God from both the testimony of Holy Scripture and from the divine nature. Because God is good, we know that he provides for his creatures, for one who does not provide is not good. Because God is wise, we know that he provides for his creatures in the most appropriate and best way; otherwise he would not be wise. The workings of divine providence, therefore, rightly elicit from humanity admiration, praise, and unconditional acceptance. In our hymns we glorify God for his care and solicitude of the world he has made; in our prayers we embrace his will for us in our present circumstances. “For those who accept them with thanksgiving,” John remarks, “the attacks of adversity redound to salvation and definitely become instruments of aid” (II.29). Consider the following counsel from the Philokalia:

A truly intelligent man has only one care—wholeheartedly to obey Almighty God and to please Him. The one and only thing he teaches his soul is how best to do things agreeable to God, thanking Him for His merciful Providence in whatever may happen in his life. For just as it would be unseemly not to thank physicians for curing our body, even when they give us bitter and unpleasant remedies, so too would it be to remain ungrateful to God for things that appear to us painful, failing to understand that everything happens through His Providence for our good. In this understanding and this faith in God lie salvation and peace of soul. (St Antony the Great)

Surely John would concur. He is aware, of course, that things happen to us that seem unjust and senseless. Disease, accidents, misfortunes, and disasters deprive us of health, prosperity, well-being, and life itself. But, he reminds us, “God’s providence is beyond knowledge and beyond comprehension.” John’s appeal to our finite limitations draws on the lengthy discussion of providence by the 4th century bishop and philosopher Nemesius:

If the doctrine of a providence over particulars exceeds our comprehension—and surely it does that, as it is written, “How unsearchable are thy judgements, and thy ways past finding out”—still we ought not, on that account, to deny that such providence exists. For we cannot measure the waters of the sea, or count the grains of sand. … It follows of necessity that a providence that will fit itself to each particular must extend to embrace every difference, intricacy, divergence, and convergence, in all the teeming details that exceed the comprehension of man’s mind. It must be thus, if providence is to be suited to each individual and to each thing that he does; if, in short, the work of providence is to prove wholly appropriate. The differences between particulars are endless, and so, for sure, must be the resources of that providence that shall attend upon them all. Now if those resources are infinite, providence is beyond our comprehending. For that reason, our natural incapacity to comprehend it must not lead us to put out of court divine care for every creature. For, suppose that there is some situation that seems to you not to be well ordered. The Creator knows that it happens in that way for a very good reason. You, on the other hand, know nothing of that reason, and declare that there is no reason about it. For we experience in regard to the works of providence exactly what we experience in regard to other things that pass our comprehension.  (Of the Nature of Man 68-69)

The world and its processes are too complex for any single finite mind to comprehend. How then can we presume to assess and judge providence? Nemesius goes on to identify various evils that the Lord might allow to befall us, in each case bringing forth good out of evil. “Well then, we conclude that the works of providence are well and fittingly done” (69).

The Damascene is clear that God does not will evil and death. He certainly does not will the sins of rational beings. “It is definitely wrong,” he declares, “ever to ascribe immoral and unjust actions to God” (Orthodox Faith II.25). Nor may sins be attributed to necessity, fate, nature, or chance. “Indeed, nothing remains but the fact that man himself as acting and doing is the principle of his own works and is free.”

John carefully distinguishes between those events that occur by divine approval and those that occur by divine permission. The former are undeniably good, coming directly from God and relate to the good order of creation and its eschatological consummation in Christ. The latter, however, originate in the free actions of rational beings, both angelic and human, and must be understood neither as divine acts nor as expressions of the divine providence. Those things that depend upon us, namely, our free decisions and choices, “do not belong to providence, but to our own free will” (II.29). God does not cause our free acts; we do. He permits our evil actions, because he wants us to freely love and obey him. He permits others to suffer these evils, in order to exhibit his power to redeem:

Thus, He often permits even the just man to meet with misfortunes so that the virtue hidden in him may be made known to others, as in the case of God. At other times, He permits something iniquitous to be done so that through this apparently iniquitous action some great and excellent thing may be brought about, as was the salvation of men by the Cross. In still another way, He permits the devout man to suffer evil either so that he may not depart from his right conscience or so that he may not fall into presumption from the strength and grace that have been given him, as in the case of Paul. Someone may be abandoned for a while for the correction of others so that by observing his state they may be instructed, as in the case of Lazarus and the rich man. For we are naturally humbled when we see the sufferings of others. Someone may also be abandoned not because of his own sins or his parents’ but for the glory of another, as was the man born blind for the glory of the Son of Man. Again, someone may be permitted to suffer as an object of emulation for others so that because of the greatness of the glory of the one that suffered they may without hesitation accept suffering in hope of future glory and with a desire for the good things to come, as in the case of the martyrs. A person may even be allowed at times to fall into an immoral action for the correction of another and worse affliction. (II.29)

A distinction between God’s ordaining will and permissive will is theologically helpful (though strict Calvinists will disagree). Yet even so, one may doubt whether it will persuade many who have experienced disaster and war. Where was God in Auschwitz? Where was he in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake or the 2004 tsunami? At some point evil becomes so horrific that explanations like those of the great Eastern theologian become virtually in-credible. Christians must nonetheless continue to assert the power of the Holy Trinity to redeem even those evils that overwhelm—yet only as we stand silently at the foot of the cross.

At the conclusion of his discussion of divine providence, John distinguishes between God’s antecedent and consequent wills, which appears to roughly map onto the distinction mentioned above between God’s good and permissive wills:

One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For He did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause. This last is twofold: that which is by dispensation and for our instruction and salvation, and that which is abandonment to absolute chastisement [eternal damnation], as we have said. These, however, belong to those things which do not depend upon us. (II.29)

Dr Peter Bouteneff elaborates upon this distinction:

The primary will of God, his essential will, is his own—and John describes it as ‘the will that all be saved, and come to his kingdom’ (cf. 1 Tim 2:4). The secondary or consequent will, which John equates with permission, comes into play through interaction with free human beings—its source or cause is us. … For John, providence can be called the secondary will of God, one which is brought to the service of his primary will. This latter is effectively God’s essential will for universal salvation, while the secondary will permits things to happen which may seem quite contrary to that goal of salvation. They are ‘willed’ nonetheless, in the full knowledge that they may become the very means of return and growth God-ward. (“The Two Wills of God,” pp. 295-296)

Curiously, Bouteneff leaves out John’s inclusion of absolute abandonment (i.e., eternal damnation) in God’s consequent will. Whatever else damnation is, it most certainly does not have redemptive value. I suspect one needs a Latin scholastic to clarify these distinctions and probably make a bunch more.

My question for St John is this: once the free actions of rational beings are exempted from God’s providential working, does not the notion of providence lose its theological traction? Fr Andrew Louth has also raised this question in his book St John Damascene. Noting that John excludes free actions from the divine providence, he comments: “it is not clear to me that it is an exception that could be carried through without effectively denying God’s providential care over human affairs” (p. 142). Louth thinks that the Damascene recovers when he later includes free human actions within God’s consequent will, but given his emphatic separation between divine and creaturely agency (reiterated in his rejection of divine predestination), I’m doubtful. Louth’s initial reservation sounds just about right.

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“However much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love”

You call him teacher, and you won’t do his lessons? You acknowledge him to be good, and what he gives you you throw away? But, surely, he who is good supplies good things; this is obvious. Although what you ask about is eternal life, you give proof of being utterly addicted to the enjoyment of this present life. What, after all, is this hard, heavy, burdensome word which the Teacher has put forward? “Sell what you have, and give to the poor.” If he had laid upon you agricultural toils, or hazardous mercantile ventures, or so many other troubles which are incidental to the life of the wealthy, then you’d have had cause for sorrow, taking the order badly; but when he calls you by so easy a road, without toil or sweat, to show yourself an inheritor of eternal life, you are not glad for the ease of salvation, but you go away pained at heart and mourning, making useless for yourself all that you had labored at beforehand. For if, as you say, you’ve not murdered, nor committed adultery, nor stolen, nor witnessed against someone a false witness, you make such exertions unprofitable to you when you fail to add on the remainder, by which alone you might be able to enter into the kingdom of God. And if a physician had declared to you that he could fully mend you of some physical disfigurement you had by nature or disease, wouldn’t you have heard him gladly? But when the great Physician of souls desires to make you whole of your deficiencies in things that matter most, you don’t accept the favor, but mourn and put on a gloomy face.

Now, you are obviously very far from having observed one commandment at least, and you falsely swore that you had kept it, namely, that you’ve loved your neighbor as yourself. For see: the Lord’s commandment proves you to be utterly lacking in real love. For if what you’ve claimed were true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to yourself, how has it come to you, this abundance of money? For it takes wealth to care for the needy: a little paid out for the necessity of each person you take on, and all at once everything gets parceled out, and is spent upon them. Thus, the man who loves his neighbor as himself will have acquired no more than what his neighbor has; whereas you, visibly, have acquired a lot. Where has this come from? Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people? Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love: else long since you’d have taken care to be divorced from your money, if you had loved your neighbor. But now your money sticks to you closer than the limbs of your body, and he who would separate you from it grieves you more than someone who would cut off your vital parts. For if you had clothed the naked, if you had given your bread to the hungry, if you had opened your doors to every stranger, if you’d become a father to orphans, if you had suffered together with all the powerless, what possessions would now be causing you despondency? Why should you now be upset to put aside what’s left, when you’d long since have taken care to distribute these things to the needy? Now, on a market day, no one is sorry to barter his goods and get in return such things as he has need of; but to the extent that he purchases things of greater value with what is cheaper, he rejoices, having gotten a better deal than his trading-partner. But you, by contrast, mourn, in giving gold, and silver, and goods — that is, offering stones and dust — in order to obtain the blessed life. …

And it seems to me that the sickness of this young man, and of those who resemble him, is much like that of a traveller, who, longing to visit some city and having just about finished his way there, lodges at an inn outside the walls, where, upon some trifling impulse, he is averted, and so both makes his previous effort useless, and deprives himself of a view of the wonders of the city. And of such a nature are those who engage to do the other commandments, then turn around for the sake of gathering wealth. I’ve seen many who will fast, pray, groan, and display every kind of pious exertion, so long as it costs them nothing, but who will not so much as toss a red cent to those who are suffering. What good do they get from their remaining virtue? For the kingdom of heaven does not admit them; for, as it says, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25). But, while this statement is so plain, and its speaker so unerring, scarcely anyone is persuaded by it. “So how are we supposed to live without possessions?” they say. “What kind of life will that be, selling everything, being dispossessed of everything?” Don’t ask me for the rationale of the Master’s commandments. He who lays down the law knows how to bring even what is incapable into accordance with the law. But as for you, your heart is tested as on a balance, to see if it shall incline towards the true life or towards immediate gratification. For it is right for those who are prudent in their reasonings to regard the use of money as a matter of stewardship, not of selfish enjoyment; and those who lay it aside ought to rejoice as though separated from things alien, not be embittered as though deprived of what is nearest and dearest. So why become depressed? Why are you so sick at heart, when you hear the words, “Sell your possessions”? For if, on the one hand, these possessions could follow you into the afterlife, they should not therefore be highly valued, when next to the prizes that await there they should be thrown into the shade; on the other hand, if they must stay here, why don’t we sell them and get back from them what can be gained? When you give up gold, and acquire a horse, you are not in poor spirits; but when it comes to giving up things corruptible, and receiving in return the kingdom of heaven, you weep, and deny the asker, and shake your head at the gift, having your mind set upon a thousand and one ways of spending money. …

I would like you to take a short vacation from works of iniquity, and give your calculations a rest, so that you might seriously consider the kind of end towards which these preoccupations are heading. You have such and such an amount of arable land, and of wooded land so much more: hills, plains, valleys, rivers, streams. What, then, comes next? Don’t six feet of earth, in all, await you? Won’t the weight of a few stones suffice to keep your weary flesh? What is it that you toil over? To what end do you work iniquity? Why do your hands glean a thing that yields no fruit? Yes, and if only it were merely fruitless, and not also fuel for eternal fire! Will you never sober up from this intoxication? never heal your reasonings? never come to yourself? Won’t you set before your eyes the judgment seat of Christ? What will you have to say for yourself, when there shall stand about you in a circle those you have wronged, all of them crying against you before the righteous Judge? What will you do? What lawyers will you bribe? What witnesses will you produce? How will you corrupt that wholly undeceivable Judge? You’ll find no slick talker there, no verbal spin, to steal the strength of the Judge of truth. No lackeys follow you, nor money, nor dignity of place; deserted by friends, deserted of helpers, without an advocate, without defense, you will be left utterly ashamed, abashed, dejected, abandoned, speechless. For all around, in whatever direction you turn your gaze, you clearly see the images of your misdeeds: here the tears of orphans, there a widow’s groanings, elsewhere the poor you stepped on, servants you tore to shreds, neighbors you enraged: all will withstand you; the wicked choir of your evil deeds will tangle you in snares. For just as the shadow trails the body, so do sins trail souls, giving a precise outline of their actions. Thus there is no prevarication there, but the mouth and every shameless thing are stopped. Each man’s own actions are called to witness against him, not by sounding a voice, but according to the very appearances of whatever was done. How should I set before your eyes these horrors? If you hear, if you are stirred, be mindful of that day in which “the wrath of God shall be revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18). Bear in mind Christ’s glorious coming, when the dead shall arise, “they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn 5:29). Then shall there be eternal shame to sinners, “a fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb 10:27). Let these things cause you to mourn, and do not mourn because of the commandment. How should I put you out of cheer? What should I say? You don’t desire the kingdom? You don’t fear hell? Where shall a healing be found for your soul? If horrors don’t terrify, if glories don’t attract, we are talking to a heart of stone.

St Basil the Great

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Why Study St Augustine of Hippo?

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Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser: Divine Agency and Human Freedom

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Because God is the infinite source and ground of all reality, he transcendently causes everything that is and everything that occurs, yet not in a way that conflicts with the scientific apprehension of the world. As Diogenes Allen explains:

Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe do not exclude each other because different kinds of causality are involved in each case: the constant creative activity of God that gives each creature its existence and nature, and the causal relations between creatures studied by the sciences. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 165-166)

We now need to ask the question, How does God actualize his providential purposes in the world? If God’s purposes were restricted to physical phenomena, we could confidently declare that “God achieves God’s intentions through the natural operations of the physical natures God gives to…

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Is God the Author of Sin?

Is God the author of sin? The question assumes paramount importance when evaluating the construal of divine and human agency advanced by Hugh J. McCann. Popular theodicies seek to protect God from responsibility for human evil. That’s the upshot of the free-will defense, after all: God cannot be justly blamed for the evils and horrors perpetrated by human beings because of the gift of freedom. He is therefore off the hook … yet perhaps not totally. “To be sure,” comments McCann, “this is not the end of the matter. God is still responsible for creating a world that contains beings with free will, and thus for risking moral evil. And he also creates and sustains the natural order that allows our acts of will to have deleterious consequences” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 77). But in the end we trust that the terrible costs will prove ultimately worthwhile. Matters become trickier, however, with theories of double agency. The double-agency philosopher recognizes that if God is the transcendent cause and sustainer of absolutely everything that exists, then he cannot be exempted from responsibility for the freely chosen actions of human beings, including their sinful ones. The only question is, what kind of responsibility does he bear? McCann tackles the question head-on.

Let’s first recall a few of his statements that pose the problem:

God belongs to an order of being entirely his own, one that transcends completely the order of secondary causes. … Whatever we take event-causation to consist in, causal relations exist only contingently, and so must be created by God. On pain of another regress, therefore, there can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately efficacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created. A fortiori, there is no nexus that binds Gods will to ours, nor is there any causal distance whatever between God and us or any of our willings. Indeed, there is not even causal contiguity. Rather, we and all that we do have our being in God, and the first manifestation of God’s creative will regarding our decisions and acts is not a command that causes those acts, but nothing short of the acts themselves. (p. 103)

The relationship between God’s will and ours is not, then, one of control in the sense of manipulation. Rather, just as everything is up to God as creator, so everything is up to me as creature—exactly what we should expect if we take seriously the adage often repeated by the pious: that we should pray as though everything depends on God, and then act as though everything depends on us. There is, of course, something that cannot happen on this view: it cannot be that God should will as creator that I act in one way, and that I act differently. And this is an ontological reality as well as a logical one. But the reason is not that, were I to try to behave differently, I would run up against any obstacle. Rather, were I to will differently, God would be doing so as well. What the impossibility comes to, therefore, is simply that neither God nor I can at once will something and not will it. But that is not a curtailment—of his freedom or mine. (pp. 109-110)

For while the present view [of double agency] offers help with traditional problems regarding human freedom and responsibility, it only makes the problem of evil, especially moral evil, more pressing. No longer may we claim that those acts in which we sin escape God’s creative power, so that his responsibility for them is alleviated. Rather, we have to face the fact that as creator, God is just as involved in our wrongful decisions and actions as he is in all else that goes on in the world—that is, fully, as the source of their being. Is he, then, to be charged with moral evil in their occurrence? (p. 112)

In light of these statements, as well as others quoted in “The World is a Novel,” we have no choice, therefore, but to put Dr McCann into the dock and interrogate him further. Will we end up concluding that God too should join him there?

McCann begins his defense of the Almighty Creator with a concession: “There is no denying that the relation in question makes God the author of sin in one sense: namely, that he is the First Cause of those acts of will in which we sin. All of our willings owe their existence directly to God, just as we do, and could never take place but for his active participation, in the form of willing that they occur” (p. 116). This seems to follow from the creatio ex nihilo, and I have long thought (long before I had ever heard of double agency) that this must be the case. If God is the Creator, then he upholds in being my thoughts and volitions, as well as their historical consequences. He gives them actuality. At the very least he permits and underwrites them. That moral evil exists in the universe flows from God’s creation and conservation of free acting beings. McCann thus cuts off retreat into even a partial deism. God is God. The ontological buck stops with him.

Is God morally culpable for our evil acts? Does he incur guilt? McCann answers no and makes an important distinction: God does not will our decisions in their immorality and wickedness; he wills them in their freedom. He wills that we will freely. The divine Creator is the subject of our being the subjects of our decisions and actions. Consider the example of Smith who decides to kill Jones:

Why might someone think that God’s creatively willing the occurrence of this event makes him guilty of anything? Perhaps the worry is that God might actually participate in Smith’s decision, that when Smith decides to kill Jones there actually occurs a joint exercise of agency, in which Smith and God together settle on doing Jones in. If this were so, it might seem that God must share in the malice of the decision, just as he shares in the decision itself, in which case Smith’s sin is also God’s. This view of things is, however, mistaken. When Smith decides to kill Jones, the decision is predicated of Smith alone, and belongs entirely to him. He alone forms the intention to kill Jones, hence he alone can incur the guilt of doing so. God does not and cannot participate in Smith’s decision, for he belongs to an entirely different order of being. To predicate the decision of him would be the equivalent of saying that when a mystery writer has one character decide to do away with another, she herself is guilty of deciding to commit murder. Nor does God, in providing for the existence of Smith’s decision, decide in his own right to kill Jones. The content of God’s will is not that Jones should die … but rather Smith’s act of deciding. In propositional terms, God wills that Smith decide to murder Jones. And of course, as in all things, his will is efficacious. So if God incurs any blame in the transaction, it has to be for that—for willing Smith’s act of deciding. (pp. 116-117)

For every human act, suggests McCann, we may specify two sets of predicates. While it is certainly true that God wills Smith’s willing the murder of Jones, only Smith intends the crime. Perhaps Smith is having an affair with the lovely but deceitful wife of Jones. Overcome by jealousy and desire, he plans the perfect murder and on the fateful day executes it. Smith alone forms the intention to kill Jones; he alone decides to disobey the sixth commandment; he alone chooses to pull the trigger. Smith does not collaborate with God in the murder nor God with him; nor does God purpose the murder as murder or will Smith’s wicked act for ulterior and malicious purposes. Smith’s reasons to murder Jones are different from God’s reasons to will Smith’s willing. God makes himself the ontological source and ground of the sin, but the sin belongs to Smith alone.

God, on the other hand, has his own reasons to will Smith’s decision to murder Jones. Perhaps he has a standing policy not to override or tinker with the free decisions of human beings, no matter how wicked. “Freedom would mean nothing,” comments McCann, “if an evil intention could never be carried off” (p. 77). Perhaps God knows that he can redeem this evil and thus bring into the world a greater good. Perhaps he intends to bring Smith to a deep repen­tance and transform him into a powerful evangelist. Perhaps the killing will set into motion a series of events that will bear good fruit decades or even generations later. The most famous example of this kind of providential working is told in the Book of Genesis. Filled with jealousy and anger, the sons of Jacob plan the murder of their brother Joseph but at the last moment change their minds and sell him to slavers. Joseph eventually becomes the viceroy of Egypt, thereby achieving a position of power that would enable him to assist his family during the great famine. As Joseph later told his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).

We are now in a position to better assess McCann’s strong assertion of divine providence and how it relates to the reality of sin and evil:

Our destinies are entirely subordinate to God’s creative will; he exercises full control in all that we do, notwithstanding the fact that our deeds are fully voluntary, and we have every reason to expect that all that takes place in the world will reflect the providence of a perfectly loving father. As for omniscience, here too there is no difficulty. God knows about our decisions and actions simply by knowing his own intentions, for he wills that they occur. Nor is his will exercised from the fastidious distance preferred by Molinists, in which God creates us knowing what we will do, but has no hand in our actually doing it. Rather, God is as much the cause of our sinful actions as of our virtuous ones, or of any other event. Yet, Augustine and Aquinas would both insist, he remains perfectly good and absolutely holy, a being deserving of our complete reverence and absolute devotion. How might such a thing be possible?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that even if my act of deciding to go to the concert tonight has its existence grounded in God’s creatively willing that I so decide, it is still I who act, still I who decide. God’s willing that I decide as I do does not make my decision God’s. Indeed, if it did, if my decision were predicated of God rather than me, his will would fail to achieve its object. But it is not possible for God’s will to be frustrated, as long as what he wills is consistent. So regardless of what we may think of the traditional view’s contention that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are fully compatible, that view does not take the operations of our will, or the actions founded upon them, away from us. They remain our own. Consequently, any sin they involve remains ours also. Thus, if I decide sinfully to go to the concert tonight—if, say, I am neglecting duties I know should take priority—the sin is mine, not God’s. If he is to be faulted, it must be for some other reason. It should be noted, moreover, that God’s position in this respect is not much different from what it is on the Molinist account. True, that view takes certain things out of God’s hands. Whether I would decide to go to the concert in the circumstances in which I will find myself tonight is not, according to Molinism, up to God. But it is up to him whether I shall be created in those circumstances, and indeed whether I shall exist at all. On both views, God knowingly and willingly creates a world in which rational creatures sin. The difference is that on the traditional view God does have complete control: he can create any possible world, and he is as much involved as creator in those acts in which we sin as he is in any others. And that means the standard free will defense, which works only by diminishing God’s authority and circumscribing his providence, is not available. But another may be. It must be remembered that even though the actions of free creatures do not escape providence, such creatures are still an enhancement to creation, in that their nature reflects more closely what we suppose to be God’s own nature. As such, free creatures are more suited to the kind of fellowship with God that believers understand to be their ultimate destiny. (“Divine Providence“)

Is God the author of sin? No, for he only wills the good of his creatures. Yes, for he is the divine Creator who has brought into being a world in which evil became possible and, apparently, virtually inevitable. We may speculate on why he did so. Here is where free will theodicists come into their own. Mutual love is only possible between persons who are truly free, as C. S. Lewis so eloquently reminds us. The perfections of a world populated by free beings, even with its (hopefully redeemable) horrors and sufferings, outweighs its noncreation. Perhaps we might entertain the proposals of John HickThomas Talbott, and Tom Belt that an epistemic distance from God is necessary for the development of the kind of personhood that he intends for us. McCann even goes so far as to suggest that God purposefully created a world in which free human beings must sin, as only those who have alienated themselves from the divine presence can appreciate the good of communion and thus make an informed decision to live with God. McCann’s suggestion neatly solves the aporia of moral evil, but I imagine that most believers, including myself, would judge it heterodox. The critical point for McCann: God is not guilty of evil in willing the evil acts of his creatures. The sin is ours, not God’s.

As we saw in “God Makes Us Freely Acting,” Kathryn Tanner affirms a non-competitive understanding of divine/human agency, which in turn makes possible a strong assertion of divine sovereignty. Because God is the transcendent origin and source of all that exists, his “creative intention for the world cannot be hindered, diverted or otherwise redirected by creatures,” she avers. “What God wills for the world as its creator must happen just the way God wills” (“Human Freedom, Human Sin, and God the Creator,” p. 114). She makes no exception for the exercise of creaturely freedom: “Given God’s infallible working, human beings must choose when and what God chooses” (p. 127). But what about sin? If God is supremely good and only wills the good, then by definition he does not and cannot will that which contradicts his nature. The presence of moral evil in the world should be impossible, yet clearly it is very possible.

At this point Tanner concedes that we are confronted with an aporia and surd. “The origination of sin,” she writes, “is properly a mystery, properly inexplicable in a scheme of thought where God is the ultimate principle of explanation” (p. 112). Sin should not exist, must not exist. “It is what, by all rights, should not exist in a world that God creates” (p. 133). She is therefore unwilling to attempt an explanation for the apparent ability of creatures to choose other than what God wills.

But Tanner is willing to speculate on how it is possible for God to know, and therefore account for, that which he does not bring into being:

God’s intention for the world, the creative intention that holds up into being the whole of the world, includes sets of pseudo­subjunctive propositions; propositions, that is, about what else will happen in the world should the creature sin, and what will happen within the world should the creature not. These are pseudo­subjunctive propositions in that God knows from all eternity whether or not the creature does sin. Let us say God intends the salvation of all persons, then with infinite detail what God intends includes the saving of x in such a way y if x does not sin and the saving of x in such and such a way z if x does sin, with the knowledge of whether or not and, if so, when, x sins. If the creature sins, that is contrary to God’s will in that God’s will does not extend to the bringing to be of sin. If the creature sins, what happens in the world will be different (subsequent events will be different), but God’s will for the world will not be.

How does God know whether and when sin occurs? The only crucial point to make here (if the premises we have given above are not to be violated) is that this knowledge of the existence of sin is not a condition of God’s forming God’s very complicated intentions with respect to the world. God’s knowledge of sin is dependent upon, and is logically subsequent to, God’s creative intention for the world. It is therefore part of what could be called God’s practical knowledge, or knowledge of what the created world is like in God’s will for it. God does not directly will sin but sin (insofar as it is a defect) presupposes God’s will for the world in which it occurs. (pp. 133-134)

If you’re like me, you’ll probably need to reread the above passage a few times to grasp its gist. Given that God does not will moral evil, how is it possible for God to know the disobediences of his creatures without introducing passivity into the divine nature? McCann does not explicitly address this question, probably because he does not believe that he needs to, given his conviction that God wills equally the well- and ill-chosen acts of human beings: “God knows about our decisions and actions simply by knowing his own intentions, for he wills that they occur (“Divine Providence“). In any case, both Tanner and McCann wish to strongly affirm the freedom and power of the Creator to accomplish his salvific intentions for the world. His sovereign will is infrustrable; his providential plans cannot be defeated. “At most,” states Tanner,

the existence of sin brings about a different way of getting to the ends God wills, without altering God’s intention about what is to happen on that supposition. With or without sin, or whatever the particular sinful choices made, the same end that God wants will happen. The sinner’s intentions are taken up within the intention of God for the world and are inevitably redirected to the end God wills, in virtue of the fact that God’s will is directly efficacious of everything else in the world besides sin and the fact that God can always will with the same necessary efficacy that a sinner’s heart be transformed. The will of God for the world remains infallible, therefore, in a form much like the fate of the classical Greek tragedies—in whichever way one strikes out one will be brought back to the same point. But, now, what is fated, if one believes in the benevolence and mercy of God, is the good. (p. 135)

And that is very good news.

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