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 Hick, Thomas 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.