Creation, Theodicy, and the Problem of Evil

by Robert F. Fortuin

This essay sets forth the claim that the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation informs the nature and meaning of evil. Because God created the universe without prior constraint or necessity, His moral nature and the destiny of creation are inextricably related – creation will be completed in the eschaton, free from the grip of corruption at the last. The absolute freedom of divine creation denotes that evil is — and the completion of creation will reveal it to be — devoid of divine logos and justification.

Theodicy, and the problem of evil generally, appears by all accounts to be a very important subject as it concerns key concepts about the moral character of God. It also addresses very practical, existential concerns about the senselessness of violence, disease, pain, suffering and other such evils which are a universal reality. Is it possible to provide a rational account of such apparent cosmic absurdity and belief in God? It seems to be unavoidable that questions concerning sin, death and evil relate to and frame our understanding of divine goodness. If evil is of divine intent the claim ‘God is good’ cannot denote that God is goodness itself – the good as such by which all other goodness is measured. Yet much of the Christian tradition seems to lead one to believe there must be unknown (possibly malevo­lent) aspects to the ‘goodness’ of God complicit in his permission and use of evil – for how else are we to understand the perduring existence of pain and suffering in this life and extended without end into hell?1 Theodicy concerns itself with the divine will and its relation to human freedom: how do we perceive God’s intentionality in relation to creation? Is God’s power understood as a ‘zero-sum equation’ in which divine sovereignty necessarily constrains and detracts from creaturely freedom? To question a competitive view of liberty another way — does our freedom ‘to do otherwise’ constrain God’s purposes, into infinity holding out against God’s will? Perhaps divine power and human freedom should be understood, as do Sts Isaac of Nineveh and Gregory of Nyssa, along the lines of a compatibilist model in which divine and personal freedom are not mutually opposed whilst yet not implicating God with the machination of evil.2 Regardless how we answer these questions, and leaving aside methodological and epistemological concerns, theodicy as an exploration of the problem of evil, of God’s moral nature, and of the nature of creaturely freedom is a very important subject. For Christians the riddle of evil is a pressing theological pursuit to make sense of a world held in the grip of corruption whilst maintaining faith in a benevolent creator God. In the crucible of life where faith meets reality the meaning we ascribe to evil affirms the claims we make about the moral attributes of God. Theodicy then is far from a trivial and merely theoretical concern important only to the ivory towers of academia.

Although the term ‘theodicy’ is a relatively modern term (it was coined by the German rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz around the year 1710), the problems it concerns certainly are not exclusive to modernity. We moderns are not the first to ponder the meaning and mystery of evil and death – this is an ancient conundrum having befuddled minds throughout the ages. Yet some notable modern theologians (chief among them Karl Barth) have argued that theodicy is neither a necessary, possible, nor legitimate concern. Human suffering, they claim, pales in comparison to the suffering God, the death of Christ making theodicy unnecessary. However, I believe the questions that theodicy seeks to address regarding human suffering caused by evil both legitimate, necessary and possible. That is not to say that problematic ways of using theodicy do not exist – for instance, theodicy to justify and rationalize evil, or to justify disbelief in God. Given these caveats the ‘theodic’ inquiry as to how faith in a benevolent and omnipotent God can be maintained given the fallen condition of the cosmos is a wholly valid and indeed a very necessary project. The timelessness of theodicy seems quite undeniable – the questions of the moral character of God and the existence of evil have occupied every generation since Adam’s account in the Garden of Eden, ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Gen. 3:12). Surely ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, as the adage informs. The problem of evil not only spans across time but also across ideological and philosophical persuasions. That is to say that theodicy is not an exclusively religious problem, or a concern only for theists, for moral and natural evil does not discriminate. Regardless of one’s tradition, one’s creed (or lack of one) – without exception we are all confronted with the stark reality of violence, sickness, calamity, suffering, and death. The shadow world of corruption is so ubiquitous and pervasive that we can find it at work (let’s be honest) even within our persons. Here too we see that no one is exempt: moral corruption and physical death holds both theists and atheists equally to account, it does not discriminate. ‘That we shall die we know; ’tis but the time. And drawing days out, that men stand upon’, as Shakespeare put it eloquently.3

Many years ago, around the year 300 BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus astutely summed up the intractable problem of evil in the form of a riddle:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?4

Even for a convinced philosophical materialist such as Epicurus the problem of evil was an inescapable question. Epicurus likely denied the existence of God based on the undeniable existence of evil – one way to solve the riddle is to eliminate God from the equation. For the theist denial of God is not considered a real solution to the problem (evil qua evil is left unexplained) and so the mystery of evil is especially intractable. We must admit that evil poses a particularly acute problem for those of us who insist on the goodness of God; a God who is infinite love, and Whose will is the only measure of His power. The task for theist then is not merely to make sense of the profound irrationality of evil (a formidable problem in itself); she must also reconcile the reality of evil with the omnipotence and benevolence of God. Why would an omnipotent God allow evil to flourish? What could possibly be the rationale — its logos — (logos in Greek not only means ‘word’, but also ‘reason’ or ‘rationale’ or ‘rational principle’) for God to cause or allow the abuse, torture and death of innocent, helpless infants? The fifth century Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius in his indispen­sable treatise Concerning the Divine Names accentuates the problem for the believer as follows: ‘Granted that the Beautiful and Good is something yearned for, wished for, and loved by all – how is it the multitude of demons has no wish for it? … If there is any Providence at all how can it be that there is evil, that it comes to be, that it is not done away with?’5 Dionysius underlines the problem — if God is good, beautiful, lovely, necessary for our existence and omnipotent — how then can we explain that God is in fact rejected; and to make matters worse, evil is permitted to grow and to fester? It would seem then that God cannot be all-good and all-powerful.

Dionysius brings us closer to what I would like to draw our attention to – the contribution that some of the early Church fathers bring to this question of the moral nature of God as it relates to the problem of evil. I can think of no Church Father whose writings are of greater importance and singular clarity on theodicy than St Gregory of Nyssa. This important fourth century bishop tirelessly worked toward the eventual victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the first council of Constantinople in the late 4th century. In some ways, he represents the theological vision of those who came before him, luminaries such as St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Athanasius, and St Basil the Great; however, in other ways Gregory towers over them in depth and eloquence, advancing theological insights by no small measure. Particularly of interest is Gregory’s splendid work On the Making of Man in which he presents a brilliant eschatological and anthropological vision. What is striking is that on Gregory’s account protology and eschatology comprise a single, unified vision – the beginning is explained, can only be understood, and is justified by the end. The cosmos has been truly created only when ‘the union of all things with the first good’ has been completed, when all at last in Christ, every single soul, is united to God.6 Cosmology then is not an isolated pre-occupation about how the physical universe came to be; rather, for Gregory the genesis of ‘the first things’ receives its true significance and meaning in its relation to the redemptive fulfillment in the completion of Judgment Day in the Eschaton. The God who creates, is the God who redeems, is the God who will be ‘All in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). It is perhaps not surprising then that for St Gregory the Christian doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo, God’s creation of everything out of nothing, holds the key to understanding God’s moral nature: for the logos — its rationale — of bringing everything into existence is its fulfillment in the life of God. It is in its end, from the vantage point of its completion,7 that creation’s original truth and meaning is revealed. For Gregory, God’s creative act is not merely an etiological inquiry, a study of causation and origins, but rather primarily an inquiry into the self-revelation of God as to what God is like – Genesis, Pascha (Easter), and the Last Judgment are a single revelatory act of God in whom God reveals himself to be the God who he really is. For God freely creates and does so ‘out of nothing’; He is creation’s First and Final Cause. This for Gregory holds the key to understanding the nature of evil and, I suggest, informs the antinomy of theodicy. The ancient Christian doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo denotes that God has no part in the violence and necessity of evil; and that evil, lacking its own hypostatic subsistence,8 is neither original nor anterior to creation and therefore will be in the end utterly annihilated. In the spirit of ecumenical dialogue,9 it is important to point out that the works of the early church fathers and the theology of Creatio Ex Nihilo are not exclusive to the Christian East nor exclusive to Eastern Orthodoxy. The early church fathers ‘belong’ to the undivided church and as such their theology is the common inheritance of all Christians. This shared tradition makes their voices even more important to contemporary considera­tions of theodicy, and it is imperative that patristic works be carefully considered as they are appropriated and brought into contemporary conversation. Over the centuries Eastern Orthodoxy in her praxis and theology has been keen to be attentive to the patristic witness and this I believe makes Orthodoxy’s contribution to the ongoing conversation (potentially) particularly rewarding.

Let us take a closer look at Creatio Ex Nihilo and how this pivotal early Christian doctrine (nearly universally accepted) may shed light on theodicy. One of the first things to note is that this doctrine, although not explicitly stated in the Bible, is logically coherent with New Testament revelation of the God who brings to new life that which has been demolished by death. It is the Paschal (Easter) account of the resurrection of Christ, the triumph of life over the non-being of sin and death, which forms the foundation to the theology of divine creation of all things out of nothing. As St Paul states in Romans 4:17 God is the One ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.’ It is ‘the power of God, who raised him from the dead’ (Colossians 2:20), and ‘God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.’ (1 Cor. 6:14). In the resurrection, God brings into existence that which is not, that which has been subject to death’s destruction, by creating life through the summons of his power. This is the Easter triumph and promise: that God as creator of life is free and separated from, and thus not subject to the undoing of death. St John in the opening of his Gospel explicitly connects the creative, life-giving power of the resurrection with the creation of Genesis: ‘All things were made through him [Christ, the Logos], and without him was not anything made that was made.’ (John 1:3). In situating creation in and through Jesus the Logos, (who eternally exists with the Father) St John declares an atemporal theology of creation (this is another way of saying that time itself belongs to the created order, that time had a beginning). This atemporal theology of creation heralded a radical departure from reigning Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. The first explicit use of Creatio Ex Nihilo on record is attributed to Theophilus of Antioch dated around the middle of the second century (around 150 AD, only a few short decades after John’s passing). Theophilus wrote his response to Greek philosophers who taught that the world is eternal and physical matter the source of evil. Theophilus countered that the cosmos had a beginning, the result of the atemporal creative act of God, who created everything freely by his own power and without need for pre-existing matter and without time. Contrary to the materialist philosophers the world came into being by the gratuitous outpouring of God and as such was created good and not naturally evil. Ex nihilo creation became a central feature of the patristic theology of divine transcendence, or what may be called a theology of alterity, of difference — the absolute ontological difference between God and the world. St Gregory of Nyssa formulated what he coined the ‘ultimate division of being’ — the infinite interval of difference between two fundamental modes of being: the Uncreate and the created.

Per this ultimate division, God’s existence is absolutely different from that of creaturely existence. God is the source of his own existence; He does not come into being, he does not progress from potentiality to actuality — for God is ‘always already’ perfect beyond every measure. He is without limit in will or power, without necessity, and without compulsion. God is infinite in His existence, immeasurably complete in knowledge, goodness, love, or any other divine attribute. God’s nature is simple and is without parts or fragments; He is therefore without extension in space and time. God is, in short, without need of anything or anyone: himself the only source and measure of all. For God to be, is to know, is to do – which is to say, that there is no difference between his existence (who God is, his act of being), and his essence or nature (what God is). For God to be is His nature. He is the ‘I Am that I Am’ of Exodus 3:14 and the ‘I AM’ of John 8:58; and ‘he who is’, ‘the being one,’ the ‘Ho ‘n’ (traditionally inscribed on Christ’s halo on many icons of Christ). Whatever God does he does in complete freedom, without necessity, ignorance or external restraints. God does not need the world to complete himself, for it can add nothing to God. In creating the cosmos — God summons non-being into existence ‘out of nothing’ freely and without need for it — an utterly unnecessary and gratuitous gift called forth from the abundant plenitude of God’s own life. Following Creatio Ex Nihilo God’s creative power then is a timeless act of love and disclosure: self-diffusive, self-donative, peaceful, and good. On this account, the creative act of calling forth the universe freely and out of nothing God reveals himself truly.

On the other side of the division of being is creaturely existence (which according to the fathers includes things seen and unseen, the entire created order). Creation is infinitely dissimilar to divinity in that it is not the source of its own life. It is derivative in nature, receiving its being by participation, wholly contingent in its dependency on the creative act of God. It is marked by becoming and imperfection, always in a state of change, moving from potentiality to actuality. It is incomplete, finite, composite, and limited in time and space. Created life is marked by a responsive openness, ever needful for that which it lacks, finding its subsistence and completion only in the God who has called it out of nothing. Creaturely existence is a sort of ‘in between’ or metaxu as the Greek fathers call it — a reality precari­ously held between being and non-being. God is the beginning and end of all things, and he alone is creation’s proper end and fulfillment.

The theology of divine transcendence and ex nihilo creation thus affirm a principle about the moral nature of God: namely that God has no part in the creation and machination of evil, the senselessness of suffering and death. God’s creative act is outside of time, whereas the advent of evil is situated within time, as a departure from its original goodness.10 According to the understanding that the universe came to be without divine constraint or need, evil is without original intent, being or necessity; God requires it not to accomplish his good purposes, for it plays no role in God’s revelation of himself and in his eternal intentions for creation.

What is striking is that for Gregory as for all the Nicene fathers of the Christian east and west the ontological difference between God and creation, God’s transcendence, is not understood in a contrastive or competitive manner. Because God is not part of creation, His presence, and power and agency is not at the expense or in competition with creaturely freedom. God, in other words is not an oppositional reality. Primary causality, God’s putting everything into motion and sustaining every moment, is not in conflict with secondary causality, creaturely intention and freedom. Rather God’s creative will enfolds and makes possible and sustains creaturely agency and freedom. This is quite significant for it indicates that divine transcen­dence grounds and is the condition for true creaturely freedom — God’s power is not one of domination and constraint. This is quite different from modern theologies in which God’s will and power are construed along the lines of predestination, determinism, and eternal damnation; a zero-sum equation in which God’s sovereignty and intention comes at the cost of creaturely freedom. The absurdity of such construals is demonstrated in that God is the ‘efficient cause of the sinful actions that he punishes!’11

But if God’s will is the ground for, sustains, makes possible and enfolds our will and freedom – how are we to understand the existence of evil and death? Does God will evil because He wills and sustains our freedom? On St Gregory’s understanding evil is the privation of good – it is devoid of hypostatic subsistence; a ‘non-being,’ as he calls it, that is parasitic in its dependence on the powers of created will. (This definition is another shared conviction between the Christian East and West – recall St Augustine’s evil as ‘privatio bonum‘ or the absence of good). Evil per Gregory has its ‘being in non-being’ whose ‘ousia [or nature] has its hypostasis not in being, but in not being good’ and ‘not as existing in itself but in the absence of the other.’ Evil does not have a true existence, and is thus not necessary to creation – it is neither original nor anterior to it; which is to say that it exists only as a scandalous rupture of goodness, situated historically in the metaxu, the ‘in between’ of created existence. Sin, on this account, is understood as an assertion of the nothingness from which it arose, and as such a departure from God’s intention for creation. Evil is not necessary, and not a necessary consequence of creation. Although God wills and sustains our freedom, He neither wishes for evil, nor predetermines or is frustrated by it. On this view, death is an anti-Christ, or an ‘anti-logos’ if you will, the enemy who is against Christ the Logos (who himself is the source of Life, the Logos of existence). We can think of death as a type of and resulting from ‘non-logos’ — an absurdity without logos, without rationale, without a rational principle, absent of the good, parasitic and lacking its own being. Evil is purely accidental, wholly unneccessary.12 Is there then a reasonable explanation to evil, some rational way that we can account and provide justification for it? Gregory answers this question with a resounding ‘no’: as the non-logos evil has no rational explanation; it cannot be justified, as it is entirely bereft of meaning and purpose. There is therefore no justifica­tion, no purpose whatsoever and no meaning for the innocent suffering and death of a child, for such malice is utterly without explanation and logos.

But in the irrationality of evil also lies our hope and the good news of the Easter tiding – because God freely created all things the meaning of creation (thus also its fulfillment) and the moral nature of God are inseparable. For St Gregory, this is a matter of theological coherence and consistency: evil is not original to creation for the good God freely created the cosmos from nothing but the divine will, and therefore evil and death and even Hell itself will come to an end. This means then, not only is evil not conditionally enfolded in God’s designs, it also is not the inevitable and necessary cost of creaturely free-will, the price of God’s self-revelation the unending suffering of souls in an eternal Hell. Eternal damnation has no place in the divine consummation of creation: every rational soul will find its proper end in God as her first and final cause. This, I should point out, is a marked contrast to St Augustine’s eschatological vision of two cities in which the most populous city is destined for eternal misery. The two cities are eternally locked having been sealed by God’s foreknowl­edge and predestination. Not so for St Gregory: an eternally persisting dualism — evil allowed to exist forever alongside the Good — has no part in his eschatological vision. Evil is not allowed to persist into eternity in the form of an eternal hell. In Gregory’s words, ‘evil does not extend to infinity, but is comprehended by necessary limits.’13 Perdition and suffering and torment of the damned — this too will come to end. Were evil to persist into infinity, it would denote that God is less than the Good, that the madness of evil somehow has the power to eternally change God. God is infinite love and creation is good, and therefore God loves all creation. For Gregory divine punishment is not retributive but reformatory and restorative in nature, for God aims for the good of all humanity. Hell will come to an end because divine restorative punishment will ultimately be successful; Hell will cease and God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28).

Death itself will be annihilated, Hell and eternal torment will be no more.14 Only when all of creation finds its completion in God will the cosmos have been truly created. Humanity, the image of God, will have been truly created when ‘the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last – some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards … been healed by the Fire.’

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.15

 

References and Further Reading

Burrell, David. Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective. Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA. 2004
_____. Aquinas, God and Action. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR. 2016.
Davies, Brian. Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. Continuum, London. 2006
Hart, David Bentley. “God, Creation, and Evil.” Radical Orthodoxy. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2015.
_____. “Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence,” in The Providence of God. Murphy & Ziegler 2009.
Ladner, Gerhard B. The Philosophical Anthropology of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. 1956
Ludlow, Morwenna. Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2000.
Mosshammer, Alden A. Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa. Vigiliae Christianae. Brill Leiden. 1990.
Nyssa, Gregory of. Contra Eunomium, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. On the Making of Man, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. Contra Eunomium, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
_____. On the Soul and Resurrection, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
Robinette, Brian D. “The Difference Nothing Makes: Creatio Ex Nihilo, Resurrection, and Divine Gratuity.” Theological Studies V. 72. 2011
Sokolowski, Robert. The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology. Catholic University Press, 1995
Tanner, Kathryn. God and Creation in Christian Theology. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 1988.

Endnotes

[1] As I have argued elsewhere, the difficulty with carrying hell into infinity is staggering, theologically, philosophically, metaphysically: the sheer disproportion of temporal offense to infinite punishment; the absurdity of a never-ending good vs. evil dualism in which God remains powerless and frustrated (into infinity no less!) and in which creaturely free-will holds the ultimate power; the equivocal nonsense of punishment as torture forever perpetuated by a ‘good’ God; and the cost of His revelation the punishment of those chosen to unending perdition. For further reading on this subject I suggest David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil.” Radical Orthodoxy. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2015.
[2] On the relation between first and secondary causality I recommend David Burrell’s Aquinas, God and Action. (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, 2016) and David Bentley Hart’s essay “Providence and Causality” in The Providence of God (Murphy & Ziegler 2009).
[3] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Act III, scene 1, line 99
[4] Lactantius attributes this passage to Epicurus in chapter 13 of De Ira Dei.
[5] Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. Tr. C.E.Rolt. SPCK: London, 1979. Chapter IV, Section 18, pp. 109-111. On the subject of the nature of evil the entire Chapter IV of The Divine Names is a must read.
[6] Gregory of Nyssa. On the Making of Man, NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
[7] On the Nyssen’s account the universe in its current state is in a state of incompletion – it has not been fully created as of yet. For more the completion of creation as well as Gregory’s notion of a ‘double’ creation, see chapters 16-24 of On the Making of Man.
[8] ‘No evil exits in its own substance’ and ‘non-subsistent [anupartxos] nature of evil’. See Mosshammer, Non-Being and Evil in Gregory of Nyssa for an excellent exposition of Nyssa’s understanding of evil as non-being. Evil as non-being was a widely-held understanding among pro-Nicene fathers.
[9] This essay is an adaptation of a presentation made at the Ecumenical Patristics Seminar at the University of St Katherine (San Marcos, CA) in April 2017.
[10] Describing the fall of the angels, Dionysius comments that the departure from their original good state is a ‘warping, a declension from their right condition.’ The Divine Names, IV, section 23.
[11] David Bentley Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, p. 50. Hart explicates the nature of divine/human relation of freedom and causality, along compatibilist lines. The chief weakness of analytical theologians espousing an incompatibilist view is the failure to understand divine transcendence; God is reduced to an agent among agents whose will detracts from creaturely freedom. On account of Alvin Plantinga, for instance, evil is necessary for the existence of free moral agents. It is not possible for God to create free human beings without also creating evil; freedom is defined in its opposition to the divine will. The logic of the incompatible model is demonstrated as follows, ‘Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…’ Divine causality detracts from secondary, creaturely causality. Evil for Plantinga thus becomes a divine necessity and implicitly becomes the author of evil. It is self-evident that such a take on the nature of evil, and the moral character of God, is radically at odds with patristics on the subject. Plantinga, Alvin (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 166-167.
[12] Dionysius The Divine Names IV Sec 32 ‘Unto evil we can attribute but an accidental kind of existence. It exists for the of something else, and is not self-originating. And hence our action appears to be right (for it has Good as its object) while yet it is not really right (because we mistake for good that which is not good).’
[13] Nyssa, On the Making of Man, Chapter 21, Sec. 2.
[14] The annihilation that Gregory refers to is the annihilation of hell itself, not the annihilation of people and creatures. That is to say that hell comes to an end because it is completely emptied out: it is marks the absolute end of death, suffering, pain, punishment. This position I hold to be the only one that is consistent with God’s unconditional love and the Paschal triumph wrought by Christ as attested to in the Gospels, the scriptures and the Orthodox tradition.
[15] Closing paragraph of the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom

Copyright © 2017 Robert F. Fortuin. All rights reserved.

* * *

Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. He is currently hacking away at the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for his PhD in Philosophical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

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58 Responses to Creation, Theodicy, and the Problem of Evil

  1. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Thank you, Robert, for this thoughtful, lucid and hopeful essay. I will definitely be visiting it a few more times.

    I have heard from more than a few people (most of them Thomists), something that strikes me as akin to “not all evil is bad.” One particular example that has come up recently is that of predation. It is argued that the system of predation, taken as a whole, is not evil or in any way counter to God, despite the fact that it includes suffering and death. This is allegedly because the suffering and death of one creature is the flourishing of another, so on the whole, there is no problem. Were a lion to not kill then it would not being fulfilling its nature as a lion/predator, and so it is good for a lion to kill even if it is an evil from the perspective of the zebra. This evil is not to be considered a strike against the goodness of the whole natural order, because it is a necessary piece of it. Taken further, since certain microorganisms survive off of the dead flesh of animals, if death itself were eliminated, then these creatures would be denied the ability to thrive and fulfill their natures.

    Something about this account strikes me as insufficient, though I have not yet been able to properly articulate it. I don’t doubt that I’m misapprehending some of the nuances of the position(s), but it seems as though the underlying intuition is that nature, as we presently observe it, is a good system and is as God intends it. This is not my intuition at all, and it would seem from this essay that it is not what Gregory of Nyssa or many other church fathers would have thought. Instead, it appears to me that Gregory viewed any evil (natural, moral or other) as being a corruption of the cosmos, and as such, counter to God’s creative will. There is not one instance of evil that is necessary or that contributes to the goodness of creation.

    Creation is not inherently evil, but is fallen and corrupted at every level. It is beauty wrapped in chains.

    Is this a fair assessment of Gregory’s view of evil or am I taking it too far?

    Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:

      Matthew,

      That line of argument regarding nature is typical of many Thomists. They lack imagination and cannot even think that possibly the lion and the lamb in their eschatological flourishing shall realize their essential reality in peaceful coexistence. Treating the fallen world as the template for God’s intended cosmos is theologically illiterate. It is the perfected, eternal world that we trace analogically, but see in a mirror darkly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        I have been sensing a lot of reluctance on the part of theodicists to do much heavy lifting with the doctrine of the fall. I’m guessing that’s because there’s not much known about the nature of the fall and because it has been abused by a lot of fundamentalists/evangelicals as a quick and easy way to dismiss questions. Nonetheless, I think that it is indispensable to a Christian understanding of the cosmos and deserves a prominent place in the discussion.

        Some, like those that I mentioned in my earlier post seem to think that the natural order is basically intact and runs more or less as it should. The fallenness that exists is mainly of a spiritual/moral variety. I’m kind of shooting from the hip on a lot of this, but I believe that the effects of the fall probably run deeper than we imagine (and consequently the gloriousness of our redemption far exceeds all we could ever hope).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Matthew,

      There is not one instance of evil that is necessary or that contributes to the goodness of creation. Yes, yes and yes!

      St Gregory’s account of a ‘double creation’ (see my reply to Iain down below) is what revolutionized my thinking about this all. And as Brian points out, if we mistake fallen creation to be the way things are meant to be, then we cannot but ascribe to evil, suffering, pain, loss, etc. a ‘place at the table’ of eternal divine intention. Theologically it is monstrous, disastrous. Morally it is unthinkable.

      Thank your interest in this topic and enduring the imperfection of my writing. 🙂

      I recommend reading chapters 16 through 24 on Gregory’s On the Making of Man – I think you will find some answers there that address the concerns you have about what’s lacking in many Thomist’s theology of evil.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Despite Brian’s reply, the Thomistic position has nothing to do with “lack of imagination” or “taking the fallen world as a template for God’s intended cosmos”. To say that something undergoes natural evil is to say nothing other than that at least some of its good is fragile, limited, and passing. Genesis 1:30 says, “And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” Being food introduces natural evil for the green plants, which will then lose parts and perhaps lose their life, either of which is natural evil. Thus the question is really one of fragile goods — why are there any fragile goods? And the Thomistic answer is that the entire universe would be impoverished without them, because they are really good, just as enduring and incorruptible goods are. To say that they shouldn’t exist because they are fragile is a kind of Manichaeanism.

      The Thomistic position was a deliberate distancing from Neoplatonic assumptions precisely in order to avoid the danger of Manichaeanism — the danger arising in particular from the notion that nothing should exist except a purely ideal world, and that the fall was a fall into materiality. This is the most natural, or at least the easiest, conclusion to draw from a wide variety of Neoplatonist ideas, and so Christian Neoplatonists have always had to maneuver a bit to avoid anything Manichaean. Gregory addresses the matter, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus about how to interpret some of the features of his answer, so, not being an expert on him myself, I don’t really know what his full solution is. The Thomistic solution, though, has never, I think, been the dominant solution even in the West; it was a deliberate attempt to step back from the problem and think about it in a different way.

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      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        Do Thomists consider the consumption of a leaf of grass by a sheep to be categorically the same as the consumption of a sheep by a wolf? My gut tells me that they cannot be equal. The former hardly strikes me as an evil, at least in the more colloquial sense, because there really isn’t anything due a leaf in the same way that their are things due to sentient beings. I’m willing to be corrected on this, but it seems to me like anything that is non-conscious is basically just a blob of matter in some form and so changing it into another form is more of a rearranging than an actual destruction or privation. To say that burning a log is a natural evil (because it’s an evil to the log) and to say that the violent death of a mammal at the hands of a predator is a natural evil feels like an equivocation to me.

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        • I don’t know what you mean by ‘categorically the same’. In the only sense of ‘natural evil’ that Thomists would recognize as legitimate, privation of good for a plant would count as natural evil, precisely because it is privation of good, just as privation of good for a lamb would count as natural evil because it is privation of good. For a Thomist there is no other sense in which anything can legitimately be called ‘evil’ at all.

          Your suggestion is an interesting one; it means that you are in fact classifying (in Thomistic terms) the wolf eating the lamb as a moral evil, not a natural evil.

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          • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

            Thanks for bearing with me here, despite my imprecise/improper use of terms. Sometimes it’s difficult to express thoughts when one lacks a formal education about something.

            I guess that what I’m trying to get at is if there are any sub-categories withing ‘natural evil.’ My intuition tells me that not all things that carry the label are of equal weight on the problem of evil. That melting down a tire to make a rubber ball, and that a fawn being torn apart and eaten by a wolf are both considered ‘natural evils’ makes the category appear a bit vague to me (one evil to the ball, the other evil to the fawn). The former strikes me as a total non-issue for theodicy, while the second seems pertinent.

            I’m probably also misunderstanding what Thomists mean by ‘moral evil’ as well. I assume that for something to count as a moral evil it must involve a moral agent capable of understanding the difference between good and evil. I presume that a wolf or a lion do not count as moral agents, so I’m lumping their behavior in with natural evils. But then, there’s seems to be an important difference between the evils involved with predation and those of the evils of changing some inanimate object by an impersonal process.

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          • Since evil is a privation of good, it is measured, so to speak, by the nobility of the good; in that sense it will often be the case that natural evil for animals is greater than natural evil for plants, and both for inanimate objects. But that the kinds of harms animals can suffer are greater than the kinds of harms trees can suffer does not mean that trees cannot be harmed. And if you are allowing the latter kind of harms to be fine and not a problem for theodicy, you have already conceded that something’s being a natural evil is not itself a problem for theodicy — any problem would have to come from something else.

            Modern intellectuals tend not to put much emphasis on natural evils for anything that cannot feel pain, for utilitarian reasons, since utilitarianism holds that pain (in some broad sense of the term) is self-evidently the worst possible evil; but Thomists, of course, are opposed to utilitarianism. And it’s difficult to see what else could be used here to make the kind of separation you need — i.e., in which natural evils for animals are not just worse than natural evils for plants, but in such a way that the former matter for whether the world is very good (Gen. 1:31) and the latter don’t at all.

            Thomists do indeed regard ‘moral evil’ as requiring intellect and will, which is why they wouldn’t classify the wolf eating the lamb as a moral evil. But the way in which you stated your suggestion was that there is something due to sentient beings that is not due to nonsentient ones. What is due has to be due by something to something; and violating what is due is injustice. Assuming that we are not claiming that God owes lambs protection from wolves (divine obligations get into a completely different kettle of fish), then the wolves are violating what is due to the lambs, and thus are unjust — although, of course, it could be a very weak and even excusable way, since there are very weak and even excusable (under the circumstances) forms of injustice even for us. If on the other hand, the talk of what is due is merely figurative, it’s difficult to see what it is supposed to represent.

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      • brian says:

        Brandon,

        There is a broad question as to whether mortality would have been part of the cosmos apart from a Fall. The notion that one must accept death in nature as part of a necessary equation that allows for fragile goods that would not otherwise exist is one possible answer. A passage from John Milbank’s essay, the Poverty of Niebuhrianism may partially clarify what I intend.

        As regards the fall, we cannot possibly substitute Darwin’s narrative for our mythology; only the unwise would search for paradise among the primaeval swamps, whose weirdly monstrous inhabitants betray to faith their non-belonging to the primarily created order. . . . For the Christian, a realistic apprehension of the world does not consist in factual survey and surmise, but in evaluative reading of its signs as clues to ultimate meanings and causes. Thus the world is construed as gift and promise, and we construct the narrative picture of a Creator God. But also the world is construed as in some way already, before any traceable historical action, involved in a refusal or wrong apprehension of this gift; it is a world of death as well as life (only masochism can imagine that death is part of the primordial Creation). So we construct the narrative of the fall. In either case, we know the narrative form is woefully inadequate, but in either case also this form is seen to be indispensable to our doctrine and ontology, and in either case again, to mean what we want to mean, we must uphold its reference to reality — a real Creation, a real loss. Thus the Christian grasp of reality right from the start is utterly at variance with anything the world supposes to be ‘realistic’. This is why it is so absurd deliberately to import the world’s realism into the sphere of Christian ethics as if, when it came to the practical crunch, we could set aside our entire religious vision to one side. In Christian terms, it is the world that will never understand the world aright (p. 244 in The Word Made Strange.)

        I do not deny that in our present circumstances, the exchange of life and death in nature is needed. What I do deny is that God’s Creation is ultimately dependent on such or that the goodness of animal existence is justly exhibited in a fallen world. I don’t think that the goodness of the beasts is comprehended by experience of the fallen world. I believe this manifestly leaves out depths of creation that require redeemed, Resurrected existence to flourish. Thomas left out the entire biological cosmos apart from the rational beings of human kind and the angels from resurrected existence. Similarly, there is a kind of blithe dismissal of concern for animals in the eschaton amongst many Thomists. I do reiterate that they are lacking in eschatological imagination — and since protology and eschatology are linked, there is something fundamentally narrow in their sense of creation, tout court.

        I am not hostile to Thomism: Pieper, Maritain, Gilson, Clarke, Burrell, among others have decisively shaped my metaphysics. Nonetheless, I strongly side with David Bentley Hart against Edward Feser’s flippant dismissal of including unique creatures in the eternal restoration. Part of Feser’s callous aplomb is that he is convinced that the fragile goods of the animal world are already justly realized. The brutal destruction of a baby bird, for instance, requires no eternal redress. There is no injustice in animal suffering. In my opinion, it is not a case of falling into Manichaean proclivities to disagree. It has to do, as Robert’s essay indicates, to how one should imagine creation and what justly indicates the beauty and goodness of God. Of course, this will also manifest differences of opinion regarding apocatastasis and traditional views on hell, etc.

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        • What I do deny is that God’s Creation is ultimately dependent on such or that the goodness of animal existence is justly exhibited in a fallen world.

          Neither of these follow from the Thomistic position and thus are not relevant. How things are ‘exhibited’ is irrelevant, and God’s creation is ultimately dependent on God’s intentions, which we cannot perfectly know, and nothing else. Thomists even hold that we have good reason to hold that God intends a world completely without suffering; your assumption that they make the fallen world a template for what God intends is completely and entirely false.

          In my opinion, it is not a case of falling into Manichaean proclivities to disagree.

          Of course not; but it is, in fact, to avoid the tendency of Neoplatonists of various stripes to fall into the conclusion that the material and changeable is itself evil, and to do so without the complicated metaphysical assumptions the Christian Neoplatonists had to posit in order to oppose that tendency, that the Thomist position arises.

          From the Thomist perspective, an infant that lives but an hour is still so precious that all of creation is justified to make its life possible, that a violet that fades by morning is not one whit less beautiful for all that, that a fragile good that exists just once and is never more is nonetheless itself a good that makes the universe better than it would be without it. And, as noted, Genesis itself explicitly talks about plants being eaten, which is already what we call natural evil, and that this is very good. Thus you either have to hold that (1) it is being figurative in some way; or (2) it is talking about a kind of feeding completely different from any that we know; or (3) it is wrong; or (4) something broadly like the Thomistic position is correct for plants, whatever you feel about it. (1) or (2) are entirely acceptable, and there are lots of good Neoplatonic reasons for taking either route (especially the first), but they are not the only options on the table.

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          • brian says:

            John Walton represents a scholarship that reads Genesis as encoding a liturgical time that develops towards, rather than represents a finished “it is good.” If one advocates for a view of Creation that is not separate from redemption and eschatological flourishing, then prior states exhibit a less than perfected good. Naturally, this does not dismiss the partial good or even the fundamental ontological good of being at all. Nothing I have written is intended to deny the goodness of transient being. I am not questioning the goodness of being. I am questioning whether a loving Creator would destine any created good for oblivion. It seems to me that many Thomists think God is not bound by His own goodness to preserve and cherish what he has called from nothing out of love. They therefore accept “natural evil” as in no way troubled by “injustice.” Further, though I suspect you will find this objection frivolous and lacking in analogical distance or metaphysical probity and really, it’s too bad, but I simply do not believe that God cares less for his creatures than human beings who are capable of great love for animals and plants and even the dust of the earth if one achieves the deepest levels of compassion. I have tried twice now to indicate how equanimity before natural evil that equally precludes including every creature in the cosmic regeneration accomplished by Christ appears to me at odds with the deepest eschatological meaning of the gospel.

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          • I don’t know what you mean by ‘finished’, so I don’t understand how most of this is supposed to be relevant.

            However, one of the most important Thomistic positions is that we cannot go around attributing things to God as if we knew what God is in Himself; the only things we know about God are what He is not and what He chooses to reveal to us. Thus for the Thomist, unless you have reasonable evidence that God Himself explicitly reveals, this question can only be a question about the nature of the goodness of creatures, not about what God chooses to do.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Brandon,

            I don’t suppose you mean to suggest (I don’t hope you are anyways) that the apophatic should be used to construct absolute equivocation so the divine light may as well be darkness? It seems as if you deny a link between the nature of goodness of creatures and the nature of divine goodness (or intention, as you will no doubt agree there’s no difference between what God is and does).

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          • It seems as if you deny a link between the nature of goodness of creatures and the nature of divine goodness (or intention, as you will no doubt agree there’s no difference between what God is and does)

            I have no idea what you mean by saying that there’s no difference between what God is and does, in this particular context. Certainly God is simple; but this is different from saying that, for instance, ‘creating butterflies’ is what God is, or that butterfly-creating is the nature of God. We know that God creates butterflies, but what God is exceeds anything that butterflies-being-created-by-Him could conceivably convey about Him.

            Since we are talking about the Thomistic view here, the error the Thomist would see in the above is talking about the ‘nature of divine goodness’ in a sense parallel to the ‘nature of goodness of creatures’. The parallel would inaccurately characterize the analogical character of the terms, in which the goodness of God is prior to and more fundamental than any creaturely goodness. We know what God’s goodness is not and what God reveals to us of His goodness in one way or another; we can know that God is good in a more perfect way than we find in creatures; but we are utterly incapable of fathoming the nature of the divine goodness itself. Creaturely goodness, being entirely an effect of divine goodness, reveals the existence of divine goodness; it reveals the fact that divine goodness is not limited the ways creaturely goodness may be; and it reveals the fact that divine goodness is far beyond any goodness we can conceive. Thus the goodness of creatures is a natural revelation of divine goodness to that extent. But no further. Thomists, at least if they are strict Thomists rather than vaguely Thomistic, take this very seriously: if you attribute something to God it must either be:

            (1) denial of something that belongs to creatures qua creatures;
            (2) what is necessary in God as cause when considering creatures as effects (naturally revealed);
            (3) something confirmed by the testimony of God Himself, as in Scriptural names of God (prophetically revealed, we might call it), in that sense that the Church teaches they are to be understood and no other;
            (4) or, in a kind of mixture remotion and revelation, affirmation that God is not exhausted by, and is infinitely greater than, any of the above.

            In the case of talking about what God does, must, or should choose, (1) and (4) are not in play, so the Thomistic position is that it is utterly unacceptable to say that God does, must, or should choose anything unless we know (a) that He has in fact chosen to do it because that is what He did (e.g., God chose to create butterflies, because we know that’s what He actually created) or (b) that He has told us that He did so (e.g., God chose to select Israel out as His own, because He specifically revealed that He did so). Anything else, in Thomistic terms, is presumptuous. And this is actually the reason for a lot of theological moves Aquinas makes.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            ‘I have no idea what you mean by saying that there’s no difference between what God is and does, in this particular context.’

            Perhaps due to lack of imagination? (sorry I coudn’t resist).

            That God has created butterflies tells us something about God’s nature, and also something about what God’s nature is not.

            My turn to claim ignorance. I have no idea what you mean by your claim that ‘we are utterly incapable of fathoming the nature of the divine goodness itself’ after the affirmation that we do know ‘what God’s goodness is not and what God reveals to us of His goodness in one way or another.’ ‘Utterly incapable’ is what escapes me here. You can’t have it both ways.

            But how this all relates to the main topic, I don’t know, or have forgotten.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Brandon/Matthew,

        Again, here too Gregory’s notion of double creation is of great importance. One can surmise that the food of Genesis 1:30 on this account is not God’s original intention, but rather a feature of the secondary creation out of necessity of the lapse in the Garden. I suspect that insofar ‘natural evil’ is understood to be a divinely intended, original feature of creation it warrants Brian’s criticism as lacking imagination. I don’t see why Genesis 1:30 has to be understood to point to things as their ‘natural’ state.

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        • No one said it had to be understood that way; the question at hand is whether it can be understood that way, and what has to be done in order not to read it that way. One can certainly surmise as you suggest, as I previously explicitly said to Brian. It involves treating God’s speech in 1:29-1:30 as figurative (describing something in terms of things that only arise later in the narrative), and as long as one has a better reason for doing this than getting Scripture to say what one wants — and a Neoplatonist can have such an independent reason, as I previously said — then it’s perfectly legitimate. It is also quite clearly not required by the passage itself; thus, as an interpretation, it is only as good as the actual reason for reading it this way, and there may well be other ways of reading it that have their own advantages and defensible reasons.

          And none of this, again, has anything whatsoever to do with imagination or lack thereof. You do not hold the view you do because God has blessed you personally with a greater abundance of imagination than other people whose views you reject, even if it is true that you are that imaginative; you hold the view because in learning about the subject from Scripture and the Church Fathers you found specific reasons for it.

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          • brian says:

            It never occurred to me that anyone would think I was literally claiming that Thomists lack imagination. Obviously, I intended a specifically theological claim based, as Brandon notes, upon a particular reading of Scripture and theological tradition.

            I don’t think anyone is claiming that one can conceptually comprehend God or that God does not infinitely transcend what we can know of him through his creatures. I cited Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis; he is clear on God’s “ever greater” dissimilarity from creatures. The question is whether that dissimilarity implies a radical difference between what we know of the Good and Goodness itself such that one is threatened with “theological nihilism.” Certain forms of mystical apophaticism appear to approach a voluntarist level of dissociation between the God revealed in creation and biblical revelation and the “ultimately unknowable God.” God is more than a butterfly-creating power, but now that there are butterflies, I know something about God I would not have known otherwise. My understanding of love is imperfect, but by analogy my experience of love tells me something true about the perfection of love. God is more than that, but not less and certainly not radically other to the point where my use of terms like Good and Evil fall into radical equivocity.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Right Brian.

            Brandon how would you fend off “theological nihilism”?

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  2. David S says:

    Interesting, if true.

    But if it is somehow acceptable for God to create a world filled with evil – despite being capable of eliminating and evil also being totally unnecessary – then why assume it should be any different in the eschaton? i.e. if you’re willing to assume evil in this world is compatible with God’s goodness and omnipotence, why assume it should be any different at the eschaton? (or if you’re not happy with the language of ‘compatible’, and prefer to say evil is a mystery and is just there despite God’s goodness and power, why assume this won’t remain at the eschaton)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I think it’s important here to remember that whatever filled the world with evil is not God. God created, then something alienated creation from God, but neither that something nor its effects have the power to ultimately thwart God’s purposes. That’s a general (and extremely vague) outline of what I believe is going on. The question of what exactly that ‘something’ is and how/why God allows it to wreak so much havoc on creation I do not know. I gather that the mystery here is that evil is not ‘compatible’ with God in the sense of His willing or creating it, and yet it ‘exists’. That it cannot exist in the eschaton seems to be a consequence of what the eschaton is, namely the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation, which do not include evil.

      I doubt that any of our philosophizing or theologizing will ever fully satisfy us. So long as evil ‘exists’, the problem is at least as much one of confronting it in our lives as it is of explaining why God permits it. Our theophilosophy provides us with hope and allows us to still worship in the face of evil.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Dear David,

      In addition to Matthew’s response I would add that Creatio Ex Nihilo addresses your concern. It is a matter of principle which I take to be the very evangel of the Gospel itself, and which is either accepted or not – that there is no darkness in God. ‘This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.’ I John 1:15.

      God created everything from himself, needing no thing, even without the need for a moment in time.

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  3. brian says:

    Nicely done, Robert. I like this sentence in particular. “For Gregory, God’s creative act is not merely an etiological inquiry, a study of causation and origins, but rather primarily an inquiry into the self-revelation of God as to what God is like – Genesis, Pascha (Easter), and the Last Judgment are a single revelatory act of God in whom God reveals himself to be the God who he really is.” Too many moderns — and Christian fundamentalists are conflicted anti-modern moderns — only think efficient and material causality, only understand creation as following out the temporal chain of cause-and-effect that determines nature as an elaborate machine. The message bearing aspect of creation, being’s analogical depth and communicative intent has been lost to modern mathesis that can only understand qualia as subjective sensations with no revelatory power.

    Speaking existentially and not philosophically — as usual, I tend to agree with you on substantial matters — my difficulty is frankly that God permits so much evil. Unnecessary, repudiated by God, healed by Cross and Resurrection — as a pilgrim in time, I still experience the anguish of evil, its abhorrent tenacity, the cruelty and malice of the anti-logos. The suffering of innocence and the complacent, though short-lived triumph of the wicked is not made less appalling by it’s its illicit metaphysical status.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Dear Brian,

      This is not intended to be a justification nor even an explanation, just a thought really – but it seems to me that divine permission is also the occasion for divine suffering. For God suffers inexplicably in the irrational suffering of creation, the absurd tragedy of it all the occasion for his arousal to complete the first creation, in the end to finally create the beginning. This is his promise is our hope. Every tear an occasion, and perhaps a reminder, to yearn for our destiny.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    This essay seems to more clarify the question than answer the problem of evil. It narrows the source of evil to something going wrong back in the mists of time which continues to play out its consequences today, until God ultimately eliminates it and restores creation to its perfection in the last days. What it doesn’t really address (perhaps because it is unknowable?) is what went wrong and when, why God permitted it and why God finds it necessary to take such an interminably long time to sort it out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Iain,

      That is a fair point, that the problem of evil is not solved. Indeed it seems to me that evil understood as utterly devoid of logos or rational principle is fundamentally without explanation. However I do not think it is a mystery which must not be explored – it is critically important as it relates to and affects how we understand God, ourselves, salvation, etc.

      As to what went wrong, from my reading of Gregory of Nyssa he seems to understand it to point to the transgressive misuse of creaturely freedom stemming from immaturity or imperfection. This fits into his theology of a ‘double creation’ – the actual creation in which we now live was allowed by divine foresight of the fall; it is in contrast to the original, ideal creation as God eternally intended it. In the eschaton the original creation will be finally be fulfilled, a completion which constitutes both a turn from the fall and a return to the original. Following Gregory the notion of a recapitulation, a recovery of what was lost even though it was never actually attained, makes good sense. The metaxu of the fallen creation is then a sort of diversion – the foreseen imperfection made this necessary – and the evil that was spawned has no place in the first and final creation.

      As to why God would make a creation that is immature and imperfect – this seems to me related to the question of time, of progression, of change. Why can’t things just ‘be’?

      At any rate, I think Gregory’s account of the meaning and purpose of evil the most consistent with scripture. In my opinion, the moment we ascribe an eternally persisting function to evil, i.e. evil is no longer confined to the metaxu but endures into the eschaton, the Paschal triumph and the Good News of unwarranted mercy has been subverted into a tale of good works.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Is there a question then that God creates perfected creation progressively from its immature beginnings in the way he does as a sort of anticipatory fix (or to leave space for a fix) of the subsequent fall?
        The alternative (or additional explanation) would be a need to grow creation from immaturity to maturity in the manner of a child so that it can become a mature and thinking adult, and there have been a whole ongoing series of “falls” and stumbles in the process, culminating in the really big Adamic one, because of the need for a child to mature by learning, and thus to leave space for it to make mistakes if it is going to.
        In the latter case Gregory’s contra-factual creation would include what the history of creation would have been if no stumble or error had ever occurred. It would also presumably mean we will end up where we would have been if everything had gone completely smoothly, only having done it the hard way?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Iain,

          There seems to me plenty of scriptural support for a ‘progressive maturation’ – language by St Paul about the groaning of all of creation as it awaits its fulfillment, such as Romans 8 ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.’ So some sort of progression and maturation process, however construed as I suppose there are various ways to do so, seems to me not a stretch then. At any rate, I find the idea of a process towards maturation – requiring the radical Paschal triumph over evil in divine creative completion in the Eschaton as it is not something creation can accomplish on its own – intuitively more sensible than other protologies/cosmologies which invariably (be it implicitly or explicitly) attribute evil a divine ‘imprimatur’, assigning a divine rational logos to evil to monstrous results.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Tom says:

    As always, Robert, a joy to read. Thanks for the time and effort.

    I agree with you that there’s a legitimate form of sincere inquiry in which faith can (probably ‘ought’ to) take up the problem of evil. Your essay is that kind of inquiry.

    I love the connection between protology and eschatology. I first began pondering that seriously upon reading DBH’s Notre Dame piece. I think that connection is a huge piece missing from most treatment of the problem of evil; and even where it does come up, it seems the eschatology assumed is already crippled.

    Reading through your post here, I thought of how often the question of evil ends up taking the shape of an inquiry similar to the sort of questioning that got Eve in trouble; i.e., it looks like Eve’s mode of deliberation is a kind of theodicy in that she doubts the goodness of God in light of what the Serpent convinces her is evidence that God can’t be trusted (viz., “God’s holding out on you”) and so she falls into (or perhaps “via”) theodicy. Much theodicy seems to be a version of this sort of thing, which is what we need rescuing from I suppose. (I don’t think your post is this sort of misguided theodicy.)

    I ended up having two questions:

    1) It does come round to how one understands ‘divine transcendence’ relative to the absolute dissimilarity between God can creation. One might argue that an “infinite” distance makes any sustainable correspondence between morality and God’s “goodness” (which correspondence your view, following DHB’s, requires) impossible. One might then take this as license to attribute to God acts which are immoral ‘on any human measure’. In other words, how would you argue against someone who proposes that an absolute/infinite difference between us and God makes applying to God our notions of goodness and evil a violation of transcendence? I’ve had this suggested to me; i.e., “Tom, God transcends us absolutely, he’s not bound to our concepts of good and evil, so your moral objections to X, Y, or Z fail.” How do we prevent someone from employing transcendence as infinite different as grounds for that infinite difference manifesting itself in our moral comparisons?

    2) Secondly, I don’t want to suggest any lack of Christological priority in your beliefs (I know you too well), but I was slightly surprised by the lack of discussion of the Cross. You mention the Resurrection briefly, but I’m especially interested in how the Cross particularly figures into a proper understanding of and answer to the problem of evil. I realize one can’t say everything in a short post, but how the Cross figures into theodicy would be something I’d explore.

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      Clarification!

      By “How do we prevent someone from employing transcendence as infinite different as grounds for that infinite difference manifesting itself in our moral comparisons?” I meant, “…as grounds for arguing for an equivalent dissimilarity between God and our moral terms?” Maybe that helps.

      Tom

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      • Tom says:

        Ugh. It wouldn’t be the same without typos.

        1) “…missing from most treatment” = “treatments”
        2) “…How do we prevent someone from employing transcendence as infinite different…” = “difference.”

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    • brian says:

      Tom,

      I think we have been over this before, but it seems to me that the kind of radical incompatibility between divine and human goodness that you oppose most naturally follows upon a voluntarist, univocal model of will and being. It is precisely the non-competitive nature of relation made possible by God’s transcendence that renders Goodness both intelligible and open to creaturely participation. Goodness is first ontological. Our conceptual grasp is always inadequate, but because it is rooted ultimately in God’s agapeic gift of beings itself — we have no other ground, coming from nothing — we can be certain that our limited perception of the Good is not abrogated by divine plenitude. Hart follows Przywara’s conceptual understanding of analogia entis. Many understandings of analogy lack the rhythmic dexterity of Przywara’s particular stance. The latter facilitates a complex, more intuitive touching upon a living dynamism that can positively affirm our conceptual grasp whilst always asking us to move beyond its limitations.

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      • Tom says:

        Hi Brian,

        Thanks. Always appreciate your insights, but I don’t think my point is about what you’re calling a voluntarist notion of will, but maybe I think I’m about something else here, particularly how one employs the language of transcendence (as you’re suggesting it) especially within a determinist model for example, but maybe I’m wording things poorly.

        Imagine the following argument employing your “non-competitive” language: Because there is ‘no competition between divine transcendence and human agency’, there can be no competition between God’s doing what WE consider to be evil (say, determining our evil actions, or willing an irrevocable hell for some). If we complain about the morality of attributing such actions to God (as Robert and DBH and the rest of us do), that’s because we’re not fully appreciating the non-competitive nature of divine and human agency.

        This argument assumes a logic of transcendence that takes as a corollary to “God’s will and our will can’t be in competition” the additional truth that “God’s actions cannot complete with our moral intuitions and categories.” Why? Because God transcendence those categories.

        That’s the sort of application of transcendence I’m trying to bring Robert’s argument to bear upon, and “non-competitive” language can be (and is by some) construed as a response to moral arguments against God’s doing or determining actions which our sense of morality universally regards as evil. But the argument (DBH’s, Robert’s, mine, and yours I think) for the morally nonsensical character of imagining divine action along lines so morally incongruous to us entails a certain “competition” between God’s doing some act we regard as evil, on the one hand, and our moral intuitions/categories that inform that regard, on the other. If there’s “no possible competition” between divine and human agency, one can argue, then the moral objections to attributing to God any act we regard as evil can never get off the ground.

        Does that help clarify my interest/issue?

        Tom

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          (my response ended up in the wrong place down below, so here it is where it belongs)

          Tom,

          We don’t take God to participate in goodness, for he is goodness itself; which is to say that God does not transcend creaturely goodness in the sense that this may mean his goodness is evil. Either way, your ‘devil’s advocate’ arguments rest on pure equivocation, which is denied by grounding meaning in the divine ipsum esse subsistens, and our ability to know by way of analogous predication.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Tom,

      Good questions and thank you for giving this your thought and attention.

      As to the first question: using transcendence to denote a complete dissimilarity so as to render theology impossible. To this I would respond by pointing out that on that account analogy -theological analogous predication – has been abandoned. We are left with but one possibility: radical equivocation of terms. What our God-talk may denote it would be anyone’s guess, it is on anyone’s account vacuous. Revelation, and our reflection on revelation, is rendered meaningless. But this goes counter to the biblical notion of the divine image reflected by and within creation ‘The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.’ To affirm an absolute equivocation is to deny that the image, however dim and obscure it may be, bears any resemblance whatsoever to its prototype. (it is likely no coincidence that absolute equivocation accommodates total depravity and sinful nature anthropologies, for the image has been effectively obliterated by sin).
      More directly – the employment of transcendence as infinitely different points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of divine transcendence and immanence. One is thinking of God as an agent among agents who does not transcend the transcendence/immanence binary, according to which divine difference invalidates similarity and vice versa. Transcendence then is construed as equivocation and theology rendered an impossibility.

      As to question 2 – I can see how it may appear that the cross is marginalized. Pascha is not a possibility without the crucifixion of course, and the cross then does figure in theodicy. But two points. Firstly, I utilize Pascha broadly to point to Christ’s incarnation in its totality, from the Annunciation to Ascension. Which is to say that Christ’s suffering and pain – his ‘submission’ to evil – should not be confined narrowly to the crucifixion alone. Any consideration of the problem of evil should account for the suffering of the cross in the larger context of the incarnation. The entire enfleshment from the beginning was a divine passion and scandal. Secondly, to flip things around – I don’t see the cross apart from the Paschal triumph, by this I mean that the cross is not the final word on evil – and this is the point I wish to make in my essay. The final word is that death is dead. This is so because of the Easter triumph, the resurrection of the First of many.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Thanks Robert. I posted to Brian before reading this. Appreciate the response!

        Like

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Tom,

          We don’t take God to participate in goodness, for he is goodness itself; which is to say that God does not transcend creaturely goodness in the sense that this may mean his goodness is evil. Either way, your ‘devil’s advocate’ arguments rest on pure equivocation, which is denied by grounding meaning in the divine ipsum esse subsistens, and our ability to know by way of analogous predication.

          Like

  6. Ed says:

    “In other words, how would you argue against someone who proposes that an absolute/infinite difference between us and God makes applying to God our notions of goodness and evil a violation of transcendence? ”

    In the words of David Hart: “The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like ‘good,’ ‘just,’ ‘love’ to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.”

    To see this clearly, one should substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “goodness and evil” in your question. After all, if we cannot apply our notion of good to God, then, to be consistent, we also cannot apply our notion of truth to Him. If that were the case, would not revelation itself be meaningless?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Indeed, pure equivocation guts revelation and the Gospel of meaning and significance.
      DBH drives at this point – to speak of God as ‘good’ may as well mean that he is evil. Why argue about petty details?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Tom says:

    Robert and Brian,

    I think I’ve been reading the refrain “divine and human volition are ‘non-competitive” within a strictly binary menu of options (but I’ll hold you two partly responsible for hammer away on this refrain to mercilessly!). If we back up and say transcendence isn’t captured or exhausted within the truth of the two options in the disjunct “competitive OR non-competitive,” and that analogy means recognizing certain “senses” in which BOTH legitimately capture a perspective on the truth without exhausting the whole truth – then count me in.

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      *hammering* away *so* mercilessly. 😀

      Like

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Tom,

      I am not sure I can agree with that, as I can’t ascribe legitimacy to divine/human agency conceived to be as competitive (alongside being non-competitive): this appears what is happening, if I understand you correctly. The poles are divine and human agency, not competitive and non-competitive agency; the meaning of the claim that God transcends opposition of the first set of poles includes the affirmation of either agency. To claim that God transcends the opposition of the second set of poles is to also to affirm that God’s agency and human agency are in competition.

      Perhaps the weakness of your argument is exposed by applying it strictly to divinity: a competitive view of divine transcendence and divine immanence is not a legitimate ‘perspective on the truth’ for it is precisely competition which invalidates the meaning of both. In affirming one by means of competition the other is diminished.

      Like

      • Tom says:

        I’m not so sure we disagree, Robert. Perhaps.

        I was trying to express what I take to be a point which Denys Turner makes regarding both cataphatic and apophatic speech, namely, that (a) apophatic denial is not the affirmation of the contradictory of some proposition. If we affirm “God is love,” the apophatic denial of this is not equivalent to affirming its contradictory, “It is not the case that God is love.” As Pseudo-Denys says (Divine Names): “We should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations….” The opposite of affirmations are the ‘contradictories’ of those affirmations.

        What are apophatic denials? As you say, they’re a kind of denial of the dialectic whose limits are defined by the two propositions “God is __” and “God is not ___” and so apophatic denials represent as strategy for saying that the truth about God isn’t exhausted by this dialectic. God never becomes our cognitive (via language) property. But (I’m still with Denys Turner) there’s still the place for (b) cataphatic affirmations. What is its place? Well, cataphatic speech is the qualified sense in which we do speak of God within the only means we have to speak of God (our terms operating under laws like the law of identity, non-contradiction, etc.). So cataphatically we affirm “God is love” and cataphatically we deny “God is not love.” Transcendence does not open up a way for us, within the embrace of cataphaticism’s proper logic, to deny what we affirm (that “God is love”) or affirm what we deny (that “God is not love”). There are proper limits to what is affirmed and denied cataphatically, and divine transcendence is not a denial of this division of labor between the affirming and denying functions of cataphatic speech. Transcendence, as I understand Turner, is recognized via apophatic speech as the failure of all that we must affirm and deny cataphatically to exhaust the truth about God. God is not reduced to the dialectic of cataphatic affirmations and denials, and yes, that’s because divine being isn’t an instance of created being governed by the terms of cataphatic speech. There is an apophatic place (of silence) to stand outside this dialectic and carefully deny the whole enterprise with respect to its claims to have colonized God and where one can experience one’s self as transcended (lovingly, ecstatically, ineffably) by God.

        I’m not disagreeing with you regarding the mistake that, say, Calvinists make regarding transcendence – i.e., they understand transcendence as licensing a free ‘equivocation’ between the terms of cataphatic speech (so we can attribute to God what *simply* contradicts “God is love”). But transcendence is not *simple* (cataphatic) denial of some affirmation. It’s a way to recognize the failure of all cataphatic speech (speech we MUST carefully engage in and maintain) to reduce God to its terms. But “not reducing God to out terms” is not the same as saying what we place with those terms.

        A bit more of Denys Turner here: https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/unspeakably-transcended-part-2/

        Hope that helps! I apologize if this is sidetracking your main point – the problem of evil. I think it applies. Thanks for your help!

        Tom

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes I agree with what you have noted – not sure how this is an objection or clarification to Brian’s or my position (as it seems you raised it as a point of contention).

          As far as apophaticism and limits to knowledge and language, I tend favor the model of ‘excess’ or better yet that of ‘superabundance.’ Excess points to the beyond without denying, marginalizing, or dividing from that which it surpasses. Much like the excess 10 lbs which does not detract (alas) from my 180 lbs physique.

          Like

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            As a follow up to the last paragraph.

            Due to the analogy of being, I don’t see a neat and clear separation between that which we can know and that which we cannot. Similarly I don’t see a tidy distinction between the divine essence and energies. My philosophy of language is more ‘organic’ as I believe a philosophy of knowledge and language must understand analogy as embracing both similarity (from which stems the possibility of our logoi tou theou) and the infinite interval of dissimilarity (to safeguard against idolatry). But this ‘both’ is an interplay, not cast into a delineation according to a predefined schema. We cannot point to the end of the divine energies as a beginning of the divine essence; neither can we point to the end of the cataphatic as the beginning of the apophatic. We can affirm and know both.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Daniel Andreassen says:

    Thought/question: Would this essay help Ivan Karamazov?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Daniel,

      Yes, I do think it would help him in so far as the death of an innocent child is not divinely sanctioned, justified for the greater good, or any such type of hideous exchange. Does it do away with the tragedy, the suffering, the senseless of it all? No of course not, and it won’t ‘help’ in that way. But the insanity is not part of how things are to be and God himself has and will put an end to it. Suffering will not endure into infinity, Hades has been gutted.

      Like

      • brian says:

        Some readers think that Ivan is a standard atheist following the Enlightenment rationalism that is enacted in various ways by Peter Miusov, the paterfamalias, and Smerdyakov. (It’s one of Dostoevsky’s jokes that Miusov and papa Karamazov draw from the same intellectual assumptions.) Ivan, on the other hand, walks with a limp. He wrestles (like Jacob?) or perhaps he is meant to be unbalanced like Descartes’ rationalist dream self.) There is, perhaps, still something jejune in Ivan’s protests. He is still young. Alyosha’s youthful naivete and impulsive romanticism may cause one to forget that Ivan is also young. My guess is that Ivan’s objections are indeed caught up in a form of theodicy that Robert’s essay subverts, but his objection is more than rationalist. It is the eschatological forgiveness that leads victim and tormentor to embrace that he cannot stomach. (And really, who cannot understand his anger?) There is something in the mystery of the person and the ontological significance of relation that his modernist individualism stumbles at. Ivan cannot accept Zosima’s puzzling proclamation that “each is responsible for all.” He will have to suffer and mature in order to understand love’s kenotic presence and ultimate triumph.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. David S says:

    Is it really correct to characterise DBH’s view as compatibilist? The specific article you reference seems to me to give DBH’s strongest espousal of the autonomy of human will that I’ve seen, railing against attempts to reduce human decisions as an aspect of the divine volition.

    In fact the article doesn’t simply see ‘horizontal’ determinism – past causes within the contingent order determining our will – as incompatible with creaturely autonomy. It also seems to rule out ‘vertical’ determinism – God’s transcendently deciding, outside the contingent causal network, what our actions will be. For example, it characterises the Banezian position on free will as stating that ‘so long as it is contingent as regards its antecedent secondary causes, it is by definition free’, before going on to emphatically reject this notion.

    Moreover, it rules out not only attempts to have God determining human’s will directly – as in the Calvinist conception of God positively decreeing every good and evil act in meticulous detail, of building human being’s in such and such a way with such and such a personality that they inevitably acts as God wishes them to. He also rules out God achieving this indirectly – i.e. by neglecting to give certain human sufficient quantities of grace such that they naturally fall into evil, as in the thought of Báñez. Basically, he seems to be against God ‘picking the result’ full stop, however this is accomplished.

    To be honest, despite not using the analytic language of libertarian freedom, I wonder whether DBH in fact effectively endorses it. I know he wants to stress that choice does not occur in a vacuum, that it does not go uninfluenced by the myriad of other causes, that our decisions are not utterly arbitrary voluntarist decisions, uninformed by our ultimate nature. Therefore DBH argues that the natural will – our inborn desire for God – is always active and ultimately informs and is a cause in every decision. But at the same time he still seems to suggest that the gnomic will not only can be deluded, but can *decide* to be deluded – indeed I believe that elsewhere in this very blog he writes that ‘rational nature can interrupt itself’ – and so choose to direct our natural desire for God towards an activity that is not very God-like, i.e. sin. But if the gnomic will can do this – and the gnomic will is neither determined horizontally by creaturely causes, nor determined vertically by God – then surely this is straightforward incompatibilist, indeterminist, libertarian willing?

    Or maybe that’s a mischaracterisation. Perhaps DBH would argue the gnomic will does not enable the human being to have this kind of undetermined autonomy either. Perhaps this is because the gnomic will is, in its (unchosen?) ignorance, just a slave to desire and other factors, themselves ultimately determined. On this view, the gnomic will only wills the wrong things because of its ignorance of the true good that is God. And if we are just irresistibly pulled into ignorance by original sin (or any other mechanism), and this ignorance means the gnomic will must fall into sin, then this must mean we do not have the power of autonomous choice – at least not in the libertarian sense.

    So I suppose the real question is: what is the cause of this ignorance that drives the gnomic will into error and sin? If it is God that causes our ignorance – even ‘indirectly’ by refraining from making the world as good as it could be, by neglecting to adequately illuminate our minds – then surely God is still effectively deciding the result and therefore is still the cause of sin, in much the same way as the God of Báñez which DBH powerfully rejects as evil. But if the gnomic will itself can decide, in a way undetermined by God or finite causes, then surely that is just straightforward libertarian free will? And if it is neither, and the uncreated abyss of evil, the irrational anti-logos, inevitably pulls us into original sin and ignorance… well, this may well get God off the hook. But is our will being determined by an uncreated evil principle really render us any more autonomous than being determined by God?

    Apologies if I’ve focused rather too much on the thought of DBH than was probably expected! I’ve been mulling this issues around for a while now, and I admit I find my inability to coherently and consistently interpret DBH on these points quite frustrating, and that I find the whole business of attempting to reconcile creaturely autonomy with God’s goodness as rather spiritually depressing. I’d really appreciate any thoughts from the author Robert, Fr. Kimel, or anyone else who has the misfortune to read this!

    Like

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi David,

      Questions concerning the relation between divine and human agency invariably come up against a intractable antinomy. However, upholding the tension within that mystery, I believe, is the key to tackling the subject. We must affirm then the real freedom of the human agent who participates in the divine creative act without collapsing either agency in a reductive scheme of ‘ontic continuity.’ But we can only do so with the deliberate affirmation that God’s transcendence moves beyond the determining and the determined. The key here I think is the notion of the Thomistic principle that God knows actions which He does not predetermine. DBH likes to speak of such ‘compatibilism’ (if indeed we can call it that, as I am sure some philosophical compabilitists would object) as a ‘peaceful order of analogical participation’ – an order in which the contest of wills simply does not reckon. Which is to say that the raw power of absolute divine sovereignty and the non-predisposed voluntarism of pure libertarian, spontaneous creaturely act do not register in the analogy of being. The it ‘solve’ the problem? Not by any account, but it does provide an outline within which we can frame our reflections about this frustrating, but important subject.

      Like

      • David S says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful engagement Robert. This is helpful and makes sense.

        However I’m still a little unclear on exactly how this view differs from straightforward libertarian free will. As I try to say in my previous post, I understand why we would want to move away from a purely ‘voluntarist’ understanding of the will, if this means a totally arbitrary will unconstrained by anything at all, with no nature or teleology behind it. I suppose this is what you mean by a ‘pure’ libertarian act, and DBH does indeed seem to reject this conception of the will. But I’m not sure many libertarians would actually think of the will in this way. I think it’s coherent to say there’s still a basic, underlying ‘cause’ behind all creaturely becoming – God’s will to sustain creation in existence, and the natural impulse towards God that drives every human action – whilst still holding that our individual actions are ‘up to us’ in the ultimate sense, and are neither determined horizontally or vertically by the divine will.

        So we can say there is a God-determined ‘natural’ will – the search for the good which ultimately drives all our willing, the ultimate telos behind every action – alongside a gnomic will determined purely by ourselves. So God, or the impulse towards God, is indeed the ‘reason’ behind every action – yet there are many possible actions we can commit to with this as the reason. Some are good actions, where the gnomic will begins to fall in line with the natural will, others bad actions, where the gnomic will chooses to depart from the natural will – still seeking the good of the natural will and being driven by it, but wrongly choosing to seek to satisfy it in ends other than God.

        But is this not just classic libertarian free will? DBH, after all, is totally insistent that God does not determine our will, certainly not determine our evil willing – neither horizontally, as Calvinists might have it, nor vertically/transcendentally and indirectly, as Thomists like Banez and Hugh McCann would have it. God does not decide the result, full stop. Sure, God still ‘causes’ our action in the sense of being the final cause, the telos behind all our actions. But one can pursue an identical goal in a myriad different ways, some good, some evil.

        I really do need help here. Just what is the difference between libertarian free will and DBH’s (and your?) position? Are you sure that, other than a quibble of terminology and the desire to avoid extremist voluntarist interpretations of free will, there is one? Or to ask a different, but very related question: how would a classical theist like DBH seek to resolve the question of God’s (fore)knowledge of human actions from his eternal perspective, if human actions have genuine autonomy are undetermined by God?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Here’s how I see it, painting with broad strokes:

          A prior orientation toward the Good is seen as (pre)determination, understood as such a move against freedom. For a libertarian notion of freedom (and one can include many modern variations on this theme of freedom, but they share fundamental assumptions) there can then be no orientation toward the good, or if there is a prior orientation it is understood to effectually constrict or diminish the subject’s freedom. Freedom is defined as choice, any unfettered choice to do ‘the other’, for freedom is not constituted by the object of that which it desires (for indeed it cannot be as this is a determination of the object on the subject) but by the act of choice. It is unlikely that Alvin Plantinga would classify his notion of freedom as ‘libertarian’, but his theodicy is underwritten by this notion of human free-will through and through. On his account, it was necessary for God to create the possibility of evil for there to be true free human agents. God could not have created a world without evil, for had He created a world without the fall, then humanity would not be truly free. For the libertarian, freedom must require the ability to chose other than the good, it requires there to be the possibility evil. On this account without evil, without the real possibility to chose the ‘other than good’, the agent is not free. Even if a prior orientation is deemed to exist (as some will admit), freedom qua freedom is defined as the ability to chose against this orientation. Hence, the contest of the wills. Most theists will write this contest into infinity, with the human free-will holding the trump card against the divine will, resulting in an unending Hell. This is freedom.

          In my estimation the chief problem is a ‘lack of imagination’ to which Brian in a prior comment referred – it does not adequately distance post-lapsarian notions of the will and freedom from the divine Good. It mistakes, in other words, the present state of things with the condition of how things are divinely intended to be: ergo, some, like Plantinga, surmise that divine intention is (or is constricted due to the demands of freedom) to create a fallen world. I believe this stems from a denial of the analogia entis, a rejection of an ontological analogue which affirms a real similarity between the constitution of divine freedom and creaturely freedom. Freedom, understanding the divine as analogue, does not require evil, or the possibility of evil. Such understands the current gnomic equation of choosing to do other as an irrational departure from freedom, a move away from its prior orientation, a slide into the abyss of non-being. I don’t see this as a mere quibble about terminology. Do you?

          As to divine knowledge of human actions from the eternal perspective and our free actions – I don’t think this is to be resolved. Which is to say that God’s freedom and transcendence is beyond this ‘determined and determining’ dialectic. It is beyond in that there is free creaturely participation in God’s free act of creation. But this is no different than affirming the fundamental Creator/creation distinction – for where, after all, does God end and creation begin? This too is not to be resolved, for doing so would amount to a gross distortion – it would weaken the distinction as much as it would reify it.

          Liked by 2 people

          • David S says:

            I would quite agree the points you make on the nature of freedom. However I’m afraid I *still* don’t see how this contradicts the core of the libertarian position. Let me explain why.

            You are talking about the nature of freedom – or rather, I think, what ‘true’ freedom, or ‘real’ freedom is. I quite agree that real freedom would be for one’s will to be utterly aligned with God’s, and that is the kind of freedom God wants us to have. Some think that in order for an act to be truly free in this sense, there must first be a range of options, the ability to do good or evil. I agree that this view is false: God, after all, who necessarily can only do good, is freest of all. God does not want us to have the kind of false freedom of choice between good and evil, he wants us to have real freedom, the kind of freedom he possesses, the freedom which cannot will anything but good.

            So, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in the position of not being irresistibly aligned with God’s will, as not possessing true freedom. However we obviously still possess some kind of autonomy, some ability to choose – and it is the nature of this choice which I am trying to analyse, rather than the nature of ‘freedom’ as you define it (I’ve been quite careful to talk of autonomy and choice, rather than freedom).

            So sure, many (not all) libertarians may argue that their libertarian view of the will is a good thing, that God desires it, and is perhaps even a necessary precondition for ‘true’ freedom. I happen to disagree with them, but no matter. Believing in libertarian choice (I think) simply means believing that our choices are truly left up to us, and are not vertically determined or otherwise settled by God, no matter how transcendentally this settling might be envisaged. Whether that is a good thing or not, and how this might relate to God’s vision of true freedom, is not really essential to the claim.

            So I agree that libertarian ‘freedom’ (or autonomy, as I prefer) is not true freedom, it is not good, and is not what God wants. But this does not mean we do not have it – creation, after all, is fallen. So the question I am trying to answer is: does the postlapsarian, sinful gnomic will act in the way thus described – does it have libertarian choice, such that God does not transcendentally decide what this choice will be? Or is it otherwise determined – either as a slave to ignorance and other causal factors within the contingent order, or in accordance with God’s transcendent will, as Banez would have it? Which do you think?

            P.S. The reason I brought up God’s foreknowledge is that, if indeed the sinful gnomic will acts in the libertarian manner described, this should mean that our choices are, in principle, unknowable until they are actually made – i.e. our choice logically precedes God’s knowledge of that choice, rather than God’s knowledge logically preceding the choice (because otherwise God’s ‘knowledge’ would be determining our action, and it would therefore not be a libertarian choice). And as it is obviously difficult (if not definitely impossible) to reconcile this with God’s timelessness, I was hoping this would tease out one’s understanding of choice.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Hi David,

            I am of the opinion that the gnomic will is autonomous in the sense of not having been predetermined. It does constitute a perversion of the orientation towards the good, inasmuch as it mistakes evil for the good – it is thus less than free (freedom as defined in my previous comment), albeit it is autonomous and divinely undetermined.

            I do not conclude, however, that these autonomous and free acts are therefore unknowable as, following Aquinas, I believe God foreknows actions He does not predetermine. Using DBH’s words God knows ‘the free transgressions of his creatures by way of the good acts he positively wills through the freedom of the rational souls he creates’ (Providence and Causality, p 46). The logic of sequence (first we act, then God knows) breaks down, for divine knowledge does not equate determination.

            If you find this disagreeable you are definitely not thinking freely. 🙂 just kidding.

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          • David S says:

            Hi Robert,

            Thanks for this. So the gnomic will is indeed truly indeterminate – God does not vertically/transcendentally decide what our gnomic will will be, but rather our gnomic will autonomously decides for itself. This position therefore stands in stark contrast to the kind of ‘double agency’ view in which God meticulously determines every single supposedly autonomous action, while somehow avoiding responsibility for sin, e.g. as advanced by Hugh McCaan and explored at length in this blog elsewhere. Correct?

            If that’s the case I don’t quite understand how a timeless God can be aware of our actions. You say that, in line with Aquinas, you believe God foreknows actions he does not determine. But how is this possible?

            The way Aquinas argues this is possible, from what I can make out, is that God determines certain good actions, but avoids determining every action to be good, or as good as it could be. The ‘gap’ between the theoretical purely good act, and the deficient good acts actually determined, is what we call evil – the absence of good. Therefore God is off the hook – he didn’t positively create the evil, he just willed the good act. On this view it is easy to understand how God has foreknowledge – God only really determines certain specific good things, and everything left over is by definition, as the absence of good, evil – solved like an algebra puzzle. And because God is effectively deciding everything after all, he obviously knows what will happen. Simple.

            But as DBH argues – indeed, it seems to be the central point of the entire article – on this Thomist/Benazian view, God is still ultimately responsible for this lack of good, this evil. For Aquinas, God does not genuinely will the good of all – he deliberately foreordains the fall, evil, and damnation. Sure, God may not technically determine an individual’s damnation and their evil acts, but he nevertheless deliberately underdetermines them such that they infallibly occur, by neglecting to create the fullest good possible. But this, for DBH, cannot be. God is not a schizophrenic – he genuinely wills the absolute good of all. God wants more than ambiguous, imperfect and limited good, he wants perfect good.

            Therefore I don’t understand what DBH means in your quote that ‘God knows the free transgressions of his creatures by way of the good acts he positively wills through the freedom of the rational souls he creates’. That would function as an explanation of God’s foreknowledge if was endorsing something like the position outlined and rejected above – God wills us to be good to X extent, therefore we unavoidably sin to Y extent. But you and DBH would not argue that God’s will towards goodness is limited in this way – God genuinely wills, not only the good we all too rarely manage to do, but also the good we in fact fail to do. God does not – in the present world – get exactly what he wants: because the gnomic will is truly autonomous, it does not do whatever God determines. Therefore God must will a multitude of good acts which do not in fact occur. It therefore is left unexplained how God has knowledge even of the good acts we perform (because the good he wills is not coterminous with the good that in fact occurs) and this knowledge of good therefore cannot serve as an explanation of knowledge of our free transgressions. Do you have an explanation you could share?

            Hopefully that wasn’t too disagreeable… although it’s not really agreement either… I suppose it transcends the two? 🙂

            Like

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