Providence Theology Proper

God “weakly actualizes” evil

Greg WeltyI have been reading a fine paper that Greg Welty presented at the annual ETS meeting in 2013, entitled “Molinist Gun Control: A Flawed Proposal?” In that paper, Welty expands on his earlier (ETS 2010) contention that the Molinist model of divine causation “inherits all of the alleged liabilities” attributed to Calvinism, “with respect to divine authorship of sin, responsibility and blame.”

(Interestingly, Welty’s argument may be seen as supporting Roger Olson’s proposal that Molinism does not belong within Arminianism. Olson sees Molinism as too monergistic. Welty is not speaking to the issue of Molinism’s compatibility or incompatibility with Arminianism, which is Olson’s concern. Welty does demonstrate quite effectively, however, that in regard to theodicy (which is Olson’s major concern), Molinism’s absolution of God from moral culpability for sinful deeds done by people in the world God chose to actualize, takes a very similar route to that taken by many Calvinists through the centuries. I agree with the many Arminians who think that Molinism is a legitimate option within Arminianism, because I too see it as synergistic, though it gives God a greater degree of control in the world than any other synergistic model of divine providence. But that is not an issue I’ll take up right now.)

Welty considers “three reasons why someone might think that God is ‘the author of sin’ and is culpable for Adam’s sin:

1.   God intends Adam’s sin

2.   God infallibly ensures that Adam will sin

3.   God causes Adam to sin

What I want to consider in this post is a paragraph in which Welty speaks about the second of these possible objections to compatibilism. He writes:

Re: infallible ensuring, Molinists will agree that, necessarily, if God ordains that something come to pass, it will come to pass. But, they will say, it is the way that God ordains the future that makes all the difference here. God, says the Molinist, infallibly ordains the future existence of sin without causing that sin. He at worst ‘weakly actualizes’ the sin by strongly actualizing the circumstances within which it occurs. But he doesn’t cause the sin itself, even though he ordained that it come to pass. Unfortunately, Calvinists cannot avail themselves of this strategy, because they have no place for a weak actualization of sin that falls short of the causation of sin [p. 2, emphasis mine).

My own interest here is in the final sentence, which I have emphasized with italics. I propose that it is not necessarily true that all Calvinists are unable to appeal to “weak actualization.” In particular, in my hypothetical knowledge Calvinist model, I think that I can indeed appropriate the language of “weak actualization” for God’s actions in the case of evil. In so doing, I draw on the work of other Calvinists who have not specifically appealed to God’s natural knowledge of counterfactuals in this connection. What I am thinking about is the category of “divine permission.”

I realize that Calvin, when writing about the original Fall, protested people’s suggesting that God “permitted it.” But it seems clear to me that what Calvin was protesting was the sort of “mere permission” which we later encounter in Arminian theology, where God permits evil only in that he gives a general permission for creatures to act libertarianly most of the time, thereby limiting the extent of his control.

Like Calvin, I emphasize that when God “permits” evil, he does so deliberately, and he could have chosen not to permit it, but he had good reasons for allowing it to occur. This is not the Arminian use of “divine permission.” In Calvinism, God is always meticulously in control of all that happens in the history of creation, but he does not act in the same way all the time. There are things God chooses to bring about by his deliberate “intervention,” including every good act that is done by a sinful creature, that is, every act of divine grace. But there are many other instances in which God deliberately allows events to unfold according to the desires of sinful creatures, without his “prevention.” This is the case whenever sin is committed. God does not prevent it, but I would not personally say that he “causes” it. (In fact, I make little or no use of the language of “causation” because I think that it does not generally communicate well my understanding of God’s action in the world. It may be a valid term, but people rarely hear it in the way it is intended technically.)

What I am suggesting now is that “weak actualization” is a very helpful way to refer to what I have just described in regard to God’s deliberate “permission,” that is, his decision not to prevent some evil doing by creatures. This differs then from instances of God’s “strong actualization,” such as when God adds his own work to the creaturely work, to bring about acts which the creatures alone would never have brought about.

Recently, Christians around the world celebrated Easter, a high point in the life of the church because of what God accomplished at Calvary in the death of Jesus, and in his resurrection. What we celebrate at Easter, I suggest, is events which entailed God’s weak actualization of the crucifixion of the righteous Son of God, in order that he might achieve the great good of victory over the evil one, and the salvation of a great many people held in bondage. Very grave sin was committed in putting Jesus to death, but it was God’s intention that it should happen. Yet God did not have to act in a deliberate personal way to bring it about. There were plenty of people prepared to serve the purposes of the arch enemy of God, the satan, as he entered Judas (Lk 22:3; Jn 13: 2, 27) and worked through religious rulers whose protection of their own position blinded them to the work God was doing in bringing in his kingdom, people whom Jesus called children of the devil (Jn 8:44). But God had chosen to actualize the world in which these people committed these evils, because by this means God brought redemption to sinful humankind, a good than which no greater can be imagined for God’s creatures.



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

2 replies on “God “weakly actualizes” evil”

My Molinist friend and I were actually discussing this the other day so I found your article interesting. Wouldn’t God weakly actualizing something require a libertarian agent to fulfill the sufficient conditions for an action to take place? God’s weak actualization may be a necessary, but it isn’t a sufficient condition for an agent and thus wouldn’t that still require the creature to have libertarian free will in order to bring it about? I believe this is why Welty was saying this option is not available to the Calvinist.

If I’m reading him right, God simply couldn’t “weakly actualize” things if the agents are libertarian in the sense of “could-do-otherwise”. If that were the case, God can create all the circumstances, but whether or not the choice is made is completely free from God’s actualization.
Of course, if we’re talking about source libertarianism, it’s possible; but that’s also compatible with Calvinism, with the simple addition that God both creates and designs the sources of free will (whereas in Molinism God creates but cannot design the sources of free will).

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