Divine Knowledge Providence Theology Proper

The contribution of hypothetical knowledge Calvinism to our understanding of evil in the world chosen by the almighty and perfectly good God

John LaingThus far, I have responded to 4 criticisms leveled against hypothetical knowledge Calvinism in John Laing’s ETS paper in 2013:

In this post, I address his concern that what I call “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism” does not effectively address the problem of gratuitous evil in the world chosen by God. (pp. 23-28).

Once again Laing’s primary focus is on the work of Bruce Ware but he draws me in to it. Because Ware’s view and mine are not exactly the same, I need to respond to Laing’s critique, identifying my differences from Ware’s view along the way. Laing begins by interacting with a statement by Ware in “A Modified Calvinist Doctrine of God,” in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God.

Ware highlights what he takes to be the advantages of the Reformed view over the Arminian view (somewhat surprisingly and admittedly courageously!) with respect to God’s sovereignty over evil. He suggests that the Arminian view must accept “gratuitous and pointless evil” because of some misguided pledge on (the Arminian) God’s part to not intervene because of His granting of libertarian freedom. By contrast, he argues, the Reformed view sees all evil—each and every instance of evil—as advancing and not hindering God’s plans/purposes for the world (pp. 23-24, citing Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, 108).

Divine permission

Regarding Ware’s position, Laing then makes 2 points. First, he posits that Ware has overstated the differences between the Arminian and Reformed conceptions on this issue, because Laing believes that “most Arminians could agree with this description”:  “God regulates exactly the evil that occurs, since for any and every instance of evil, he specifically permits according to his wisdom and ultimate purposes what he could otherwise have prevented” (Perspectives, 108; cited p. 24). Laing believes that Arminians could agree because:

The language of permission and the prerogative of God to intervene and prevent any given instance of evil are hallmarks of orthodox Arminian theology. In fact, if God’s regulation of evil only entails his permission and failure to intervene, then even heterodox Arminian theology (e.g., Open Theism) could agree (p. 24).

I think, however, that Laing himself has grasped the point that Ware was making, namely that, in the Calvinist perspective, “each and every instance of evil leads directly to a specific greater good for which that evil was necessary.” In my view, Laing’s understanding this point should have kept him from asserting that Arminians could agree with Ware’s language. I grant that Arminians use the language of divine permission and speak of God’s prerogative “to intervene and prevent any given instance of evil.” But clearly there is a significant difference between God’s decree to permit specific evil events for specific greater goods (as per Calvinism) and Arminianism’s concept of a very general permission. In their framework, God permitted specific evils only in that he had given moral creatures libertarian freedom, and thereby voluntarily limited his ability to ensure that every detail of the world’s history turns out as God wishes it would. God does his best to bring about his will, but he had tied his own hands (speaking anthropomorphically, of course) by making moral creatures the determiners of much of what transpires.  Furthermore, however, I have frequently stated in earlier posts of this blog that I think synergists, including both classic Arminians and Open Theists, put themselves right where they don’t want to be when they complain against Calvinism, by asserting that God has not given up his right to intervene and to constrain a creature’s libertarian freedom on occasion.

I think that that there is a frequently unacknowledged tension between the doctrines of general permission and the doctrine of reserved prerogative to intervene. Characteristically, synergists assert that the meticulous divine providence of God in Calvinist theology makes God responsible for evil. They remove themselves from that problem by asserting that God does not permit specific evils for specific good purposes, but that he has allowed authentically free creatures to do evil in spite of his doing all in his power to prevent that evil, through means short of overriding a creature’s libertarian freedom. But to grant that God does that on some, admittedly rare, occasions, greatly weakens the synergists’ complaint against monergists. To take an example like the holocaust, as a case in point, God could have given Hitler a fatal heart attack without even constraining any moral creature’s freedom. An Arminian must account for God’s choosing not to do that, just as a Calvinist must. Thus, though I might have spoken a bit differently than Ware did (assuming Laing’s interpretation of his point to be correct), I agree substantially with him, and I don’t think that Laing has helped the case of Arminians significantly.

Gratuitous evil

Laing doubts that Ware’s middle knowledge view necessarily escapes “the notion that gratuitous evil may occur” because

the truths of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are not dependent upon God’s will or the free decisions of the creature to whom they refer, but are simply just necessarily true. Since God has no control over the truth of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, it means that His creative options are constrained by those that are true.

So far, I agree, and I think that this is one of the positive contributions made to Calvinist theology by the proposal that God utilizes his knowledge of possible worlds in deciding what world to actualize. Laing goes on:

 One consequence of this concept is the notion that there may be instances of gratuitous evil because of the chance that the feasible worlds which meet God’s ultimate ends all contain instances of evil that may not directly contribute to a specific greater good, but are nevertheless a part of that world which is one of the set of worlds that best meets God’s purposes (and hence, indirectly contribute to the greater good of God’s ends being attained/met).

Again, properly understood, I take this to be a valid restatement of my own position, though I don’t speak for Ware. God chose an entire world. He did so with an intention for every event in that world, but his intention is only comprehensible in terms of the whole history of which these events are a part. In other words, each event was not necessarily chosen to occur because of its intrinsic and direct goodness, but because it was a necessary part of the whole history which God decreed should occur. This allows us to say of every incident, as Joseph did about the evil done to him by his brothers, that God intended it for good. But it does not allow us to say with certainty that God could have brought that good about without the inclusion of the brothers’ evil act, in which their own intent was evil, and for which evil they (and not God) are morally accountable. If the brothers’ act, which God determined to include in the history which was all of his choice, was a gratuitous evil (in the sense of not being warranted directly by an immediate good), God must have chosen it because of the greater good of the whole. What we can say is that, if there are some incidents which, taken alone and with a view to the immediate situation, could be deemed gratuitous, none is gratuitous when viewed in the light of the entire complex of events which God decrees will be the history of the world he created and governs.

I grant that this may seem less satisfying to people who prefer to believe that every evil which God permits to occur to them is because of a specific good for them personally,  to which that evil contributes. Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism calls upon us to be somewhat less individualistic than that perspective asserts, while still taking comfort from Rom 8:28-29 that God uses in the process of transforming us into Christ’s image, even those events whose greatest good is realized on a larger scale. Joseph’s case is a good illustration of this. The good intention which God had in decreeing to permit his brothers to sell him into slavery was not focused on Joseph himself, but on the good of the people who were heirs of the promise to Abraham (Gen 45:7-8; 50:20). This is not to deny that God had personal intentions for Joseph too; he was not simply instrumental in a plan focused only on the large scale. But Joseph himself understood that what really mattered in his own experience was its place within God’s plan for the nation. Joseph died long before that was realized.

Of my own perspective, Laing writes in a way that needs correction:

Tiessen suggests that God could simply give Adam efficient grace to make him compatibilistically freely refrain from eating the forbidden fruit [“Why Calvinists Should Believe,” 354]. Fair enough, assuming there is a prescribed amount that can be given while still maintaining the freedom of Adam with respect to eating or not eating, but why should we assume that there is such an amount for any given situation?

Clearly, Laing speaks of the freedom which must be maintained for Adam in libertarian terms. Adam must have been able to eat or not to eat, given God’s efficient grace. But that is not the freedom affirmed by hypothetical knowledge Calvinism. Had Adam been libertarianly free (as in Molinism), God could not have known how Adam would decide in possible situations, and could not know what sort of divine assistance would be necessary to prevent Adam from disobedience. Laing’s personal conviction that only libertarian freedom is authentic is evident in his next question:

Is there not a point at which the grace overrides the individual’s freedom in order to prevent his sinning? It seems that there would be, at least in some cases, and if I am correct in this, then the Calvinist may argue that instances of gratuitous evil could sometimes occur. I see this as a strength, despite Ware’s argument to the contrary. Of course, if the Calvinist wishes to dispute my point regarding the overriding of freedom, then it seems that he is just endorsing the Thomistic position again—God’s will is what makes the counterfactual true. It is God willing Adam to freely eat (by giving him an appropriate amount of grace) which makes the counterfactual true.

I do dispute Laing’s “point regarding the overriding of freedom,” if “freedom” entails the power of contrary choice, but I would not deny that there may be some occasions on which God can only get his will done by taking away even the compatibilistic freedom of an individual. If such occasions included an evil act by a creature, the creature would not be morally culpable, but offhand I can think of no example in which such occurred.

Most importantly, I deny that my perspective collapses into Thomism, making the counterfactual true because God willed it to be so. God’s decision to give Adam sufficient grace not to fall, but not to give him efficient grace, was a decision to make true the statement “Adam, when tempted to eat of the tree of life, fell,” but it does not make true the counterfactuals which God took into account in making his decree. Rather, God’s natural/necessary knowledge of those counterfactuals made it possible for him to choose a world in which Adam culpably disobeys God. God’s eternal plan (decree) determined the facts of history, but it was his knowledge of possible worlds (i.e. of counterfactuals) which enabled God to choose a world in which Adam freely disobeyed. Very conceivably, there were worlds in which God could have given Adam grace which efficiently preserved him in obedience, as he later did by his Spirit in preserving the second Adam from disobedience, and as he will do for all the redeemed who inhabit the new earth. But God had reasons for wanting to create and to govern this particular world, which includes both the sin of Adam as representative of the human race, and also the redemption of much (possibly most) of that race by the life, death and resurrection of the second Adam.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4



By Terrance Tiessen

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

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