Among the caricatures of Calvinism is the widespread claim that it renders God the author of evil, suffering, sin, and even the fall of humanity itself. In his recent book, Against Calvinism, Roger Olson carefully distinguishes the official teaching of Calvinism from where he thinks it logically leads. However, there are over three dozen statements in his book about Calvinism leading by good and necessary logic to a deity who is a “moral monster,” indistinguishable from the devil.
I respond to this charge directly in my companion volume, For Calvinism. A thoughtful review of my book from an Arminian perspective came to my attention today and this question again rose to the surface. (By the way, Calvinists talk so much about predestination more because of the charges leveled repeatedly against it than because of its alleged centrality.)
If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?
Why would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?
The questions multiply.
Taking on this question in a blog post is a little dangerous. For a statement of the Reformed position and its scriptural basis, I’d refer readers to For Calvinism.
However, there is one point that is worth pondering briefly: Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question. Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God’s foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God’s eternal foreknowledge.
Now go back and read those questions above. Notice that they don’t refer to predestination, but to mere foreknowledge. They pose a vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose.
Roger Olson states his own view: “God is sovereign in the sense that nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow” (100). So, if the fall happened, then God allowed it. The fall “was not a part of [God's] will except to reluctantly allow it” (99). OK, but then the fall was in some sense a part of God’s will. Calvinists acknowledge that it was not part of God’s revealed (or moral) will, but that he willingly permitted it as part of his plan. Yet Roger is looking for something in between: God “permits” it, but it is not a “willing permission” (64). Aside from the fact that any act of God in permitting something is already an act of will—a choice, my main point here is that Roger’s weaker claim is still strong enough to get him into the same hot water with the rest of us. Roger agrees that God knows everything that will happen. God even supervises everything that will happen. Nothing escapes his oversight. “I believe, as the Bible teaches and all Christians should believe, that nothing at all can happen without God’s permission” (71).
And yet, Roger rejects R. C. Sproul’s statement, “What God permits, he decrees to permit” (78). Now, what could be more obvious than the fact that when someone with the authority to do otherwise permits something contrary to his revealed will, he is deciding, choosing, decreeing to allow it? Here again, Roger’s notion of a presumably unwilling permission is an oxymoron. To permit something is to make a positive determination, even if it in no way makes the one permitting it responsible for the action. So what is the substantive difference between saying, with Roger, that “nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow,” and with R. C. Sproul, “What God permits, he decrees to permit”?
There is indeed a trail of hyper-Calvinism on the fringes of Augustinian Christianity that turns God’s decree to permit into a decree to accomplish or bring about. There, then: God is the author of sin. Next question? That certainly solves the intellectual riddle. Or, one can untie the knot in the other direction. Some have moved beyond Arminianism into the Socinian view that God doesn’t even know the future actions of free moral agents. Known as “open theism,” this denial of God’s omniscience recognizes that Arminianism and Calvinism are unable to resolve this dilemma. They rightly see that if God foreknows everything from eternity, including our free acts, then these acts are certain to come to pass. Foreknowledge entails predestination, so they reject the classical Christian doctrine of God’s omniscience.
Hyper-Calvinists and hyper-Arminians share the same impatience with mystery. Neither position bows reverently before God’s revelation, acknowledging its clear affirmations of divine sovereignty and human responsibility without answering all of our philosophical questions. Contradictions are abhorrent to the faith, but every important docrine in Scripture is shrouded in mystery. Hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism are willing even to set Scripture against Scripture, rejecting some clear teachings in favor of others, for the sake of rational satisfaction. Yet both, in different ways, represent deadly errors—indeed, blasphemies—against the character of God.
Happily, the debate between Roger and me is not hyper-Calvinism vs. hyper-Arminianism. The real difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether God has a purpose when he allows sin and suffering. Again, both views affirm that nothing happens apart from God’s permission. However, Calvinism teaches that God never allows any evil that he has not already determined to work together for our good (Rom 8:28). Nothing that he allows can terminate in evil. What would we say of a deity who “reluctantly permitted” a terrible disaster or moral tragedy, without a determination to overcome that evil with good? But that takes a plan and that plan must necessarily comprehend the evil that he is to conquer.
Any view that makes God the author of sin does indeed turn the object of our worship into a moral monster. However, any deity who merely stands around reluctantly permitting horrible things for which he has no greater purpose in view, is equally reprehensible. In the one, God is sovereign but not good; in the latter, God is neither. Once you acknowledge that God foreknows a sinful act and chooses to allow it (however reluctantly) when he could have chosen not to, the only consolation is that God never would have allowed it unless he had already determined why he would permit it and how he has decided to overcome it for his glory and our good. Mercifully, Scripture does reveal that God does exactly that. Roger agrees that God “chose to allow” suffering and sin (72). The Calvinist says that God chose to allow them for a reason. It’s permitting rather than creating, but it’s permission with a purpose. Permission without purpose makes God a “moral monster” indeed.
Reformed theology has maintained consistently that Scripture teaches God’s exhaustive sovereignty and human responsibility. God does not cause evil. In fact, God does not force anyone to do anything against his or her will. And yet, nothing lies outside of the wise, loving, good, and just plan “of him who works all things after the council of his own will” (Eph 1:11). That God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true, no serious student of Scripture can deny. How they can be true is beyond our capacity to understand. As Calvin put the matter, following Luther, any attempt to unravel the mystery of predestination and human responsibilty beyond Scripture is a “seeking outside the way.” “Better to limp along this path,” says Calvin, “than to rush with all speed outside of it.”