From Where Did the First Evil Inclination Come? A Dialogue with a Calvinist

From Where Did the First Evil Inclination Come? A Dialogue with a Calvinist January 21, 2013

What follows is a blog visitor’s response to my blog question to Calvinists about the source of the first evil inclination. It comes from Alan Steele who I assume is a Calvinist (because my challenge was to Calvinists):

“Wow. A lot of ground being covered here. I think it’s great to see such active engagement in such weighty topics – and in such gracious fashion toward each other.
I would like to respond to Dr. Olson’s excellent question, “From where did the first evil inclination come?” Someone once posed this question to me during a small group discussion on sin. Up to that point, I had typically brushed aside the question with superficial responses like, “Great question. This might be the first question I ask when I meet my Savior face to face.” It was an honest answer, but on this occasion it felt terribly inadequate and I felt I owed this individual and the group a better answer. I also felt it was time to finally confront this question and do some digging. I think times of growth are generally accompanied by a good deal of personal discomfort. Care is needed in exploring this topic since as far as I know, the Bible does not directly address this question.

Let’s start with sin since sin would seem to be the linchpin for this discussion. Did sin exist in Adam as he was created? The answer, I believe, is “no”. God is not the creator of evil. God is not capable of evil. So, if Adam was without sin, how did sin enter into him? Another way to phrase the question is, “How did Adam, not possessing a sinful nature, slip, or ‘fall’ into sin?”
We must also recall that there was a “tempter” present with Adam in the Garden. Described as a serpent, the account in Genesis does not specifically mention Satan, although most interpreters make this assumption. The efforts of the tempter seem to have evil intent, defined as against God’s commands and in opposition to God’s will. So, the next question is, “Beginning with the assumption that the tempter was not created evil, for the same reason that Adam was not created evil, how did the tempter fall into sin?” If the tempter fell into sin, it seems to logically follow that he had a will as part of his created nature that was free enough to allow him to do so.
I think it is safe to conclude that both Adam and Satan were given a will by God as part of their created nature. As I stated earlier, since God created both the creatures, Satan and Adam, we can safely conclude that they were created without inherently sinful natures. In this way then their wills, as created attributes, were free – that is to say free in the sense that they were unfettered by the corruptive influence of sin – but, not free from the possibility of corruption. Apparently, that last attribute belongs solely to God. My best attempt at an explanation of this difference between us and God is to say that the Creator is infinite and we, the created beings are finite – meaning, we are limited. Part of the finite nature of Satan and Adam was their susceptibility to corruption.
So, the created beings Satan and Adam were finite creatures with wills and were susceptible to the possibility of corruption as part of their created nature. So, what caused the created beings, Satan and Adam, to fall into sin and become corrupted?
One attempt I have read that seeks to address these matters has to do with another created attribute: desire. God also has this attribute. He desires, for example, that we place all of our trust in him and that we obey his commands. God’s desire is not corruptible. Satan and Adam’s desire was.
One theory postulates that it was through desire that both Satan and Adam eventually slipped into sin and became corrupted. Their desire for the coveted thing, power and glory on a par with God, eventually overcame their desire to trust God completely, to obey God’s commands and to be content with their status, thus causing the slide into sin.
This is what I offered to the guys in the small group and it resulted in some really interesting discussion.”

Here is my response:

“This is constructive and helpful. Thank you. My first question (not to you necessarily) is why John Piper didn’t answer with this very Augustinian view when I put the question to him. His response instead was that he didn’t know. Most Calvinists I have asked simply decline to respond. So I find this response a good starting point for dialogue. In fact, I agree with everything in it. It’s a very good Arminian answer! But I assume a Calvinist is offering it. What I wonder is how consistent it is with the classical Calvinist/Reformed doctrine of providence. Surely Calvinists want their doctrines to be consistent with each other. I have demonstrated in Against Calvinism that many, I would say most, classical Calvinists have been and are what I call divine determinists who believe in meticulous providence. (I realize they don’t like the term “determinism,” but I can’t think of any better term for what they say they believe.) Sproul, for example, loves to tell audiences (and has written into some of his books) that (paraphrasing) if there is one maverick molecule in the universe God is not God. The context makes clear that he isn’t just talking about molecules; he’s talking about everything. Paul Helm nails it down by saying (again paraphrasing) that every thought is controlled by God. I take it (and have argued in Against Calvinism and elsewhere) that the classical Calvinist doctrine of divine providence admits no non-God-determined events. To be sure, all kinds of explanations are given of ways in which God determines without directly causing (e.g., secondary causes). Nevertheless, the idea is (and one can find this clearly spelled out in Calvin’s Institutes) that God never, ever merely observes what happens and never, ever finds that what happens is not what he planned to happen. God is, that is to say, the all determining reality. Thus, the first evil inclination (and what followed from it) MUST have been determined by God. Sure, the creature (Satan, Adam) formed the evil intention within himself, but the issue is why? Did he form it independently of God’s will and intention? Was God’s permission that he form it antecedent or consequent in relation to the creature’s free will? Was God’s permission that he form it effectual? That is, did God, for example (as Edwards says) withhold or withdraw the divine influence the creature needed not to sin? These are question that arise from the very Augustinian response of Mr. Steele. As I understand it, any claim that the creature who first sinned, who first formed an evil intention, did so independently of God’s will, plan, purpose and control falls into conflict with the classical Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty as expressed in the classical Calvinist doctrine of divine providence. In other words, so it seems to me, the answer Mr. Steele gives is inconsistent with Calvinism but consistent with Arminianism. Of course, a Calvinist might hold it by adjusting his or her doctrine of providence, but that would be to make a huge concession to Arminianism (free will theism). (I am using “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” throughout this response as place holders for broader beliefs. Luther and Zwingli, for example, both believed in divine determinism but can hardly be called “Calvinists” without anachronism. Similarly, Erasmus and Menno Simons seem to have denied divine determinism but can hardly be called “Arminians” without anachronism.”

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  • scotmcknight

    Didn’t GC Berkouwer say “Sin had no origin; it just began.”?

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps. I’m not sure. But, of course, Berkouwer was a revisionist Calvinist, influenced by Barth. If I am not mistaken, he rejected limited atonement. I often wonder why today’s “Evangelical Calvinists” don’t mention him more. He was an influence on James Daane who taught at Calvin and then Fuller and whose book The Freedom of God I quote often in Against Calvinism.

  • JohnD

    Calvinists who are consistent are determinists. If they deny determinism, they are inconsistent. To save themselves (an irony if there ever was one), they might use “antinomy” as an “out” (i.e., we just don’t know how determinism and free will co-exist, but they must!). But then the inconsistent/antinomy Calvinist goes on to simply ignore free will and responsibility, and play up determinism. This is called having your theological cake and eating it, too.

    Calvinism is a system that is in error at the core, but the core is constantly wrapped up with high-sounding phrases (cue up virtually any Spurgeon paragraph here) and appeals to a wrong-headed view of sovereignty.

    Of course Piper can’t answer your question, Dr. Olson. It is the beginning of the unthreading of the emperor’s clothes.

    • rogereolson

      He didn’t exactly not answer my question. To give him his due he said he doesn’t know. We all have to admit there are things we don’t know. But my complaint is that a strong Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty necessarily implies by good and necessary consequence that God is the author of the first inclination to evil, even if only by planning it and rendering it certain (e.g., through secondary causes). I agree with most of what you wrote.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Alan,
    Thank you for taking on a thorny question and putting forth your thoughts. You postulated that both Adam and Satan were created “without inherently sinful natures”, yet they could sin (and did)! How much different is that than us who also can sin (and do)? Whatever benefit Adam might have had before his unhappy meeting with the serpent, he threw it away to the ruin of us all, (not the least of which was his own righteous son, Abel).

  • Roger, you have certainly put your finger on a critical issue. Like all monergists, I have puzzled over this one. My best shot at it right now is what I call “moral entropy.” I take the physical “law of entropy” to be a recognition that nothing other than God exists unless God maintains it in existence through his sustaining or concurrence. I assume that Arminians affirm this too. By analogy, I propose that goodness only exists in moral creatures by God’s sustaining. Only God is good, as Jesus himself asserted, referring I assume to “intrinsic goodness” (just as only God is immortal, i.e., has “life in himself”). And so, anyone else who is good is only good by virtue of God’s having created him/her good (“there is none good but God”), and such persons remain good only so long as God continues to communicate that moral goodness to them.
    To absolve God from guilt in regard to the original angelic and human sin, it is necessary, I think, that we postulate that just as creatures have no inherent right to exist, so moral creatures have no inherent right to be good. We are good by God’s beneficence, but because God is not morally obligated to give us goodness, any more than he was obligated to give us existence. His decision to withhold, from the angels who fell, the sustenance that kept the “elect angels” in goodness is his prerogative and constitutes him guilty of no immorality.
    It is within this framework that the “greater good defense” fits, I suggest. Being himself intrinsically good, God can not be tempted to sin, nor can he do any evil. Given that he never surrenders control of anything in his creation to any creature, the coming into being of an evil desire could only be by God’s decision to withhold from one of his good creatures the sustaining power that was given to the elect angels but not to those who fell. He did this because he had good purposes for doing so.
    I am well aware that this does not satisfy you Roger, but it is the best I can do right now to satisfy myself on this question. I certainly welcome better ideas, but proposing that God chose to leave to creatures the decision to avail themselves of God’s sustaining goodness or not do so (as Arminianism does), still seems to me to be incoherent with the big biblical picture. “Aye, there’s the rub.”

    • rogereolson

      You have put your finger on it exactly, Terry. Thank you for this clear and concise statement of what I take to be the normal Augustinian-Reformed answer to the origin of sin and evil in God’s universe. At the end of it, however, as you suspect, I cannot but think this makes God the author of sin and evil. Edwards admitted as much (with proper qualifications, of course). So why is this a problem given that it (your view) does not implicate God directly in causing sin and evil? Because, while it says God was not “obligated” to preserve them (from falling into sin), it implies (together with everything else Augustinian-Reformed believers believe regarding God’s sovereignty) that sin and evil, and thus hell, were part of the “plan” in God’s wise intention for his creation. While God may not have been judicially obligated to preserve creatures from falling, how is his planning for them to fall and rendering it certain (even if only indirectly) consistent with love? Calvinists have long accused Arminians of using the “fairness” argument against monergism, but isn’t it in this case Calvinists who are using it–i.e., that God was “not obligated?” Let’s agree that “fairness” is not an attribute of God. But what about love?

      • Aaron

        And this still does not answer your original question of where the first inclination to sin came from in regards to calvinists understanding of compatiblalist free will

      • I think the problem with Terry’s response is even more acute than you state here Roger. Terry’s formulation does not even get God out of direct involvement with sin and evil if Calvinistic premises obtain, for Calvinism holds absolutely everything to have been unconditionally decreed by God. So God can’t really just leave a person to himself on that premise. Why would the first sinners have sinned in just the way they did? Calvinism would hold that God chose exactly what thoughts they would have (he decreed them *unconditionally*) and could have chosen for them to be whatever he wanted; he was not restricted by anything outside himself for what those thoughts or desires would be, but could have decreed them to be whatever he decided. He could have decreed that those creature had a righteous God-honoring response to the exact same stimuli, or any number of responses, whatever he desired it to be. So on Calvinism things can never be accomplished by God simply leaving someone to himself. For whatever the person is at any time is completely controlled by God and was *unconditionally* decreed by him.

        • rogereolson

          That is how I read many Calvinists. But the problem is, many of them then back off that strong, exhaustive, meticulous, deterministic view of God’s sovereignty in providence when the issue of evil arises. Suddenly they use the language of “permission.” What most people don’t see is that by “permission” they mean “effectual permission”–rendering something already predetermined to happen certain by withdrawing or withholding agency that would prevent it. An analogy is IF I predetermined (I don’t) that a certain student should fail my course. I actually WANT him to fail my course to (for example) demonstrate to the dean that I’m a tough teacher with high academic standards. So I completely withhold from that student help I know he needs to pass the course while giving it to other students (who I have decided will pass my course). When people find out that I actually singled that particular student out to fail my course and withheld help I gave other students, rendering that student’s failure certain, who would applaud me for it? I can’t imagine that anyone would. Certainly they would not think that was a proper (good, kind, loving) way to treat a student no matter what my reason was. I can claim that I did not “cause” the student to fail; I only “permitted” him to fail. Who would accept that claim? Nobody. That’s an example of what many Calvinists mean when they talk about God merely permitting and not causing sin and evil. The crucial thing to see and pay attention to is their belief that God actually planned and rendered certain Adam’s sin and all its consequences including many of God’s creatures, created in his image, going to hell for eternal torment. That is why I say this makes God look monstrous–just as I would look (and be) monstrous if I singled out a student or students to fail my courses (which I do NOT) and rendered it certain by withholding help I offered and gave other students. Now, I suspect many Calvinists will respond by rejecting the analogy, but that doesn’t convince me. It is a right analogy. Saying “But God has no obligation…” doesn’t help. God is love. God is good. Whether God has “obligations” is irrelevant to the point I keep making and most Calvinists keep dodging: God is love. “Love” is rendered meaningless if that is the way God behaves.

          • Re: your message of Jan 26 (we ran out of “reply” opportunities), I agree with you concerning the nub of the issue, Roger. I don’t intend to dance around it, but I do find it mysterious. You are correct that in a monergist framework, evil and hell occur by God’s deciding to bring this particular world and its history into being.

            Is this problem significantly resolved for Arminians who affirm only simple divine foreknowledge? It looks to me as though, in that framework, God knew just as certainly before the world was created how it was all going to turn out. But he decided that it was still better to let things continue in that way than to abort the whole plan of creation. God’s helplessness in the face of the unfolding of that history would be my struggle, were I Arminian. My reading of Scripture indicates that God was much less passive about it all, however distressing it is to me that he did not choose to preserve all the angels holy, or to redeem all the fallen humans. That his decision was wise, loving, and productive of his glory I must accept. To explain it, however, is beyond me. In the meantime, I stand amazed at his grace in plucking me out of the condemnation I willingly chose, and I am thankful that he has done this for you and countless others of every tribe, language, and people.

          • rogereolson

            Isn’t the problem here (not just for you but for the majority of both Calvinists and Arminians) the myth that simple foreknowledge gives God providential advantage? As we’ve discussed here before, God’s knowledge of creatures’ free decisions corresponds with them. It does not in any way render them certain. The mystery we Arminians must live with, however, uncomfortably, is the biblical truth that God does foreknow future free creaturely decisions–even ones he does not will and that go against his will. This is a mystery I can live with. I can’t live with the mystery of how God can be “good” and plan, design, will, and render certain creatures’ evil decisions and hell.

        • Arminian, I wonder if you might be confusing/conflating Calvinism with fatalism. Calvinists strongly affirm the moral responsibility of human choices, and I think that compatibilist freedom does therefore provide constraints on the options available even to a meticulously sovereign God. John Feinberg has unpacked this nicely in what he describes as “the integrity of humans defense” (No One Like Him, 787-95).

          Feinberg writes (correctly, I think): “it may be harder for God to get us to do right than we think. . . . It might turn out that God would have to constrain many people to do things he needed done in order to organize circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will for many of us, and would likely do so more frequently than we might imagine. Moreover, one begins to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all of this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not at the outset just make it a different creature who couldn’t do evil? But of course, that would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumas, or superhumans. [Some may assume] that if God rearranged the world, all of us would draw the right conclusion from our circumstances and do right. Our desires, intentions, emotions, and will would fall into place as they should without abriding freedom at all. This is most dubious” (790).

          • rogereolson

            The problem is, that sounds very Arminian. I know Feinberg is not an Arminian. Does he go on to explain that (in his view) God foreordained and rendered certain the first evil inclinations of the will? We keep dancing around the single main difference (between traditional Calvinists and traditional Arminians). It’s not compatibilist versus libertarian free will or anything secondary like that. It’s whether or not evil and hell were/are part of God’s design for creation.

          • John I.

            why is it dubious? If God is both omniscient and omnipresent, then such a world is indeed possible. Furthermore, on the Calvinist understanding of so-called “free will”, it is circumstances that constrain the will. That is, we will always do our highest / greatest desire that is possible to perform in the circumstances. Thus God need only rearrange the circumstances; he need not change the nature of people (to subhuman or superhuman).

          • Terry,

            I am sorry that I did not see this and so am getting back to you so late. I understand that Calvinists strongly affirm the moral responsibility of human choices. But I think they are incoherent in doing so given their doctrinal system. Your suggestion, following Feinberg, is interesting. But I would say that it contradicts the standard Calvinistic position on God’s sovereignty, that he ordained all things unconditionally. If Gods’ ordination is constrained by compatibilistic *human* free will, then it is no longer unconditional. As the Westminster Confession of faith has it, “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, as that which would come to pass, upon such conditions” (3.2). So you and Feinberg have taken a giant step toward Arminianism with that view and departed from standard Calvinism. As Roger points out, your view sounds very Arminian. Now I can see that it is not quite Arminian, because you are assuming compatibilistic freedom. Nevertheless, it would seem to be closer to Arminianism than Calvinism. It actually sounds like Molinism, which many Arminians hold to and I had the impression that you used to hold to.

  • Alan Steele

    Well … since my comfort level is plummeting, I can only assume that this is another God-directed opportunity for growth. 🙂 First order of business perhaps is to address who and what I am. I think everyone should be able to answer this question from John’s gospel, “Who are you. . . What do you have to say about yourself?” For this readership, I think it is informative to say that I am one of God’s children. I am no theologian, so I always welcome an opportunity to learn from those who are more learned than myself. I accept the label, Calvinist, particularly to validate the title of the blog post, and I leave it to others to decide what kind of Calvinist I am (classical, neo, etc) since I couldn’t begin to tell you. But, rather than try to sort all of that out, I suggest we stay focused on the topic at hand.
    The answer I offered to Dr. Olson’s question of from where did the first evil inclination come is merely conjecture, as all such musings are. The question of whether the conjecture is true or accurate or not is not valid since we can’t answer that with any degree of certainty. Here, I believe, we must allow for some mystery. The best I can say about it is that I like the way it rides and I like some of the features that come with it.
    If this theory of the origin of evil meshes with Arminian doctrine, that’s great. It is merely common ground among Christians in my view. In any event, I won’t consider the theory any less plausible because Arminians happen to agree with it.
    A valid question, I believe, has to do with whether the theory or conjecture contradicts other Calvinist doctrinal beliefs that I hold. My answer is, no, I don’t believe it does.
    Did God know Adam was going to fall into sin? Of course he did. He would not be omniscient if he did not know this.
    How does this theory square with the Calvinist belief in God’s sovereignty and in his providential will? Quite nicely in my view. I think Edwards was on the money when he said, as Dr. Olson reports, that God sovereignly chose to withhold his divine influence that would have prevented Adam’s slide into sin. Why? Because he is God. His ways are not our ways. He does as he pleases. He does not ask that we understand or agree with his ways and his decrees. He asks that we trust him – completely.
    Did God God cause Adam to sin? I think it is a mistake to take a position that states that because God is the positive cause of a positive outcome, our salvation, the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty demands that God must therefore be the positive cause of a negative outcome, in this case Adam’s fall into sin. I don’t believe a parallel exists here.
    R. L Dabney wrote a treatise titled, “Adam’s Fall and Free Will” that I found helpful as I tried to wrap my head around this difficult subject. Dabney uses a lighted candle as an illustration of this concept. For a candle to burn and give light it must be lighted, for it to go out it must simply be let alone, it’s length being limited. (Paraphrase).

    • rogereolson

      See my response to Terry Tiessen’s explanation. I think it applies to yours as well.

    • Dean

      “Did God know Adam was going to fall into sin? Of course he did. He would not be omniscient if he did not know this.”

      Alan, but let’s just entertain this thought for a second, what if God DIDN’T know Adam was going to sin because the nature of creation is such that the future simply doesn’t exist, so there is nothing for God to know? Doesn’t that solve all of these pesky problems? I have to say, Open Theism still provides for me the most reasonable, Biblically based explanation for this problem that so vexes Calvinists.

    • J.E. Edwards

      This is a very interesting post. Sorry for the delay. We recently moved and have been doing much necessary updating (early ’70’s house). The thing I’ve been wondering was the quality of the freedom that humans that hadn’t been tainted by sin ultimately had before the fall? That is the issue at the core that, I believe, both sides are trying to come to terms with. Yet, from different angles. Did “God sovereignly choose to withhold his divine influence that would have prevented Adam’s slide into sin.”? It seems that those who lean toward a more libertarian free will side would say this would be necessary. This should be a decision they should be able to make on their own with no outside influences. Which is the direction they ultimately take in salvation also. I guess the question I ask myself is what does it mean that Jesus is the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world”? Does this give us a clue of what God was up to? Isn’t God loving if He removes HIS influence to allow for the will of the creature, knowing that without it they will fall? It still doesn’t answer my original question, though.

      • rogereolson

        I have tried repeatedly to focus the discussion on the one main point of difference–whether sin and evil are included in God’s good and wise plan as intended and rendered certain by God.

        • J.E. Edwards

          It seems that if we split up these two ideas (1)”whether sin and evil are included in God’s good and wise plan as intended and rendered certain by God” and (2)”is God loving if He removes HIS influence to allow for the will of the creature, knowing that without it they will fall” that this is where a big divide begins. To me, to argue for point 1 above without the 2nd point will lead to a God that has it in for us to sin. The 1st point doesn’t make much sense (to me) without the 2nd. I’ll admit that it can lead to some pretty ugly ideas of God. In the end, these two ideas are pretty much what I’m left with without being God. Do I still try to understand it better? Yes. Will we? I guess that’s one of the reasons this blog exists. So, thank the Lord that He has put it in Roger’s heart to have such a blog that gives us a great place for such a discussion.

      • John I.

        My understanding is that “from the foundation of the world” does not necessarily modify “slain” in Greek.

  • Alan Steele

    I think Terry’s “moral entropy” term and great explanation nicely sums up the points made in my last response. It seems the rub, Roger, is your insistence in drawing a parallel where one does not necessarily exist. (I’m going to appropriate the term, Terry. Thanks!).

  • Alan Steele

    Tim, in response to your question, the difference between us and Adam is the difference between a being born without an inherently sinful nature and beings who are born with an inherently sinful nature. The difference is huge. Born under the curse, we have no choice but to sin. Choosing to sin or not to sin is not an option for us. For reference, see the doctrines of Original Sin, Imputed Sin and Total Depravity.
    Btw – I would say that Satan’s fall was the more egregious. Satan was created as a perfect, angelic being and fell into sin of his own volition without, we can presume, the prompting or urging of any other creature. Adam at least was partially influenced by the tempter in the Garden.

    • rogereolson

      If Satan was created as “a perfect…being,” how could he have fallen?

      • Alan Steele

        You are right, of course, Dr. Olson. My bad. Only one perfect being. The angelic being Lucifer has been described in many flattering ways, but ‘perfect’ is certainly not one of them. He was the loftiest, and perhaps most nearest to perfection, of all created beings.

  • K Gray

    It seems like there is a “good and necessary consequences” logic test being applied, which often ends in conclusions to which most believers would not agree (e.g., if you believe X, then a g&nc is God is not love; if you believe Y, then a g&nc is God is not sovereign, or God is not omniscient, etc. ). It’s like proof texts. I am wondering where this comes from? It seems very different from the “yes” and “yes” creative-tension faith tenets usually taught; e.g. God is perfectly loving and perfectly just. Is there a particular strain of theology from which this emanates, or is it simply the eternal human struggle to understand? I realize this is a little off-thread; also, I am a layperson and not a theologian so it may be something very common which just strikes the layperson differently.

    • rogereolson

      My defense is that Reformed theologians have often used, and still often use, the “good and necessary consequence” logic to claim that Arminianism is heterodox (viz., semi-Pelagian). What’s good for the goose….

      • K Gray

        I leave that to the theologians. But from the cheap seats: if both goose and gander object to claims reached via the others’ application of gn&c logic, then maybe it’s not good or necessary….

  • earl simmons

    What is wrong with this idea. First there was God. Everything was created by Him that concerns humans. So how can it be reasoned that He did not create evil or sin, even if He gave the possibility of choice? As concerns salvation do I have a choice? or have we been born into a situation that Calvinists agree on that we have only the choice if God gives us to be one of the elect? Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      Simple answer taught in every Christianity 101 course: evil is not a thing; it is the absence of the good.

      • John I.

        That is the typical answer, but not the only possible one and I’m not convinced it’s the best one. However the point does not seem to be crucial to the substance of the question posed at the top.

  • PLTK

    As I read the candle analogy, I couldn’t help but think of the parable of the 10 women waiting for the bridal party to pass by. Can we blame the lamps for the fact that they burned out too early or should we instead blame the women who did not tend to the lamps properly and bring enough oil? Jesus clearly laid the blame at the women’s feet.

    Yes, a candle will go out when its length is burned up — but is not the candle doing just what it was created to do and burning exactly as long as it was created to burn? Perhaps God does not actively blow it out but is not God still the ultimate origin of its demise? As with most of these analogies they merely push back or hide the question of the beginnings of evil (and make those of us who think we are still burning well feel somewhat better), but the question still remains with no good answer.

  • This whole issue has quickly evolved into a discussion of human “free will” in an attempt to exempt God as the originator of the evil inclination to sin. Thus, when it comes to the question of who created evil, the automatic default answers from both Calvinists and Arminians sound something as follows: “I don’t know”; or, The Serpent did it”; or, “Eve is the culprit.” Why all this speculation as to the original source of evil when, in fact, God takes all the credit in the Scriptures? “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isa 45:7). When it is recorded that in the days of Noah “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only EVIL continuously,” it was God who took the ultimate responsibility, saying, “…I have made them” (Gen 6:7). Finally, God (in Christ) has taken full responsibility for the mystery of all evil by neutering its ultimate life-limiting power in the life, death and resurrection of the second Adam, who was superior to the first Adam. Thus we have the promise of a world to come that will be evil-free when, at last, evil has served the purpose for which God created it in the first place. As it is written, “…for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created” (Rev 4:11).

    • rogereolson

      I have often said that if I could be a universalist I could be a Calvinist! Well, I would still have some issues with divine determinism, but at least the main one would disappear–hell! Unfortunately….

    • John I.

      The phrase “I create evil” does not refer to moral evil, but to disasters.

  • Craig Wright

    Alan, if a baby is crawling near a swimming pool, and a responsible adult is near by, then if the baby falls in the pool and drowns, who is responsible?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Re: exchange between Olson and Tiessen above:

    We can certainly hold to the idea of love being an attribute of God. But for this to make sense to us, we have to believe that we are in a position to have a reasonable enough idea of what love is for the task at hand. If this all is true, what should we do with the question, “Can God choose not to love?” In other words, is God’s love an essential attribute of his being? (it may well be redundant to ask the latter since attribute may imply essential). I like the way Tom Oord puts it in his little book “The Nature of Love: A Theology” where he refers to the ideas of God’s love being essential, and even to essential kenosis. This is applied to God’s acts of creation as well as to his kenotic actions in the Incarnation and at Calvary.

    I realize that this is quite some distance from Calvinist thinking, but when we consider love an attribute of God (and I think we should) it seems reasonable to conclude that God cannot fail to love. Just as he cannot fail to be truthful, just, holy etc. It all seems to flow together and make sense only if we take it to this “extreme”.

    I’d very much like to hear both of your thoughts on this.

    • rogereolson

      Which is why most contemporary Calvinists like to claim that they believe God even loves the non-elect. As one put it “God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways.” Piper says that God loves and blesses the non-elect by giving them blessings in this life. I say that amounts to saying that God gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in.

      • John I.

        And since most non-elect get little or no heaven on their way to hell (but grow up in poverty, sickness, abuse, etc.), it’s a pretty lame argument as well.

      • Dane

        To add to this thought – I don’t see how the Calvinist (God) can give any grace or love in any degree to the non-elect, for the Calvinist has no judicial reason for God to grant it. Any love or good that God grants someone that is his focus of wrath, needs to be just in doing so, and without the cross in view here, the Calvinist makes God out to be unjust in his love towards any non-elect in any degree.

    • Alan Steele

      We are wandering a bit in our discussion and I feel Dr. Olson’s frustration mounting as he tries to draw out of the Calvinist visitors the admission he is hoping to get. I’m going to respond more directly in a bit. I want to give others a chance to weigh in.
      Bev, in response to your post about love, you rightly state that for any discussion about God’s love “to make sense to us, we have to believe that we are in a position to have a reasonable enough idea of what love is . . .” Great point.
      Dr. Olson and I had an interesting dialogue about love on his blog post titled, “A Plug for My Current Article on “Election” in Christianity Today.” Our dialogue begins with my response of Jan 17. I think our dialogue sums up the differences between Dr. Olson’s view of love and my view.
      I very much agree that love is what the Arminian objection to Reformed theology hinges on. The Arminian asks, “Where is God’s love in Reformed theology?” My question is, “Is the Arminian view of love expressed by Dr. Olson in our dialogue very compelling?”

      • John I.

        I don’t feel that Olson is frustrated at all, nor is he trying to draw any admission out of Calvinists. He is merely being consistent and persistent in pointing out what he sees as the deficiencies in the Calvinist theology. He knows, and has written elsewhere, that Calvinists hang on to their beliefs in spite of their contradictions and conflicts with scripture.

        It is no response to the question regarding God’s love in reformed theology to pose a similar question vis a vis Arminian theology. If Reformed theology does not have love, then the Arminian position would win by default even if it were defect or else both would lose and the atheists win. Furthermore “very compelling” entails a comparative examination, an examination in relation to something and so cannot be undertaken without laying out what that something is.

        • Alan Steele

          The comparative examination of love “very compelling” alludes to was made during the separate blog dialogue I referenced in my post.

  • Roger wrote: “I have often said that if I could be a universalist I could be a Calvinist!”

    I cannot see how it could ever be possible to be a Calvinist and a universalist at one and the same time. No Christian universalist who believes in the ultimate salvation of ALL humanity could ever believe, as Calvinists do, that only certain ‘select of the elect’ are destined to be saved to the exclusion of the vast majority of humanity.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, but of course there are “revisionist Calvinists” like Karl Barth. “Calvinism” is no longer, if it ever was, a monolithic category.

    • On the contrary Ivan, I think that only a monergist can be a convinced universalist. If one grants the principle of alternate possibilities that is fundamental to synergism, it is impossible for God to ensure that everyone will libertarianly freely choose to love and obey him. At most, a synergist could be a hopeful universalist. With some regret, I think that Scripture indicates that not all will be saved, but I find good reason in Scripture to hope that _most_ of the human race will be saved, by God’s gracious gift of faith, and for that I rejoice. Perhaps there simply was not a possible world in which everyone is saved, given all that God wished to accomplish, in the kind of creation he wanted to bring into being.

  • Ctrent1564

    Roger and All:

    Interesting discussion from the outside looking in [From a Catholic]. Not looking to join in as this is not my fight so to speak. Just a historical note, the only place in the OT canon [The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox OT canon] that links Satan with the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis is found in The Book of Wisdom where it states “For God created man for incorruption and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world and those who belong to his party experience it” (cf Wisdom 2: 23-24).


  • Alan Steele

    The real difficulty that I have with the Arminian doctrinal position on the question of the origin of evil, as expressed here by Dr. Olson and in his book “Against Calvinism”, is best illustrated by the story Dr. Olson relates in the book of a question posed by one of Dr. Olson’s students at the end of a class Dr. Olson was teaching on Calvinism’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty. The question posed by the student was, “If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true God actually is as Calvinism says and rules as Calvinism affirms, would you still worship him?” Without a moment’s hesitation Dr. Olson responded that, “No, I would not because I could not. Such a God would be a moral monster.”
    I applaud Dr. Olson for his doctrinal consistency which immediately led him to realize that the response he gave was the only logical response for the Arminian. I suspect that many who affirm Arminianism would have to give some thought to the question before they responded – and, rightly so, because Dr. Olson’s reply reveals an error that scripture speaks to in several places.
    Scripture teaches that when considering the question of evil and suffering there is an incorrect and a correct way to view God’s morality/justness/fairness/goodness. The incorrect way says that there is a rule or law of morality/justness/fairness/goodness against which both ourselves and God are held accountable. According to this view, when we are confronted with the question of evil and suffering – or, with some incomprehensible circumstance – we seek to address it by appealing to the rule or law. This is what Dr. Olson has done, in my view, in his response to the student, although I am certain he doesn’t see it that way. In so doing, he has placed the rule or law above God and made God subject to it. If it were revealed to Dr. Olson that the God described by Calvinism is truly the way God is – as incomprehensible as that circumstance seemingly would be to Dr. Olson’s mind – then Dr. Olson would be compelled by the rule or law to cease his love and worship of God.
    The correct way says that God himself is the rule/law/standard. He alone is the judge of such matters. When we as finite created beings do not understand something, or when we struggle with seemingly incomprehensible earthly circumstances, we appeal directly to our Creator in prayer, humbly acknowledging our limitations in the face of God’s incomprehensible goodness and his sovereignty in all things.
    This is the message of the book of Job. This is the message, though some will no doubt disagree with my interpretation of these well trod battleground scriptures between Calvinists and Arminians, of the potter/clay analogy referenced by OT prophets Isaiah (64:8) and Jeremiah (18) and again by Paul in his letter to the Romans (9).
    We are not to question God because it is not given to us as created beings to understand God’s ways and purposes. We are simply to love and to trust in him completely – independent of our circumstances, as incomprehensible as they may seem, or of what our minds can conceive that may or may not possibly be revealed to us at some future point about God.
    This is the essential consequence of Calvinism’s doctrine of the sovereignty of God for the Christian: No circumstance could possibly exist that would cause the Christian who adheres to this doctrine to cease in his love and worship of God.

    • rogereolson

      Really? So what if it were revealed to you in a way that you could not question or deny that Satan is God? Now don’t quibble over it. Just answer.

  • JPC

    Roger, the reason you can’t get a good answer from a Calvinist is because they don’t have one when it comes to the origin of evil. The only legitimate answers a Calvinist can give and be consistent with their theology is that either:
    A: God is the Author of sin
    B: They appeal to mystery
    To say that God withdrew his grace which caused the fall of Adam is a horrible explanation as to the origin of the fall and directly implicates God as the author of sin. Where does the Scripture teach this? This is nothing but human philosophy that only exists to support a presupposed theological system (Calvininsm). To say that God decreed the fall (rendered it certain) in order to foreknow it, then created Adam for this purpose, then withdrew the grace needed to resist temptation so that he could irresistibly fall, removes any vestige or free will. How is that genuine free will? It is only an illusion because if Adam had a genuine free will he would have had the ability to resist (real options) when tempted. The answer is simple which is why Arminians have no problem with this issue. Ditch Calvinism which in unnecessary and the reason is clear. Adam had a genuine free will and chose to sin. This explodes Calvinistic asumptions about the Sovereignty or God and how he possesses foreknowledge which is why most Calvinists love to start with the fall and not before it (unless they are inconsistent with their theology and are Arminians up until the fall and Calvinists after the fall).

  • Alan Steele


    • rogereolson

      Since I do not see the posts to which commenters are responding, a one word comment like this isn’t helpful. Please (everyone) give a one sentence summary of that to which your comment is responding. As it is, I don’t remember what “Nothing” would be a response to.

      • Alan Steele

        Sorry. My answer was overly succinct. In response to my assertion that because of the Calvinist’s belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, nothing could keep the Calvinist from loving and worshiping God. In response, Roger posed a hypothetical circumstance (Satan being God) and inquired if the hypothetical circumstance would cause me to cease loving and worshiping God. My answer, “Nothing” was meant to succinctly convey the message that absolutely nothing could cause me to cease loving and worshiping God.

        • rogereolson

          I will refrain from commenting on that except to say I find it shocking.

  • Alan Steele

    Additionally, I submit, we are considering the difference between faith sovereignly, mercifully and graciously given and maintained by God and faith that is self-generated and self-maintained.

    • rogereolson

      Of is it unbelief, condemnation and eternal torment in hell decreed and rendered certain by God versus unbelief, condemnation and eternal torment in hell freely chosen much to God’s sorrow?

      • Alan Steele

        As Roger has lamented, maintaining a dialogue thread on a blog is difficult. Can you color code the discussion threads on a blog? 🙂
        In response to my post, “I submit, we are considering the difference between faith sovereignly, mercifully and graciously given and maintained by God and faith that is self-generated and self-maintained.” Roger asks, “Or is it unbelief, condemnation and eternal torment in hell decreed and rendered certain by God versus unbelief, condemnation and eternal torment in hell freely chosen much to God’s sorrow?”
        Belief, salvation and inheritance all hinge on one thing: faith. The difference between unbelief, condemnation, eternal torment and belief, salvation, inheritance is faith. But, how does one acquire such faith? Such faith is not available by any choice, decision or action we can take nor by any power we possess. Saving faith is a gift from God, freely given. Scripture makes it clear that such faith cannot be earned. There is nothing in the acquisition of saving faith that gives the redeemed sinner any cause to boast. In this, I think Roger and I are in agreement.
        But, here is where Roger and I part company. Roger asserts that once the gift of faith has been received by the believer, independent of the means of grace or of the order of grace contained in one’s doctrinal beliefs, that his mind can conceive of a circumstance that would cause him to abandon his faith and cause him to cease his worship of God. I find this very troubling, but understandable given Roger’s professed beliefs. Roger believes that he chooses to love, chooses to believe and chooses to adore and worship God, freely and of his own volition. It necessarily follows, then, that Roger would also believe that, given the right set of circumstances, he not only could, but indeed would cease to believe in, love, worship and adore God. Roger would cast the gift aside believing the gift unsuitable because under the stated circumstances he has judged the giver of the gift to also be unsuitable.
        I don’t know what kind of faith that is. I do not believe that faith is the kind of faith described in the Bible as faith that saves. Nor does it sound like the kind of gift God would give. Neither does it sound like the kind of gift that brings with it the right to be called children of God. At the very least, it is a faith that one cannot depend on come what may in the spiritual conflict in which we find ourselves.
        Roger can also add perseverance of the saints to the Calvinist doctrines with which he disagrees.

        • rogereolson

          As I have said before, the relationship with God that you describe I would consider a condition, not a relationship.

          • Alan Steele

            I am describing our faith and trust in God as necessary conditions of the relationship, certainly. God expects our love for him – and our faith and trust in him – to be complete and unconditional. You have placed limitations on your faith and trust and therefore made your love of God conditional – and, worse yet, upon conditions that you yourself have established.
            What does it say about how we view God and our relationship with him that we would place such limitations on our faith, trust and love as you suggest in the example from your book I cited earlier?

          • rogereolson

            I struggle with how we are misunderstanding each other. Or at least you seem to be misunderstanding me. You say I am placing conditions on my love for God, but I was talking about a mythical God who does not exist. How can I be placing limitations on a not-God? To my mind you are claiming to love and worship a God you don’t really know who he is. Of course, you don’t think so, but from where I sit, that’s what I am hearing.

        • John I.

          “Such faith is not available by any choice, decision or action we can take nor by any power we possess.”

          Hmm, God in his revealed word certainly tells us to make a decision and choice and to undertake particular actions. Are you saying that God’s word lies?

          It seems to me that you and other TULIP Calvnists have a God of your own creation, one that you have made to fit philosophical conceptions about God and what is possible for God that grew out of enlightment era thought trends, culture, society, and philosophical thought. Such trends of thought and restrictions on who God is or could be appear to depart greatly not only from what is apparent on the face of the Bible, but also from very early inheritors of the teaching of the apostles, such as Ireneaus.

  • John I.

    Tiessen writes, “it is necessary, I think, that we postulate that just as creatures have no inherent right to exist, so moral creatures have no inherent right to be good. We are good by God’s beneficence, but because God is not morally obligated to give us goodness, any more than he was obligated to give us existence. His decision to withhold, from the angels who fell, the sustenance that kept the “elect angels” in goodness is his prerogative and constitutes him guilty of no immorality.”

    Of course the statement depends on what one means by “right”. However, even if we use the term in an amorphous and abstract way, it seems evident that anything “inherent” in a human is there “inherently” because God put it there when he created humans. Since humans, like moral law, are not a platonic category that exists outside God they have nothing “inherently” by virtue of being some platonic form (yes, there are some Christian platonists, but their view is highly problematic). Everything that is part and parcel of being human is put there by God; God does not choose from various forms of human but decides what it is to be human and then makes it so.

    Consequently the real issue is not one of human inherentness, but ones like (a) does an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely good being have an obligation to create a being that is “good” (an issue that Tiessen sidesteps), or (b) what does God mean by “good” when he states that his creation, including Adam, is not just “good” but “very good” and also that man is made “our image, in our likeness” (assuming that it means more than just the authority to rule). Does not the Bible state that God deals purely with the pure (Ps. 18:26, Dt. 32:5)? Was Adam impure?

    Given that there is no moral law outside of God, but rather that God himself is what is moral and that this character is not changeable, what does God reveal about his morality? I submit that what God reveals about his morality indicates that he does have a moral obligation to create humans as good. Or, since the word “obligation” suggests a moral standard existing outside of God, God reveals that his morality is such that he could not create a being that is not good (a limitation like that of lying).

    Several passages in both the OT and NT indicate that tempting another to do evil is evil per se (Jesus temptation in the wilderness – Mt. 4:5, James 1, Proverbs 1, Psalm 5, Mathew 24, Deuteronomy, etc.). Furthermore, if circumstance are considered gifts, then how can it be that the circumstances in which Adam and Eve were placed be considered good (cf. James 1:17)? Those circumstances were such that their evil actions were made inevitable (an the Calvinist understanding of will)–they were given not only a desire to have the fruit, and a desire to obey the serpent, and a desire to disobey god, but these desires were made their greatest desires and they were put into circumstances in which these greatest desires could be and would be actualized (their “wills” were “free” because nothing prevented them from fulfilling / doing / actualizing their greatest desires).

    If it is evil to entice or tempt someone to stray, then surely it is evil for God to put them in a place of temptation with a greatest desire to do what tempts them. Is that not exactly what the devil does when he roams about like a lion seeking whom he may devour?

    How can it be that God would want us to have his full armor so that we can resist satan (Eph. 6), but not want Adam to have it? How can it be that a God who reveals himself as “”the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”(Ex. 34:6) places Adam and Eve in circumstances and with desires that make their sin inevitable? And who also planned that this be inevitable? Has not God done a wrong to Adam & Eve to put them in such circumstances with such desires, contrary to Psalm 15? ” “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow man…who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.”

    If Adam is entirely created by God, including all his desires, then how can God reveal through James that we, including Adam, are “tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed”? The desire for the fruit, the desire to disobey God are desires that were put into Adam when he was created (ex nihilo nihil fit — Adam’s desire does not come from nothing or from nowhere).

    In Genesis 12 Pharoah is afflicted for sleeping with Abraham’s wife, even though he was innocent of evil intent and had no knowledge that what he was doing was wrong: Abraham had told him that Sarah was his sister. Abraham is also wrong. If those two are morally wrong, then God’s actions vis a vis Adam and Eve must also be wrong.

    Is not God’s intent relevant? Is it right for God to treat Adam as a means to an end (the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of some, and his glorification through the display of his wrath on all others), contrary to what he says through his prophet Amos? “This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed'” (Amos 2:6, 7).

    God as he revealed himself in his own words.