Daniel M. Bell Jr: On Atonement, Judgment & Gift

Daniel M. Bell Jr: On Atonement, Judgment & Gift March 2, 2011

Read rightly, Anselm’s account of the atonement is finally not economic. It is not a matter of debt, of juridical equity and restitution, of compensatory loss or penal suffering. As Anselm says, in accord with standard precepts of medieval theology, God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Likewise, God does not demand bloodshed, divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. That Anselm continues to be read in terms of this economic logic (debt, equity, retribution) and these distinctions (justice versus forgiveness) reflects less the deficiencies of his Augustinian vision of sacrifice than it does the way we modern readers of Anselm have been disciplined by an economy that functions in accordance with such logic and such distinctions.

Shorn of such economic distortions, Anselm’s account of the atonement reveals the splendor of the aneconomic bounty of God’s goodness. God became human not to satisfy an infinite debt, but so that humanity might be restored to the place of honor that God intended for humanity, namely, participation in the divine life. The injury to God’s honor that is effected by sin is a matter of the absence of humanity from the full communion with its creator. Thus, rightly understood, God’s honor is not a barrier to humanity’s reconciliation with God, one that creates an infinite debt: rather it is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. The atonement, the judgment of God, is not about a juristic reckoning stretched to infinity, but ontological union.

As such it displays not the scarcity of finitude in the face of the infinite but the plenitude of divine charity, of God’s giving and giving again. God has always given to humanity in the form of love, and when humanity rejected that gift, God gave again in the form of love incarnate, which is the Son. Christ’s work is that of giving again, of communicating God’s love and grace (which has never ceased to flow) to humanity again (and again). The work of atonement is God in Christ bearing human rejection and extending the offer of grace again, thereby opening a path for humanity to recover beatitude. In this sense, Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution, not the settling of a debt, but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us…

The atonement is not about infinite debt and totalized judgment, but about the instantiation of the gift that enables us to return to our source. It is about humanity’s being taken up into the divine life of the Trinity through participation in Christ. There is a sacrifice involved in this atoning work, and there is a substitution. But these are not positioned in an economy of debt and retribution; rather, they find their true meaning in the aneconomic order of divine plenitude and superabundance where life recovers its true modality of gift, donation, and unending generosity. Thus Christ’s sacrifice becomes the donation of obedience and praise (the return of love) offered by the Son to the Father, and his role is substitutionary in that the Son offers the  worship that we cannot. As Hart explains,

As Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange, but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift, and must be seen as such: a gift given when it should not have been needed to be given again, by God, and at a price that we, in our sin, imposed on him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.

In sum, God became human as a gift that exceeded every debt, that exploded the very calculus of debt and retribution and set in its place an aneconomic order of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. In Christ, we are done with the judgment of God; in Christ we reach the end of judgment.

Daniel M. Bell Jr., “Only Jesus Saves: Toward a Theopolitical Ontology Of Judgment”. Theology and the Political: The New Debate. ed. by Creston Davis and John Milbank. (Duke University Press. 2005).

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  • brettsalkeld

    David Bentley Hart?

  • markdefrancisis

    Yes. David Bentley Hart.

    • I also am left wondering about Canon 222. Is it mandatory, or voluntary? “Obligation” would seem to indicate mandatory.

  • I see a conflict with Leviticus 27:30 here. Am I missing something?

  • Daniel Bell? or David?

    • markdefrancisis

      Sorry. It’s Daniel.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks for this Mark.

    I am more and more impressed with Anselm. I am working on Eucharistic sacrifice right now (as an ecumenist) and it seems to me that we will not be able to find any agreement on that issue if we are not clear about what we think Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross entailed and accomplished. An accurate reading of Anselm will be key here.

    On the other hand, I wonder if Bell is right that it is our current culture that makes Anselm inaccessible. I mean, I’m sure it doesn’t help, but Anselm was already fairly misunderstood by the time of the Reformation. At least, I think he was. Sometimes I think Anselm’s own metaphors are very easy to misread in themselves. Since the widespread success of Reformation-style penal substitution atonement theories, Anselm has become downright incomprehensible to much of Christianity.

    Happily, in my view, the heirs of the Reformation are growing more and more uncomfortable with penal substitution theories. Many are moving in the direction of Bell and Hart highlighted here. James Alison and Miroslav Volf also have interesting things to say in this regard, as does the current pontiff who talks about Anselm (and misreadings thereof) in his Introduction to Christianity.

    • “God needs nothing”

      Brett I see the metaphors, and apparently my questions were viewed by others as a lack of ability to see them. That said, Anselm’s account of the atonement is read by many “incorrectly” and I in my own ignorance have trouble seeing “off the lines” on the phrase “God needs nothing”.

      I was seriously hoping one of the more well educated minds in this thread would explain to me why and how “God needs nothing” can be interpreted in such a way as to exclude any association to economics.

      Hopefully you will enlighten me. I apparently am missing a vital link.

      • brettsalkeld

        So I think the basic issue is that many have misread atonement theology in general, and Anselm in particular, as a way in which the Cross somehow restores some equilibrium that was lost in God. The fact is, however, that human sin does not hurt God one bit. (At least not in Godself, but more on that in a minute.) Human sin hurts humans by separating us from God and from one another. The Atonement is not about how God’s anger is placated or how God’s honor is restored. Rather, it is about how God willed to suffer the consequences of our sin which we were already suffering ourselves. Christ was crucified in company.

        No suffering was needed to earn God’s forgiveness. But in great suffering God showed us the depth of his forgiveness. (And sometimes we need suffering before we can recognize God’s desire to forgive us.) When he met with the disciples who had fled his execution his first words were “Peace be with you.” Further, though God does not suffer in Godself, God was willing to suffer in the human Jesus of Nazareth and, by extension, all the suffering of our race.

        The Atonement is about God fulfilling human need. Indeed, super-fulfilling. When we read the metaphors so as to imply some need in God we will end up with distortions in our theology of God and in our understanding of the Cross.

        Anselm, like the theologians of his time, was careful to treat God as “outside the system.” God is not one more existing “thing” among existing things. Rather God is existence per se. Such a being (or such being!) only works awkwardly in our metaphorical systems and we must constantly advert to the fact that in any analogy involving God, more will be distorted than clarified. (This was actually defined at Lateran IV in 1215.) When we use metaphors, we must understand that the metaphor is meant to make one or two subtle points and cannot be extended indefinitely. There are, by definition, no perfect metaphors. A perfect metaphor would just be a replica. If this is true of metaphors generally, it is especially true when one term of the comparison is outside the box of all the things we experience in creation. God is not something else, but somehow else.

        Gosh I hope that helps.

        • It did quite well Matt, and I appreciate your response which got the wheels spinning, and while I have many questions now, perhaps most of them can be resolved by one.

          I have always taken away that God wanted us to love him. Is the phrase “God needs nothing” being used solely within the context of the cross, or in return for the sacrifice?

  • Dan

    Not to stir the pot much as I did in another thread, but I’m still quite uncomfortable with this interpretation – not because of content, but because it fairly blatantly (at least in my eyes) flies in the face of the scriptures. It doesn’t contradict them, but it certainly is a complete reinterpretation of the key message of Jesus’ mission as foretold by the prophets, and mentioned by Jesus himself (John 12:27-28).

    Trust me, I have as much, if not more, discomfort with the idea of retribution as anyone. But I think we swing too far the other way when we completely reinterpret the scriptures in such a way to nullify what appears to be the obvious interpretation – that Jesus spilled blood is the key element in the atoning sacrifice.

    You can fit a square peg into a round hole if you sufficiently shave down its edges. But then it isn’t a square anymore…

    • brettsalkeld

      Hey Dan,
      I’m starting to think that you’re going to need something a lot more substantial than a blog post. If your concern is that this interpretation runs totally counter to Scripture, you’ll probably to read a book-length treatment of the issue that is thoroughly rooted in Scripture.
      I don’t think it runs counter to Scripture, but it does require bringing a whole new lens to Scripture compared to what the West has used for at 500 years.
      The East, from what I understand, has never seen Scripture as saying what most of us Westerners have been taught it says on this issue.
      I would recommend Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption. When I read this it felt like many Scripture passages made sense for the first time. James Alison is also good, though I have only read one small book of his so far.

      • Dan

        I’m actually looking forward to the blog post – since I have negative time to digest a book on the matter. Nevertheless, to be truly satisfied, I think I may have to at some point.

        I still remain skeptical of attempts to re-interpret scripture according to modern understandings. After all, that’s the genesis of Protestantism. Whatever lens you choose to read through will magnify certain passages and obscure others. A sufficiently distorted lens can justify almost any viewpoint through scripture, as we see frequently today.

        But it’s not just scripture that’s the issue – it’s the whole Jewish cultural idea of sacrifice which is negated by this concept.

        That being said, it’s very possible that the prophets expressed the idea of Christ in the historical cultural framework of the ancient Jewish nomadic culture, where sacrifice was necessarily understood as violent. In that sense, the violent imagery is a concession to our primitive understanding of justice and the nature of sacrifice. I can get that.

        I suppose I’m just a layman who has always been troubled by this issue, and am really looking for an educated opinion to help provide some rationale for that nagging voice in my head that a loving God simply cannot choose violence and death as the mechanism through which we are redeemed – even if it’s all our fault.

        • Dan, I highly encourage you read Benedict XVI (then Ratzinger), The Spirit of the Liturgy, especially the beginning. There is an excellent discussion of the meaning of sacrifice and cult in general for the Old Law, and how Jesus at one and the same time fulfills that logic and the logic critical of sacrifice seen in both the prophets and the pagan philosophers.

    • Perhaps to begin to advert to what I take to be Dan’s worry, we probably should be clear that, for Anselm, as for the theology of both East and West, and indeed I would say in fidelity to the Scriptures, sinful man is, as such, hateful in God’s eyes and deserving of punishment. After all, as we are reminded in Luke 13, it is not as though some few people (those at Siloam or the Galilaeans) are, for some inscrutable reason, under divine censure and worthy of punishment. As Jesus notes in his parable, that things go well for us is a sign not of our virtue, but of divine forbearance, of his holding back a destruction well deserved that, just maybe, we will bear fruit. For all that he has become the butt of jokes in US high schools for generations, Jonathan Edwards was not being silly in his (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (If you have not read it in a while, read it again; you may find it more fruitful with your theological guard down!)

      That being said, the Scriptures, while requiring us to speak of Jesus bearing our sins, being punished for our offenses, does not permit our seeing the will of the Father for Jesus to drink the cup as anything other than an act of love: of the Father for the world, of the Son for the Father, of the Son for the lost sheep of Israel and for other sheep in other flocks, of the Father for the Son. That is, that Jesus became sin for our sake does not mean that Jesus received God’s wrath and anger. Indeed, as John 12 reminds us, the crucifixion of the Son is his glory, his victory over the prince of the world, and the Father attests to that very truth.

      Re: Anselm. It is helpful to consider that while God did not need any debt fulfilled, as he never lacks anything, and we never escape his dominion, even so, for our part, we are lacking. Horribly simplified, this might get us on an Anselmian track: God made us to be happy, and part of our happiness entails upholding righteouness in fidelity to and love of God. In failing to do so, we can never be happy unless somehow we right the wrong in which we are implicated. It is not enough just that the wrong be righted; if it is done by someone else with whom we cannot claim kinship and unity, who is not “one of us,” then our ability to be happy is marred. We will always know that we lack the happiness God intended for us, namely that, in some sense, we are the “source” of our goodness either by never abandoning it (as for the good angels, who are then confirmed in their decision by grace) or else by restoring what we have lost.

      This is why God’s work is both the fulfilling of a debt, because in the Incarnation the God Man, being one of us, does for us what, as God, he alone can and we cannot. That is, he offers in perfect obedience, humility, and love what is infinitely more precious than the entirety of the sins of the world, past, present, and to come, namely, his own life, delivered into the hands of sinful men. He lays down his life, dying as we ought to die, but doing what in him is an act of freedom, a gift, and by his allowing us to share in his work, his dying becomes our dying, and so what would otherwise be in us a just punishment for sin becomes, rather, a conformity to the beloved Son, that “he who believes in him may have eternal life.”

      • Dan

        Thank you Dominic. Your replies are helpful.

        I thoroughly grasp the principles which you are putting forth – and wholeheartedly agree with them. I want to believe that is entirely the case, but I still struggle with the contradiction that Christ’s death was somehow required. This argument is the perfect example of the need for incarnation, but not so much for death/resurrection. As I mentioned in Brett’s post, this same argument would apply in equal measure had Christ died a natural death (or never died at all). There is nothing in this argument which implies necessity of a violent death. This leads to a contradiction:

        1. If Christ’s violent death was intrinsically necessary, the only rational solution is one of penal substitution.

        2. If Christ’s violent death was not intrinsically necessary, then God willfully chose to submit Jesus to needless violence and a gruesome death. (I personally think it’s a cop out to say “But it’s different because he was God” – Jesus was fully human too, and the whole pretext of sin is that violence against ourselves is not permissible either).

        The flavors of the argument I’ve heard all center around the idea that a violent death was only extrinsically necessary – the inevitable consequence (and therefore a requirement) of immersing Himself to our culture of death. But this also raises two more questions:

        1. How could God somehow participate more perfectly in our suffering and sorrows through incarnation? Doesn’t he participate fully now?

        2. There are worse things than death, which Christ did not suffer through. This creates a gap in the “perfect solidarity” argument, calling into question the necessity of the incarnation.

        Thanks for your attempts to address my silly concerns.

        • Dan

          To summarize:

          Jesus lived a perfect life in communion with God, which we cannot do. We are invited to share in his life; in his Communion with God. Through sharing in his perfect communion with God, we are at-one-d.

          A violent death changes nothing to the above statement. Neither does resurrection.

          • brettsalkeld

            Part of living a perfect life is dying a perfect death. A violent death is what many Christians have since been called to as part of their participation in Christ’s life, most recently in Pakistan. Christ’s violent death was necessary in as much as he had committed himself to confront evil head-to-head, as it were. The violence was necessary because it was the violence against which he was fighting. There is no victory if we never see the enemy.

            Resurrection has everything to do with your statement because Scripture is very clear that the Resurrection is what makes Christ’s perfect life (which includes his death) available for our participation. Without resurrection we have nothing.

          • Dan

            So are you saying that, had Christ not died violently, his sacrifice would not be perfect?

            If so, what is our historical, scriptural, or theological basis to make that claim?

          • brettsalkeld

            Any sacrifice Christ made, even giving up chocolate for Lent, would have been perfect. But different sacrifices have different ends. For a sacrifice to conquer violence and sin, it must actually face violence and sin.

          • Dan


            I think your comment touches on something important. I’m going to ruminate on it. It does put into context the passage “the last enemy to be conquered is death”.

        • Whenever you see words like “required” or “necessary” it is always important to parse out what they mean, and for whom. A triangle is necessarily 180 degrees by intrinsic necessity. God is never compelled by that kind of necessity, as regards the world. He is goodness, e.g., so he necessarily wills and loves himself, but that is because anyone who would know God and turn away could not be perfect, and so would not be God.

          Necessity can also be coerced externally, such as if I tie someone up and throw his body down the stairs, then necessarily he will fall down the stairs. God obviously is not bound that way, either.

          Necessity might be the “necessity of the end”, and this we can divide into two. One sort of necessity of the end is seen in the adage that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Here, you don’t have to make an omelette, but if you choose to do so, there is no way to do it without breaking eggs. God, as omnipotent, is not bound this way, either.

          Another “necessity of the end” has to do with what St Thomas calls convenientia and might be translated as “fittingness.” Something can be called “necessary” when it is the best, or wisest, or most fitting way to accomplish something. There is a kind of prudential and aesthetic judgment here, but in experience, we know of times that we say to ourselves that “there was no other way for it to be done,” when strictly speaking, there were other ways, but none of them seemed quite appropriate or right, given the kinds of goods we wanted to produce or pursue.

          Now, Thomas argues, I think rightly, that the necessity of the death on the Cross was, on God’s part, of this last kind. God need not have died on the Cross by internal necessity, he was not compelled by an external force, nor were his hands tied (i.e. it was not, as Milton’s God the Father says of sinful man in Paradise Lost, “Die He or Justice Must.”).

          Now, for my part, I reject wholeheartedly the claim that Jesus only died as “the inevitable consequence (and therefore a requirement) of immersing Himself to our culture of death.” I think such a view falsifies the account in the New Testament that the death of the Cross was both necessary and willed freely by God. I also think your worries are thus not ill placed. God did not need, for his sake, to “participate” in suffering. Your concerns, in other words, are far from silly.

          Still, a bit of caution on theological method. We cannot derive what God “might have done” in any case, unless God has revealed it. Indeed, we only know God’s will from what he has actually revealed. In his revelation, we know that it was necessary that Christ should suffer, and so enter into his glory. We also know that Christ Jesus, thinking it “not robbery to be equal to God,” humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, suffering death, even death on a Cross. That is, we know that the death on the Cross was necessary and that it was the free initiative on the part of Christ Jesus in obedience to the Father out of love for the world. It is fair to try to come to understand this more deeply. Even so, in the end we must recognize what God has told us of his counsels is all we can know of them. What we can hold in confidence is that there was not a better way for God to achieve what he willed to achieve than the means he has actually used. So, when his means are puzzling, it may mean we have not yet attended fully to all God meant to accomplish through, e.g. the Passion and Crucifixion.

          This is why everything we say about the death of the Cross are various attempts to get at the wisdom of what God has revealed, and usually require of us manifold ways of understanding Christ’s work. Consider the following from St. Thomas Aquinas, asking “Whether there was any more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ’s Passion?” (Summa theologiae III 46.3):”Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such an end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation. In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of man’s salvation; hence the Apostle says (Rom 5:8): God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were still sinners … Christ died for us. Secondly, because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (1 Pet 2:21): Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps. Thirdly, because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss, as shall be shown later. Fourthly, because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Cor 6:20: You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body. Fifthly, because it redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Cor 15:57): Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.”

          Thomas, of course, has more to say, but this helps to see that there is more gained from various perspectives from his voluntary suffering and death on the Cross than by, e.g. dying peacefully in his sleep, or even not dying at all but being assumed directly into heaven. These goods are all our goods, meant for our benefit, and so are only necessary given that God wants to achieve these goods for us in a certain way.

        • One final point: To think being heedful that Jesus’ being God is a “cop out” because he also has a human nature is worrisome. Why? Because God is not just one more being, albeit a really powerful one, alongside others. What Jesus does, even the smallest of his human acts, are always, in technical language theandric, the human acts of a divine person. As such, they have a significance and effect of a radically different order than any other human acts.

          • Dan

            Thank you for your posts above. I am digesting it.

            As a complete sidenote, I suppose I should defend why I think it is a cop out to consider Jesus in this fashion:

            If Jesus’ actions were of a human order, then he truly has accomplished something special, and it follows that he could bridge the gap between man and God and “save” the human race. He has provided the perfect achievable example of what we can become if we unite ourselves to him.

            However, if his actions were of a divine order, then Jesus, as God incarnate, hasn’t really done anything special. He lived the perfect life, as would be expected of God. Whether Jesus is a man or a mushroom is ultimately irrelevant – he’s playing with a stacked deck, and his example is meaningless because it is unachievable. It’s a borderline Deus Ex Machina.

          • Dan

            I should moderate that comment slightly – I don’t mean meaningless, but rather less meaningful.

          • brettsalkeld

            Yes, the whole being fully human thing is pretty essential. 😉

        • brettsalkeld

          Also, I think penal substitution is the one theory of atonement that really makes the resurrection supefluous. The Resurrection is the guarantee that all of us throughout history can actually participate in Christ’s sacrifice and perfect worship of the Father. If there is some pure penal substitution there is nothing to participate in and the resurrection is nothing more than an attempt at apologetics by miracle.

  • “sinful man is, as such, hateful in God’s eyes and deserving of punishment.”

    “God made us to be happy, and part of our happiness entails upholding righteousness in fidelity to and love of God.”

    Father Dominic,

    The two quotes I copied from your last comment above for me summarize what I think I am hearing from Anselm, but frankly, also from a majority of Christians and indeed it is quite the simplified form.

    Either you interpret him literally, in which case God needs nothing, including money, or you work the metaphors.

    However if you approach it as a metaphor you run into what I think I see in the two copied quotes above which basically makes God out to be a defective designer who is largely unaware of his own defects in workmanship.

    Am I still missing something?

    • Note that I said sinful man is hateful, so the defect is not in God’s design or workmanship, but in human sin (coupled with diabolic fraud, of course). This is no way contradicts the claim that God made us to be happy.

      Two analogies: A mother can raise her daughter to be a good daughter, to be happy and healthy, which of course she can be, if she receives her mother’s teaching well and makes it her own. If, however, she turns from what she knows is right and becomes a heroin addict, stealing even from her own mother to get her next fix, then as she is now she is hateful, although her mother both meant and even means now for her to be happy. What the daughter cannot be is happy while remaining as she is, but this speaks ill not of the mother’s skills as a mother, but rather the daughter’s turning to vice.

      Another analogy: I first understood personally what it means for God to hate sin when I started teaching. The first time a read midterm exams (it was an undergraduate theology course, by the way), I was, at least for the worst exams, horrified. What I saw was not simply wrong; it was my own words but so hopelessly misconstrued and twisted as to depart radically from the meaning and intent with which they had been stated. My words were right and true, as I saw from the good exams, but to see what was good in itself so abused was more than just to see error; it was to be grieved that my creations were so distorted. (Don’t worry, my skin is thicker now! Even so, I hope this gets the idea across.)

      In the end, on the witness of the New Testament, it is not the Father who need Christ’s sacrifice. We do.

  • I have never doubted that we need Christ’s sacrifice, not God, as I pay close attention to human behavior:)

    I understand why God would want to give man the gift of life, and because I think I know what love really is, I also think I grasp why God would allow man free will. Forced love is not something even remotely desirable by anyone with a love for truth.

    I do understand that those who turn from God do ruin their lives if for no other reason than they miss the bounty that comes from God’s love.

    That said, I have a hard time understanding why someone who would sacrifice their own son’s life to demonstrate his love for us could have ever knowingly allowed sin to enter the playground with his children.

    Maybe I am misreading it, but this architecture built out of Anselm’s account of the atonement still leaves me in pain, and hounded with the question of why? I think that might be what I meant when I referenced a “design flaw”.

    I understand truly, the need for free will to choose whether or not to love God. I just cannot wrap my horns around -why- sin was/is ever allowed into the game. If there was no sin, it would still be a choice for man to choose the love of God, or to walk away.

    I created and raised my own children, and if I had the power I would have removed sin from their lives.

    I truly appreciate your guidance by the way, and my questions sometimes may be purely provocative (ahem) but I assure you that my questions to you in this thread are quite genuine.

    • The best response to your questions is probably going to produce even more questions! Nonetheless, at the risk of opening a can of worms, here we go …

      As St Thomas teaches, and I believe he is correct, there are two kinds of mistakes we make when we think about God and the presence of sin in the world. The first error is to think that God allows sin to occur in light of some morally sufficient reason or reasons, e.g. he wants the “greater good” of freedom, and that (or some other good) counterbalances the permission of evil. The second error is to imagine that evil or sinful acts are attributable to creatures alone (e.g. demons or human beings) as opposed to God as their cause.

      The first is an error because God is not, in the true sense, a moral agent. It is not that God is immoral or amoral. Rather, what it means for God to be good is not that God is well-behaved, or that God conforms himself to some external standard of goodness, according to which standard he makes the choices that he does. To say God is good is to say (a) that God is the source of the goodness of everything created and (b) in created goodness we have an analogy to what is true of God’s essence. Created things are good by being what they are successfully, which for human beings means inter alia conforming their acts to reason, since that is the kind of thing that they are, viz. rational animals. God is being itself, so we really do not know what it means for God to be good, save by analogy. What we do know it does not mean is that there is some goodness apart from God by which God is good. Relevant to this discussion, it means that God does what he does in ways that are (1) true to himself and, thus (2) radically free and (3) radically good. It is the basis for the Bible’s metaphor of God as the potter, to whom none of his pots can rightfully ask why they were made the way that they were. So, God does not “permit” evil for the sake of some greater good.

      As to the second, there is no source of action which is not always also the result of God’s action. God is not, of course, the formal cause of the act being evil, since evil is a privation, not a thing in itself. Even so, a murderer cannot murder, a liar cannot lie, a thief cannot steal, a gossip cannot tell tales, without God also causing (not compelling!) them to act. This is a complicated metaphysical point, but it means here, minimally, that we cannot simply say that human beings cause evil and God has nothing to do with their evil acts.

      What Thomas does remind us, in a general way, is that something can be good, indeed very good, in which parts do not succeed at being what they are. For a trivial example, consider the example of craqueleur, the art of crackle glaze. When varnish is applied to something, e.g. pottery, and is heated, the varnish can crack. This is, strictly speaking, a failure on the part of the varnish. However, sometimes an artist wants those cracks to appear for aesthetic purposes, as with some celadon glazes from Asia. Indeed, an artist might apply a series of differently colored varnishes, knowing that the crackling, in one sense a failure, will produce a pleasing effect, namely the differently hued cracks on the pot’s surface.

      Note that this is not the same as saying that the artist “allows” the cracks for the sake of some other good. The artist wills that the whole exist with the strategically placed flaws, and the final result is good in a way it would not have been without those flaws.

      Now, as I noted, this raises a host of other kinds of questions, each of which would require more than a blog post to answer. Still, we might begin to see the idea in our own lives when we consider, fully and honestly, how even our faults, failures, and defects are hard to renounce fully in the sense that it is hard to see that we would be precisely the good we are now without them. This does not absolve our sinning, and indeed, while a universe with Hell might be more complete than one without a Hell, those who refuse to love are rightly punished and rightly consigned there, and they will never be happy about that. Even so, for those among God’s elect, we can be confident that God’s grace is sufficient, and that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

      • Father Dominic I want to first thank you for a beautiful response that paints a picture of what was a deep and compacted, yet very excellent blog post.

        I will also say to you that if you ever tire of your current career, there is definitely a future for you as a political consultant.

        I shall remain somewhat unsatisfied with what is to be our lot, but your highly poetic response to my question brings a smile to me now, and hopefully will serve well for me the next time that I witness what seems to be an inexplicable act of horror.

        You are correct that we have waded into the deep end of the pool here for a blog post and I shall reserve further questions for another place and time, which should be no small cause for celebration on your end:)