The Privation Theory of Evil: Introduction

One of the most popular and serious objections to Christianity is the argument against God from the existence of evil. If God is all-powerful, he could prevent evil. If God is perfectly good, he would prevent evil. Evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist. That is to say, the sort of God that Christianity claims exist, a God who is all-powerful and perfectly good, does not, in fact, exist. This argument is basically claiming that there is a contradiction within the Christian worldview. For the Reformed Christian, this argument is particularly sharp because of the deterministic nature of Reformed theology. If the Reformed doctrine of predestination is true, and God, in fact, ordains all that comes to pass, then doesn’t this entail that God is the author of sin? This issue is one that Christians have had to grapple with throughout each generation of the church.

Daniel M. Johnson says “the mainstream of Christian philosophy has resisted Calvinism because of a general sense that Calvinism makes the problem of evil – far and away the most serious philosophical challenge to theism – harder to solve.” [Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, 19] Christian doctrine clearly affirms that God is not the author of sin and any view that leads to such a conclusion is highly objectionable to the Church. Gen. 1:31 says that all that God created was very good. James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted by evil nor does he tempt anyone else with evil. John 1:5 says that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. 1 Cor. 14:33 says that God is not the author of confusion. In a recent blog post, Theodore Zachariades postulated that the Hebrew word Isa. 45:6-7 rāʿ meant moral evil as well as physical evil. Zachariades writes The word evil here is sometimes used for wicked immoral actions of men. [Click here for Source]

John Calvin would have disagreed with Zachariades on this point. Calvin wrote, A little before, the Lord had declared that “everything that he had made … was exceedingly good” [Gen. 1:31]. Whence, then, comes that wickedness to man, that he should fall away from his God? Lest we should think it comes from creation, God had put his stamp of approval on what had come forth from himself. By his own evil intention, then, man corrupted the pure nature he had received from the Lord; and by his fall he drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity—which is closer to us—rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination. And let us not be ashamed to submit our understanding to God’s boundless wisdom so far as to yield before its many secrets. For, of those things which it is neither given nor lawful to know, ignorance is learnèd; the craving to know, a kind of madness.” [Institutes III.XXIII.8] Not only is Calvin careful to blame man for his own evil intentions, he rebukes those who insist on looking into what he thinks are things that are not lawful to know and says that we are engaging in a kind of madness when we attempt to harmonize what God has placed beyond our reach.

Christianity has a long history of dealing with the problem of evil from both the external charge as well as the internal challenges. It was Augustine, probably the greatest Christian theologian to have ever lived and without a doubt the greatest in his day and before him there was no greater until we come to the apostles. Augustine, taking a page from Aristotle argued that evil is not itself a thing, but rather a lack of something, a privation. The privation theory of evil says that evil is the lack of good, or being, where being and good are understood as convertible. Evil is not a substance or a property, but a lack of some substance or property. Scripture provides greater support for this view than one might at first imagine. What is sin? After all, moral evil is sin. 1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is lawless. In other words, sin is the absence of law. It is the negation of law. Sin is to lack law. So the argument goes thusly: Evil is lawlessness. Lawless is a privation of law. Therefore, sin (evil) is a privation of law. I remind you that we are talking about moral evil, not natural or physical evil. A person who is not righteous is one who is unrighteous. Again, an unrighteous person is a person who lacks the property of being righteous.

Gen. 1:31 says that God saw everything that he made, including man, and that it was ṭōwb mĕʾōd, very good. It lacked nothing. Reformed theology has always taught that Adam was created possessing original righteousness. He was very good. He possessed all he needed to obey the command, to serve God, and to live forever. But Adam exercised his freedom contrary to God’s imperative and as a result, fell headlong into sin. This brings us to the letter of James.

James 1:13-16 says, Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. The problem began with Adam. He was capable of his own desires. He was to order his desires after God’s desires. But he was lured and enticed by his own desire, that is, he was lured to consider elevating his own desire over God’s desire. It is not evil to be tempted. It is not a sin for a man to be tempted. The fact that Adam could be tempted was not due to some defect in him. God has already said that Adam was created very good. Yet, Adam was lured by his own desire. And regrettably, Adam permitted his desire to conceive. He took the forbidden fruit and broke the command. As a result, Adam’s desire brought forth sin, and sin brought forth death.

Adam’s decision to follow his desire created a privation of being, a privation of goodness, or better, godliness, within his entire person. Once the door was open, the foul infection of privation touched every part of his person. Adam surrendered his righteousness for unrighteousness. He allowed his desire to move him from law-keeping to lawlessness. Adam deprived himself of righteous standing before God.

To recap, we see that Adam was created not lacking anything. We also see that Scripture does actually affirm that sin or evil is a privation, specifically, a privation of divine law. Divine law is the expression of God’s perfect nature. Sin is the privation of godliness, the lack of being like God. We see that man sins when he is lured and seduced by his own desires. If man permits his desires to actualize, sin, or privation of godliness is the result. The loss of godliness brings forth death.

The charge against God then is mitigated when the Christian takes this path. God is under no obligation to create anything in the first place. Since evil is a privation of good, it is not something created. It is a lack of something. Now, the charge will come that it is true that God was free to create or not to create, but if God chooses to create, then he is not free to create just any world willy-nilly. Which world God creates will be determined by God’s purpose for creating. Moreover, God’s purpose for creating will be a purpose that is perfectly consistent with his nature. This brings us to the objection that God is culpable for creating a world in which privation was not only possible but ordained by him from the beginning. This does not remove the original objection after all.

In answer to this charge, the Christian can bring in the doctrine of analogy. Man’s knowledge is analogous to God’s knowledge, which means that there is a point of contact but there is also a point of discontinuity. God is like man and he is unlike man. God’s knowledge is similar to man’s knowledge but not identical to it. There isn’t just a difference of degree in God concerning his attributes, but there is also a difference in quality. So, when we say that God causes x, we do not mean that God causes x in the same way that a creature causes x. God has already said that his ways are higher than our ways. (Isa. 55:9) If we say that God is, in some sense, the cause of everything that comes to pass, we must be careful to distinguish between this divine causality and our creaturely causality. This brings us to the question, “Is God under any obligation to bring about the sort of world where privation of good or godliness is not actualized?” I cannot see why he should be. What God is obligated to do is to actualize the sort of world that is in accord with his purpose. And we know that his purpose flows from his perfectly good nature. So if the purpose of God is to actualize a world in which divine glory is maximized for example, and the maximization of God’s glory is indeed the highest possible good, then it seems to me that if such a world entails privation of good or the presence of evil, that God is fully justified (as if God needs to justify himself to anyone) in his decision to actualize such a world.

This returns us to the charge that God is the cause of sin. God ordained a world in which the privation of good would occur. And at the end of the day, that makes God the cause of sin. And this is a charge that Christians have sought to avoid for centuries. God did not walk into the garden and tempt Adam. God did not work in Adam in order to coerce Adam to act in accord with the decree. We say that it is true that God has ordained everything that comes to past but that the cause of sin is located in Adam himself who acted in a way that was contrary to the divine imperative. God is sovereign over all creation and man is responsible. God is not the author of sin. We can say then that God is both sovereign and just in ways that are meaningful, that we can understand, but also in ways that far exceed our ability to fully understand. The tension is unavoidable.

The final objection is that paradox is an illegitimate move in hermeneutics and Christian theology. The whole point is to show that Christian belief is rational, or reasonable. But if the existence of paradox in theology serves as a legitimate ground to reject a particular Christian doctrine, then we had better abandon the Trinity and the Incarnation just for starters. The rejection of paradox is essentially the rejection then of biblical Christianity.



Mr. Ed



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