Monday, February 11, 2008

Analysis 12 - Twisse's Twist

God, if we speak of his absolute power, without respect to his free decree, could have pardoned sin without a ransom, and gifted all mankind and fallen angels with heaven, without any satisfaction of either the sinner, or his surety
– Samuel Rutherford

In the last Analysis we noted that Calvin emphasised the inscrutability and sovereignty of God’s will, and stresses divine simplicity, and then largely leaves the matter there, also stressing the inappropriateness of attempting to investigate the Creator-creature relationship. In the decades that followed Calvin’s era Reformed theologians employed the tools and results of scholastic theology to press some of these matters further. (Though Calvin himself was no enemy of scholasticism. For some details see Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas. ) Among these was William Twisse. Twisse (1575-1646) is largely forgotten. (There is a brief discussion of him in Carl Trueman’s The Claims of Truth, (Paternoster, 1998)) Educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, and a Fellow there, and then for many years the Vicar of Newbury in Berkshire, Twisse wasappointed Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly until forced to cease through ill -health. But he was ill - suited to the job, being retiring and not at ease in oral discussion.

A thumbnail of William Twisse, from a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery
The man, as the world knows, is very learned in the questions he has studied, and very good, beloved of all, and highly esteemed; but merely bookish, not much, as it seems, acquainted with conceived prayer, and among the unfittest of all the company for any action; so after the prayer he sits mute. (Robert Baillie on Twisse.)
Nevertheless he was a formidable scholastic theologian. At one stage he was offered a Chair of Theology in Holland. His Latin Opera were published in Amsterdam (1652). However, the repetitiveness of his English writings tries the patience. Here we shall draw attention to and try to understand his strong doctrine of divine sovereignty. It got him into trouble with John Owen, whose views we shall consider in our next Analysis. Owen discusses Twisse’s views as they are found in Vindiciae Gratiae, (1632) but the same position is to be found in his Riches of God’s Love (posthumously published in 1653). Samuel Rutherford agreed with Twisse, as the quotation at the heading of this Analysis makes clear.

One curious feature of the spat between Owen and Twisse is that Twisse’s Riches of God’s Love and Owen’s Dissertation of Divine Justice were each published in 1653. Owen (at that time Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford) wrote a commendatory Preface for the book, even though it contained the very doctrine of sovereignty that he objected to in Twisse’s earlier Vindiciae Gratiae. ‘This Treatise of our Author, comes not any whit behind the choicest of those other eminent Workes of his, wherein in this cause of God, he faithfully served his generation.’ It has to be borne in mind that both Twisse’s Vindiciae, some of which Owen objected to, and his rebuttal, are originally Latin texts addressed to scholars.

Twisse on the nature of divine sovereignty

There is a problem with the relative positions of the divine will and the divine character. Is the will of God in some sense prior to (not temporally or causally prior, but logically prior) God’s natue, or subordinate to it? (This question is distinct from the issue of whether or not God can do things by his power alone, distinct from his nature – both Twisse and Owen, with the Reformed Orthodox tradition since Calvin - reject such an idea as blasphemous). It may seem that this distinction is pure logic chopping. However, if one takes the view that God’s will ‘presides’ over his character, then a strong doctrine of divine sovereignty results. If by contrast the divine will (or power) is subordinate to the divine character, and it is held that God is ‘obliged to’ or ‘has a duty to’ himself, to his own moral and spiritual self, then a more constrained doctrine of divine sovereignty follows. Twisse took the first view, as we shall now see.

Twisse makes a substantive distinction between God's essential nature and his will in respect of his wisdom and justice. God, unlike men and women, does not have an obligation to his moral attributes. (Riches of God’s Love, II.112) He had no obligation to create the universe, nevertheless the manner in which he creates must be just in that it is an exercise of God’s lawful power as Creator (Riches II.153). He is the Lord of life, to grant it or not, to prolong it or to end it. As Twisse puts the point in his Riches of God’s Love

In making the world, I doe not doubt, but God did that which was just; but was there any justice in God obliging him to be making of the world?….It is most true that supposing the end which God intends, the wisdome of God directs in the right use of congruent means; and no other justice then this his wisdome doth Aquinas acknowledge in the divine nature. (152)

(The reference to Aquinas is likely to be to Summa Theologicae Ia 21.1 'Justice and Mercy in God’. There is a marginal reference to Aquinas in Riches II.112, to the will of God, question 23, artcle 6, on the will of God. But as a reference to the Summa Theologiae this seems to lead nowhere. For a modern defence of a similar position, see Brian Davies, ‘The Problem of Evil in Philosophy of Religion, a Guide to the Subject, (ed. Brian Davies (London, Cassell, 1998) 177f.)

In the Vindiciae Gratiae Twisse appeals to Duns Scotus, chiefly in respect of the nature of the divine will to choose other than it does in fact choose. But as Trueman points out, even the supposedly non-voluntarist Aquinas is able to contemplate the idea that God could redeem in other ways than by atonement (Trueman, 108, referring to Summa Theologiae 3a 46.2). The way in which Twisse uses both Scotus and Aquinas as it suits him underlines the eclectic approach to philosophical influences that is characteristic of Reformed Orthodoxy, as Richard Muller has noted.

This is not a God of pure will, potentia absoluta in a sense that makes God’s action lawless, utterly amoral. It cannot be, since God has a just nature. If the label ‘voluntarism’ is appropriate, it is voluntarism of a mild kind. To use an analogy, it is rather like the right that a monarch may have to grant a free pardon to someone guilty of a crime, or the right that the authorities exercise when they declare an amnesty.

The arguments

Twisse has two arguments or clusters of arguments for the position that he advocates. The first of these stresses the Creator – creature distinction.

While God’s ‘communicable’ attributes are all essential to him, the corresponding virtues in people are accidental. So it cannot be said that what is attributed to God can in the same way be attributed to man. (Riches I.124-5) This is another reason, for Twisse, sharply to distinguish the Creator from his creatures.

If justice humane be of the same nature with justice Divine, it followeth, not only that, that which is just in man is just with God, but that it must be after the same manner just, that like as men’s justice consisteth in obedience to God’s law implying subjection. And like as man is obliged to be just, in the same manner God is obliged to be just. And consequently like as Saul sinned and became unjust in slaying the Lord’s Priests, so had God been unjust in doing the like. (125)

‘God’s power is of a transcendent nature in being uncreat(ed)’ (Riches II.34) At the (logical) moment of his decree, since (unlike his creatures) God has no obligations, he has complete discretion over how he will choose exercise his goodness. Given that he wills the forgiveness of sin, likewise he has discretion over the mode by which that forgiveness is procured.

Peter Geach puts what seems to me to be the essentials of Twisse’s view as follows

God has nothing to gain from creating things, or from our praise or him; God’s will is the reason why things other than God are, and itself has no reason. I am not denying that God’s will is for the good, or affirming that God has set up some arbitrary standard of goodness; but the Divine Nature stands in no need of any good to be got from creation. (Providence and Evil, C. U. P., 1977, 36)

In this he seems to follow Scotus. According to Richard Cross, Scotus argued in the following way

If prior to any act of his will, there were any obligations placed on God (if God had ’practical knowledge’) with regard to the actions he directs towards creatures, then either God would be bound to will them, or he would not be so bound. In the first case God would fail to be free with regard to his creature-directed actions. And this would make his actions dependent on the natures of creatures; which in turn would mean that failed to be wholly unconditioned – such that he could not be affected by anything external to him. (Richard Cross, Scotus on God, (Ashgate, 2005, 88))

For some reason Cross restricts his consideration of Scotus’s view on divine power to what God can command, but as Twisse implies it equally has implications for what God can decree for his creatures.

This is very much Twisse’s approach. Although he appeals to Scotus in his Latin writings yet as we have seen in more than one place in Riches he endorses Aquinas’s view of God’s relation to his wisdom and justice in the Summa Theologiae.

So on this view God does not have an obligation to his own justice as we are obliged to keep his law. Instead he has discretion whether or not to make demands on his creatures in accordance with his justice. But such discretion is not, in turn, an exercise of pure will. ‘It is impossible that he should abuse his sovereignty; yea his mercy and justice are one and the same reality with his power: what a vanity it is to discourse as this Author (Twisse’s opponent Hord) doth, in preferring one attribute of God before another, as if God were more glorious in the one than in the other’. (Riches I 124)

Twisse’s second cluster of arguments is the scriptural data. For his account of the Creator-creature distinction is not a piece of a priori reasoning. He stresses the Scripture emphasis upon the will of God, as in ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy’ (Riches II.152-3), ‘God works all things after the counsel of his own will’, and references to the ‘good pleasure’ of God. For Twisse, the divine will has a primacy that these data seem to assign it.

More generally, he adopts and emphasizes the following principle: that whatever Scripture says that God wills must be just. So all that God does and permits is just with the justice of ‘codecency’ (Riches, II 152.) That is, it is in accordance with his own goodness. But of course it follows, from his strong distinction between the Creator and the creature, that it would not be just any creature were to do the same action.

In fact, this is Twisse's key claim.

There is a further general position that Twisse takes: that our obligation to God rests upon his power over us. ‘To power only and sovereignty we owe obedience, and not to goodness, and jurisdiction is farre more glorious than subjection.’ (Riches I 124)

It is impossible that any thing he does should be otherwise than just, such a justitia condecentiae followeth all his action; otherwise we must grant, that God hath power to doetht which is unjust…Accordingly, though power humane and Angelicall, may be shewed in barbarous actions, yet power Divine cannot; let him doe whatsoever he is able, it shall not be unjust; if God turne all the World into nothing, another manner of destruction than that of Saul’s slaying of the Lord’s Priests, or Nebuchadnezzar casting the three Children into the fiery Furnace, yet dares this Author say, that God herein should be unjust. (I.124)

Nor is this simply a case of Twisse adopting strong voluntarism; he gives priority to God’s will but this is to make the precise point that God is under no obligations, not even to himself, and not that he is a God of pure will.

Some consequences of Twisse’s view

We have seen that for Twisse the respective positions of Creature and creature are fundamentally different. He is the potter, we are the clay. (According to Twisse, as the Lord of life and death, God can inflict pain upon us. (Riches II 34) Twisse recognizes how difficult it is to reconcile such sovereign power in God with his justice.

And the truth is, it is very difficult to resolve how it can stand with divine justice thus to deale with a creature (viz to commit it to hell for the least sin). Yet I know many courses are taken to solve this difficultie, and the best that I have met with is this in my judgment; That a man dying in sinne, his sinne continueth eternall (never broke off by repentance) as well as the pain, yet this upon examination is found to have its flawes, and will not satisfie. So that the best and finall resolution is to have recourse to God’s absolute power, as Creator over his creatures. And that absolute power will make it good even over an innocent creature, as over a creature nocent. And it were very strange to affirme that God hath not as much power over us as we have over our beasts, namely to put them to pain, to doe us service.’ (Riches, II.35)

So far does Twisse’s view of divine sovereignty take him: God has power justly to inflict pain upon the innocent, as ‘hell-paines’ were inflicted upon the holy ‘Sonne of God’. (II. 35) Twisse cites this as the view of Perkins as well as of various scholastics, and of Augustine.

Concluding remark

Thomas Morris begins his article ‘God and Goodness’ as follows,

Throughout the history of Western theology, divine goodness has been explicated in a number of different was. Central among these is the important religious claim that God is morally good. This form of divine goodness usually is thought to consist in God’s acting always in accordance with universal moral principles, satisfying without fail moral duties and engaging in acts of gracious supererogation. Divine moral goodness is understood basically on the model of human moral goodness. (‘Duty and Divine Goodness’ in The Concept of God ed. Thomas V. Morris, (O.U.P, 1987)
Morris argues that on this view God acts in accordance with principles that are duties for us, but not for him. He sets this view up only to dissent from it on the grounds that being necessary it has the consequence that God is not praiseworthy. Twisse, (and Rutherford) taking their cue from such as Scotus and Aquinas, sharply dissent from this duty model of divine goodness, and would (I imagine) dissent from the Morrisian variant of it as well. They have incompatible accounts of divine praiseworthiness: Twisse praises God for who he is, Morris only for what he does.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Evil, Love and Silence

One kind of evil is the personal evil that occurs in a life which is, to all intents and purposes, unfair. Sometimes we think we observe a correlation between some vile action and what then happens to the agent. He 'gets what he deserved'; he had it coming to him. But at other times, and perhaps more frequently, there is an absence of such a correlation, and even a inverse relationship. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? etc. (Ps. 73) Why is the incidence of pain and evil so seemingly unfair and pointless, so utterly destructive? This paper looks at one classic view of God's relation to human action and how it addresses this sort of evil.

Yet about this modest area of enquiry I shall make a bold claim. I shall claim that only such a view of God's relation to human action and suffering - what I call the 'no-risk view of divine providence - can hope to make sense of the kind of relationship between God and humankind that figures prominently in the Bible and in Jewish and Christian religion and piety. Views of providence as 'risky' have to soft pedal at this point. Furthermore , the account I defend offers as paradigms of that relationship those very incidents in Scripture that views of an 'openness' kind say that they alone can do justice to. I refer to famous instances of divine-human dialogue in Scripture - the Lord's dealings with Abraham and Moses and Job and Jonah and Hezekiah and, of course, with Jesus himself, the Suffering Servant. So I shall make bold to occupy the very ground that Christian openness thinkers appeal to by invoking a view of providence that is the very opposite of theirs and which they excoriate. The 'openness' view describes itself as 'relational' as if every other view is 'non-relational'. But it has no monopoly. There are divine-human relations that it cannot account for, and the account it does offer is unacceptably anthropomorphic.

To allay a possible misunderstanding or two I shall begin the argument a little way back. When there is a theological or philosophical debate about God and personal evil and how it is to be addressed it must not be taken for granted that there is agreement about everything else except the matter in question. More may be implicated in their differences than how people are to think of evil in their lives. These differences may start much way back, in their respective concepts of God. If someone has a concept of God as a Mr Fixit (in either the diplomatic or financial senses), or thinks of him along the lines of a coach or a football manager or a military general or a family counsellor, then that person's approach to God's relation to personal evil will necessarily be different from that of someone who thinks of God as the transcendent and yet immanent Creator, the ground of being whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The first way sees God as one person, or three persons, among many others. The second sees him as the incomparable Triune Creator of all that is.

Similarly, someone who thinks that the universe is arranged principally for our benefit, or even for one's own individual benefit, will necessarily have a different approach to the justification of personal evil than someone who believes about God that 'of him and to him and through him are all things'. (Eph. 1.11) Someone who thinks of the universe principally as an arena on which God and humankind can each exercise their libertarian free choices will necessarily approach personal evil in a different way from one who thinks that God works all things after the counsel of his own will. Someone who thinks that most problems about the relation between God and the universe can be solved by careful thought will necessarily approach the justification of the ways of God differently than will someone who thinks that God's judgments are unsearchable and his ways past finding out. (Rom. 11.33) Someone whose attitude to personal evil presupposes that the death of our bodies is the terminus of life will necessarily approach the evaluating of that evil differently from someone who looks forward to the life everlasting.

A person approaches the problem of evil holding many other beliefs. Evil can be discussed in abstraction from these, but not in isolation from them. So thoughtful treatments of the problem of evil cannot simply address it as a philosophical problem, as a problem of the consistency or inconsistency of certain sentences, or of the analysis of certain concepts. The problem is theological also, in fact it is basically theological. For insofar as it is concerned with the ways of God then different accounts of those ways will inevitably lead to different approaches to evil.

A different God, a different religion, a different approach to the problem of personal evil. In what follows we are touching not merely on one view of providence, but a view of God and of religion itself. We shall return to these important matters at the end.

What the view is

My aim is to relate personal evil to the no-risk conception of divine providence, and so I shall spend the next few paragraphs sketching that view, which I believe is the Scriptural view. And in view of the thrust of this paper, as attempting to relate providence to evil, my sketch of this view of providence will particularly emphasise the purposiveness of divine providence, its teleological character.

In his paper 'The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God' Peter van Inwagen tells the story of Alice who suddenly remembers that she had promised to buy a box of crayons for her son, turns into an unfamiliar street in search of an appropriate shop, and is struck and killed by a car whose brakes have failed. Van Inwagen comments: here death may well be a "chance" occurrence (in the sense that it was not part of anyone's plan) even though in one sense her death has an obvious explanation. The positions and conditions of the vehicles explains what happened, but that explanation does not reveal to us the point of the event, nor could it, for according to van Inwagen the event has no point.

For van Inwagen such an event - a chance event in the sense of an event that was not a part of anyone's plan - is not (and perhaps cannot be) a part of God's plan either. For (I take him to be saying) nothing that has no point for a human being can have point for God and so be a part of God's plan. While not all no-risk views of providence entail the denial of van Inwagen's view, the view I shall go on to defend does.

On van Inwagen's view, then, God takes risks in sustaining the universe, since chance events like Alice's death can take place. This question of whether God takes risks in governing the universe has to do not with mere ignorance - with the sort of risk that is involved in betting on the turn of a card - but with what might be called 'real' risk, namely that there is a real possibility that the universe might not turn out, or might not be turning out, in the way that God, in sustaining and governing it, wished, or wanted or intended. If God takes risks then (I shall assume) some events turn out as he does not intend, and as a consequence he suffers. (Of course it is perfectly possible to suppose that God might take risks in making such and such an arrangement, but that nothing in that arrangement turns out other than as he wants it to turn out; as when I take a risk in crossing the busy street, but nevertheless cross it safely). I also assume that the risky events in question, were they to occur, would have significance or importance; they would not be flea-bites.

God's governing of the universe is purposive, means-end governing; in contrast a carburettor governs the mixture of air and fuel in an engine, but it does not have any further end in doing so, (although carburettors are installed by engineers to achieve such further ends). Divine governing is purposive. It is also what I shall call 'positive government'. A person might govern a situation simply by frustrating any event that he does not want to occur, like a bouncer outside a night-club. On this model, God would certainly be said to govern the universe, to be 'in control' if he adopted such a strategy with respect to all events as they unfold. Let us call such modes of government - no doubt there are many sub-varieties - negative government. Positive government, in contrast, is government where there is no need to eliminate anything, because the governor is willing for whatever happens within his jurisdiction to occur exactly as it does occur.

On the positive government model, then, there is a close relationship between means and ends. God does not govern the universe in order to achieve certain ends while leaving it entirely up to us how these ends are to be achieved. The end or ends are brought about through the particular means that God ordains.

But are there not other ways of eliminating risk than divine, positive government of all that occurs? Assuming a strong, libertarian sense of freedom, many have argued that perfect divine foreknowledge, divine omniscience as it relates to what is future, eliminates risk for God, because God knows beforehand what will occur. This is sufficient to eliminate mere epistemic risk, of course, but the universe might nevertheless turn out in important respects other than God intended, and so have been risky to create; risky, but without surprise for God. This is most notoriously the case in respect of the Fall; on some views the Fall was foreknown, and so not surprising for God, but nonetheless it was not as God intended. But I will not argue thus here. Many have argued that a no-risk sense of divine governing can be held consistently with libertarian free will by appealing to God's middle knowledge, but I believe that middle knowledge faces philosophical and theological difficulties that render it implausible. However, I shall not rehearse these points here.

To be sure, these perfect divine foreknowledge and middle knowledge views may be defended as no-risk views, but they are not the view I shall defend. I shall explore the idea of divine positive governance of the universe assuming that these two mediating positions are unavailable. The no-risk view I defend here eliminates risk for God by appealing to his foreordination and not to foreknowledge or middle knowledge and the actualisation of certain counterfactuals of freedom. God works all things according to his own will, including the evils that beset us all, down to the last detail. I shall from now on refer to this view as the exhaustive or 'meticulous' view of providence.

Elsewhere I have argued for this view of providence in standard philosophical fashion by claiming that it follows from generally accepted ideas about divine omniscience and divine omnipotence and basing my argument on what seems to me to be the reasonable principle that, in reflecting philosophically upon the concept of God , the connotation of such terms as omnipotence and omniscience when applied to God should be as wide as possible. Thus the term 'omnipotent' is more appropriately applied to God when it connotes power over more types of actions and events than when it connotes power over fewer types of actions and events. Further, the term is more appropriately applied to God when it connotes power over more instances of each type of action over which power is exercised, than power over fewer such instances. And similarly with the scope of omniscience. After all, the rationale for employing such 'omni' terms in the first place is to convey the idea of maximality. Their application should not be limited unnecessarily, otherwise such terms when applied to God come to possess only rhetorical or hyperbolical value. In openness theism the account of omniscience is 'tailored' to allow for the operations of libertarian free choice, and as a consequence there is much of what is presently future that God is ignorant of even though he is, formally speaking', 'omniscient'.

The presumption must be, therefore, with respect to any type of event, and to any instance of that type, that an omnipotent being has power over them in the sense that he positively governs them, and that an omniscient being knows the truths that are the correct descriptions of such actions and indeed that divine omniscience and omnipotence are closely connected in that omniscience is an exercise of power. Of course, omnipotence and omniscience may be said to extend further than power and knowledge over what is in fact the case; they extend to possibilities. And so an omniscient being knows not only all actualities but the contents of all possible worlds, while an omnipotent being has power over possibilities, power to prevent or to actualise them.

In this paper, however, because of the need to connect the no risk, meticulous view of providence explicitly to evil, I shall adopt a more a posteriori approach. I shall briefly argue that the Biblical and therefore the Christian view of God is that he governs all events and actions meticulously, and therefore that the Christian approach to evil must have this view of God as its foundation.

A worked-out view of divine providence and evil has to be consistent with the following biblical data: That God is the creator and moment-by-moment sustainer of his creation (Gen. 1.1, Col 1.16f., Heb. 1.3); that of him and to him and through him are all things (Rom. 11.36); that he knows the end from the beginning ( Is. 46.10) and works everything after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1.11); that nothing can impede his purposes; that seemingly chance occurrences are in his control (Prov. 16.33), as are the hearts of kings (Prov. 21.1); that he intends good by the same action as others intend evil by (Gen. 50:20); that Satan and human tyrants are his servants (1 Chr. 21.1 with 2 Sam. 24.1 and Ezra 1.1; Acts 4.27f.); and that divinely-inspired prophecies and dreams are fulfilled to the letter (Num. 23.19; Deut. 18.21-22; and, e.g., Gen. 37.5-8 with 42:6-9). In particular, this providence extended to every detail of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ (John 19.31-37; 1 Cor. 15. 3-4).

A difficulty or two

Given that some free (and therefore responsible) human actions are evil let us ask whether such evil actions as these could be positively governed by God; could they be part of a scheme of things which, overall, God wills? If God positively governs evil actions is he not evil?

The divine character can be safeguarded when God positively governs human actions that are morally evil, by recognizing that he willingly permits some particular evil actions. He is not and cannot be the author of such actions but he may be willing for them to occur. But is not God who is willing for an evil action to occur the cause of that action, and so himself evil? I wish to present two alternative arguments for thinking not.

Willing Permission

As a preliminary to considering the first argument it is necessary to get clearer on the meaning of willing permission. God positively governs some acts by permitting them. Yet for such permission to be consistent with meticulous positive government, it has to be a particular kind of permission; it has to be willingly given, and it has to be permission of particular actions and not merely the permission of certain types of action. But doesn't introducing the idea of permission unacceptably modify the idea of divine positive government by introducing an element of conditionality? It does introduce an element of conditionality, but perhaps necessarily so. So far as God may ordain but not cause evil there is an element of conditionality about what happens, since what happens is conditioned upon what agents other than God do. Such conditionality is present in God's relations to all human actions, presumably. Nevertheless such conditionality is risk-free for God.

Divine permission is compatible with the absence of risk for God as long as there are types of actions which God can prevent but which he nevertheless cannot cause, even though he may be willing for them to occur. Then God controls an evil action by permitting it - by deciding not to prevent it - and the evil action occurs because it is caused by the natures and circumstances of those who perpetrate it. The evil action is then not caused by God although he willingly permits it as a necessary component part of some broader overall will. This leaves us with questions of why God has willingly permitted evil, and of exactly how evil comes about in a world created by an all-good God. Thankfully, attempting to answer these questions falls outside the scope of this paper.

So God may willingly permit an evil act; indeed since God cannot perform an evil act, if an evil act occurs, he must have permitted it and if his government of that action is positive, necessarily only permitted it, but willingly so.

The nature of this permission is well expressed by Augustine

In a way unspeakably strange and wonderful, even what is done in opposition to His will does not defeat His will. For it would not be done did He not permit it (and of course His permission is not unwilling, but willing); nor would a Good Being permit evil to be done only that in his omnipotence He can turn evil into good.

So for S willingly to permit an action A is: for A to be the action of someone other than S; for S to ordain the occurrence of A and to have been able to prevent A; and for A not to be contrary to what S intends. On this conception God foreknows everything, and unconditionally governs everything, but does not causally determine everything in the sense that he is the efficient cause of everything. Nevertheless, nothing happens that God is unwilling should happen.

But it may still be insisted that if God willingly permits X, then God is the cause of X. It is tempting, but I believe crude and misleading, to assimilate the working of such permission to intramundane models of causation, and particularly to theories of physical determinism. Such permission has this in common with physical determinism, that what is physically determined and what is willingly permitted will each come to pass. But willingly to permit an action is not to cause that action in any straightforward sense of 'cause'. As part of his critique of the no-risk view John Saunders describes the Lord, in willingly permitting a rape, as himself a 'rapist'. Such ill-judged language is based on a thorough misunderstanding.

We can express some of the difference between willing permission and causation like this. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B and C are mundane events) A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C, there is no necessary transitivity in the case of the causal aspects or features of the divine willing permission. It is thus not necessarily the case that if God positively governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather God may will C by willingly permitting that B causes C. As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, 'Herein is God's wisdom, that the sins of men carry on his work, yet he has no hand in them'. God's willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of mundane causation. It is a case of 'cause' used analogically. This is just as it should be, given God's mysteriously transcendent and yet immanent relation to his creation.

So there are ways of safeguarding the divine righteousness in the case of human acts which are morally evil, namely the idea of God willingly permitting particular evil actions, in the sense understood. But it must also be understood that this is not a theory offering an explanation of the meshing of divine and human action, but an account which attempts to safeguard the consistency of the biblical data.

Thus if, for any event E, E occurs, then God positively governs E either by bringing it about or being willing for it to occur. Whatever occurs, occurs because God positively governs it in this sense; whatever is true in virtue of what occurs is true because God so governs it. So while saying that all events are positively governed by God entails that all events are willed by God, this is not equivalent to asserting that if E occurs, God has caused it.

Just as many argue, in developing a free will defence, that not even God can ensure that a free agent only does what is morally right, invoking willing permission makes the important point that there is no possible world in which God can do evil. He may, however, willingly permit evil. This is an instance of particular permission; God permits particular acts, as distinct from giving general permission, as when a teacher allows a class to write an essay on any topic they choose. And God may do so willingly, not because he is willing for the evil act to occur per se, but because he ordains some wider good of which that act is a necessary part.( e.g., Gen.50.20; Acts 2.22-36) This willing permission of evil is something like the willingness of a parent to allow her sick child to undergo some extremely painful, but necessary, course of treatment, or even that the child should be subject to the malice of others. And God may willingly permit such a particular action, though of course without any feeling of psychological pressure or tension that often accompany such human permittings.

The action-description argument

Nevertheless, there are biblical data about divine and human action which do not appear to be covered by this idea of willing permission. The tyrant Cyrus is referred to as God's 'shepherd', his 'anointed', 'who shall fulfill all my purpose'.(Isa. 44. 28; Ch. 45). This can hardly be an instance of mere permission ('I will go before you and level the exalted places...' (Isa. 45. 2) Is the Lord then the cause of the evil that Cyrus perpetrated? Is he an accomplice of Cyrus's, an accessory, or even perhaps the chief partner in his war crimes? Cyrus's action may be described by him as an act of war. (Isa. 45. 1; Dan. 10.1) But why should we believe that it was only as so described that the Lord brought it about that Cyrus went to war for Israel? For the Lord, Cyrus's action was not only an act of war but an act of deliverance of his covenant people. Biblically, the incident that draws a distinction in the descriptions of the same action most vividly is found in the history of Joseph and his brothers, where, at the climax of the story, Joseph asserts that though the brothers intended his banishment to Egypt 'for evil', the Lord meant it 'for good'. (Gen. 50.20) Here the idea of an action having multiple descriptions is invoked. That is, the same action may be described in contrary but equally true terms. For instance, Christ's death, which took place according to the Lord's 'definite plan' was at once both a wicked act, the righteous self-offering of the God-man, and the Lord's laying on him the iniquity of us all. (Acts 2.23)

So did God intend Cyrus's act of war, Joseph's banishment by his jealous brothers, the wickedness of Christ's crucifiers? If the answer to these questions is 'Yes' does it follow that we can prefix every true description of every detail of the universe with the phrase 'God wills' or 'God intends'? This interesting question is ambiguous as it stands, as the point about one action having different descriptions makes clear. Whereas Cyrus intends war in furtherance of his imperial ambitions, (Isa. 45. 4-5) there is no reason to think that God intends that war to further his imperial ambitions. Rather, God's willing of that war is one element of an all-encompassing divine plan for the universe and especially for his covenant people, Israel. It would be fallacious to suppose that the divine attitude is the same with respect to every detail of that one divine plan separately considered.

As Aquinas put it, 'God, and nature, and indeed every causal agent, does what is best overall, but not what is best in every part, except when the part is regarded in its relationship to the whole.' Those evil actions which God permits and causes he does so in furtherance of some wider considerations. This is not, then, a case of God doing evil that good may come, as is often claimed. For God is not doing evil; rather, when one of his creatures performs an evil action that action is ordained by God as part of some broader plan which is a faithful expression of God's goodness. It is a fallacy to think that because some arrangement is wise, every detail of that arrangement, considered in isolation, is wise. It does not follow that every thread of my tartan tie is tartan.

An objection

One of the most frequently-cited objections to the idea both of God willingly permitting and causing human actions is that this would cast God in the role of a puppet master, with you and I as the puppets. For anyone who is familiar with the literature it is almost unnecessary to cite instances of the puppet objection, but here is one in respect of good rather than evil actions, but the point of principle is the same.
If God causes the agent to will some moral good, then we might attribute some moral goodness to God in consequence, but why would we attribute moral goodness to the agent, who is nothing but a puppet of God's will.
Sometimes the language is updated; not puppets or dummies, but automata and brainwashing. Thus Richard Gale

They (viz. the causal compatibilists) accept, for example, cases of extensive brainwashing, posthypnotic suggestion, or intentional control over the inputs to a brain-in-a-vat as freedom cancelling. There are recognised limits to how far one person can go in causally controlling the behaviour of another person without negating the latter's freedom. Now God is a person, but his control over created persons is even more extreme than in these man-man cases; not only does he sufficiently cause all of their behavior by bringing about certain initial conditions and have the counterfactual power to produce alternative behavior, he also creates the causal structure of the universe, whereas finite controllers merely take advantage of a given causal structure.
What shall we say to the puppet objection? I shall invoke Augustine's strategy and underline the sui generis character of the divine-human relation. (Recall his reference to 'a way unspeakably strange and wonderful' in the quotation from his Enchiridion given earlier.) While this move is philosophically unsatisfactory, since philosophers like to have answers to their questions, it is nevertheless highly appropriate. For, after all, the divine-human relation is sui generis. What could be more extraordinary than the relation between the transcendent Creator and Lord of all and his creation, including his human creatures? If God is sui generis, then any relation between anything else and God looks likely to be sui generis as well. Surely any imaginable relation between any two or more of God's creatures is likely to be more tractable to the human intellect than that between the Creator and any intelligent creature?

Moreover the proponents of the puppet objection recognise this. For they do not in fact claim that, given meticulous providence, the relationship between God and his human creatures is literally that of a puppetmaster to a puppet. If they do, where are the strings? A puppetmaster is also a creature. What they presumably mean is something like this: that given meticulous providence there is no closer or more appropriate analogy of the activities of God in respect to his creatures than that of a puppetmaster to his puppets. But to say that God is in certain respects like a puppetmaster is not to say that he is a puppetmaster. A proponent of meticulous providence could thus adopt an analogical counter-argument as a strategy with respect to any analogy that his opponent offers, whether it be automata, programming, telepathy, super-neurologist, or whatever. All are misleading, and fail to capture the divine-human relationship as the meticulous view of providence understands it, in exact terms.

The distinctive ethos of meticulous providence
With these rather extensive preliminaries behind us we must now attempt to address the relation between meticulous providence and personal evil.

Earlier I made the bold claim that in approaching the issue of God and personal evil an upholder of meticulous, no-risk providence can confidently interpret the central biblical narratives that the openness thinkers believe they alone can do justice to. Openness sees these passages as cases of God being surprised, of him changing his mind, as he learns how his children freely react in the circumstances of their lives. Only such an approach, they say, does justice to the texts. All other interpretations do not take the passages with the literalness that is required.

But this is not so. Let us consider the case of Hezekiah. (See 2 Kings 20. 1-11; Isa. 38.1-8). If we grant that God knows Hezekiah's life from beginning to end, and ordains every detail of it, what was he doing in first telling Hezekiah that he will die, and then telling him that he will live a further fifteen years? To answer this question we must ask another: What operational consequences (so to speak) was the Lord intending by communicating to Hezekiah in this way? In considering the significance of the Lord's answer to Hezekiah's prayer one must not pay exclusive attention to the relenting - or repenting - of the Lord, and take this as evidence of his all-too-human vacillation. Rather, one must take the incident as a whole. And it is obvious, when we look at it in this way, and (so to speak) operationally, that Hezekiah is being tested by the Lord. The purpose of the testing is to bring out Hezekiah's faith in God, or to make him aware of his faith, or both. Hezekiah is brought to a position which would have been impossible without the testing. For it seems to be psychologically and logically impossible for someone who is being tested to know the outcome of the test beforehand. If the outcome of the test were known beforehand to the one being tested then how could the trial that the person endures be a genuine test? So God accommodates himself to the human situation. It is a divine testing where the test employed is not some evil occurring as a result of an action of the creature, with God as a bystander unable to prevent it, but where the evil or loss or trial is sent by God himself. The case does not require that Hezekiah himself believed that God was ignorant of what he, Hezekiah, would do, nor that God was insincere in saying that he was going to die, but a recognition that he, Hezekiah, actually had to intercede. And it is quite gratuitous to say that the king does not take prophet's words to imply a fixed future.

But though this point about divine testing is important, and is one that the openness view cannot handle, because that view does not adequately acknowledge the biblical idea of Fatherly correction, it does not exhaust all that needs to be said about meticulous providence and personal evil. The point of narratives like Hezekiah's is that evil is threatened. But what of those cases where evil has occurred? On the no-risk view, such occurrences are also from the hand of God. Taking some examples from the New Testament, we may consider the case of those grieving Christians to whom Peter wrote (I Pet. 3-9), or the incident of Paul's thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12. 7- 10), or the plight of the Hebrew Christians to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written. Their houses had been wrecked (Heb. 10. 32-34) by those who did not like the fact that they were both Jews and Christians, and as a result they were in danger of losing heart. The writer does not offer comfort by telling them that God was alongside them, a surprised and somewhat bewildered, suffering God. Rather, after reminding them of various facts, such as the utter reliability of God's promises (Heb 6.13f.) and that they have a great, sympathetic High Priest in heaven, (Heb. 7. 26-28) and that the heroes of the Old Testament also endured suffering, (Heb. 11) and especially that Jesus had suffered, (Heb. 5.7, 12. 1-4), he invites them to see what had happened to them as an instance of Fatherly discipline. Fatherly discipline! But God our Father can only discipline us if we are in his hands.

The case of Paul's thorn in the flesh shows us another way in which the occurrence of personal evil may be faced. The Lord refused to remove the thorn, the result of the tormenting of Satan's messenger, despite Paul's pleadings. Why was this? As Paul understood it, it was so that he could experience for himself the sufficiency of God's grace and of God's strength revealed in human weakness. As a result, although he struggled with the pain of persecutions and other difficulties - he was no masochist! - he could nevertheless delight in them.

Do these New Testament examples simply make the familiar point about the value of evil in 'soul-making'? Yes and no. The expression 'soul-making' is a vague one; everything depends upon how the 'making' of the soul is to be understood. The virtues Paul mentions are not human dispositions which may be produced in any of several ways, but they are graces which are (as philosophers sometimes say) 'internally related' to the ways in which they are produced. Paul's faith and patience and strength in weakness were conceptually connected to the ways in which the Lord produced these in his life. They could not have come about in just any way.

One more kind of example may be thought of as the limiting case of what we have just been considering. Sometimes the evils that occur in a life are so overwhelming that the thought that they might be divinely purposed is blotted out. How could a terrible earthquake, or a fatal cancer, or the abuse of the three-year-old, be purposive? Our immediate reaction is to say that they cannot be. But this answer is too quick. What we should say, according to the meticulous view of providence, is that we do not presently know how these events fit into God's purposes in a way that is consistent with his character. Earlier we noted that because of its stress on divine transcendence this whole way of thinking about God contains an element of mystery, of not-knowingness. Why did God send these things? We do not know. Perhaps we haven't even a clue. What, in these circumstances of radical ignorance, ought we to do?

Quite apart from the obvious reaction of doing what we presently can to alleviate suffering and distress, the most appropriate reaction is surely to submit to the will of God in silence. This can be very irksome. But the point is not new. (see, e.g. Ps. 38.13, 39.9, Job 2.11, Hab. 3.17). This silence is neither the silence of contempt for God nor some fatalistic silence that comes with a shrug of the shoulders. It is not the silence of one who has been crushed, with no will to live left. It is the silence of sympathy and solidarity with those who suffer, and of enduring the utter bafflement of events willed by God which presently seem to be utterly at odds with his character: it is, for Christians, one form of the familiar contrast between faith and sight. In such circumstances much can be done, but talking is not part of it.

Anne Bradstreet's poetry has a number of instances of her submission to God's willing of personal evil in her life, as in her quaint and yet vivid and moving 'Here followes some verses upon the burning of our House, July 10th, 1666.' She awoke to find flames engulfing the building. Recording her crying to God for strength in her distress she wrote

And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,

That layd my goods now in the dust:

Yea so it was, and so 'twas just.
was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.

We see each of the reactions to evil - a recognition of Fatherly discipline, the fostering of Christian virtue , and submission in the face of God's inscrutable will - in the case of Christ himself, at least if learning may be said to involve discipline. Without entering into the niceties of Christology we may note that his life, climaxing in Gethsemane, was characterised by submission to his Father's will. (Matt. 18, 12f, 25.39f., v. 42) His loud cries and tears were heard because of his reverent submission. (Heb. 5.7f.) As a result, although he was a son he learned obedience by the things that he suffered. For Jesus was at all points in the hands of his Father and of the Holy Spirit, as is vividly illustrated by the fact that his temptation in the wilderness was the result of the leading of the Spirit. (Matt. 4.1)


This paper did not promise to offer a theodicy, nor even a 'defence', against the charge that evil is at odds with the goodness of God. Rather, assuming that that charge is false, I attempted to spell out some of the consequences of believing that this evil world, and ourselves as parts of it, is at all points in the hands of God. I did this by trying to sketch a distinctive ethos that is characteristic of those who believe that the shape of their lives, and especially the evils in their lives, are part of God's will for them. Such a view has a clear basis in Scripture, and the openness view, because of what it believes about God's ignorance of the future, cannot offer an adequate interpretation of these data, nor participate fully in this distinctive ethos.

At one point in his book God, Freedom and Evil Alvin Plantinga says that he is offering philosophical enlightenment in connection with the logical problem of evil and that he is leaving to others the pastoral problems arising from encountering evil. But we have seen that the issues of philosophy, theology and the occurrence of personal evils in a life should not be so tidily boxed. Part of a fully Christian philosophical response to evil involves identifying and rejecting the unbiblical and consequently sub-Christian conceptions of God that are rife in so many 'Christian' philosophical responses to it. For Christians, philosophy and theology should not be separated, nor should philosophy and pastoral care.*

* I am very grateful to Oliver Crisp and Mark Talbot for their comments on earlier versions of this Chapter.

Analysis 11: The will of Calvin's God - Can God be trusted?

'How very minute a portion of divine wisdom is given to us in the present life’ - Inst. III.2.20

Despite attempts to set the record straight it is still alleged that according to Calvin (and perhaps according to Reformed theology more generally) God’s will arbitrarily establishes what is right and wrong both as regards what he decrees, and what he commands. People find it hard to rid their minds of Alasdair Macintyre’s caricature, ‘As with Luther, so with Calvin, we have to hope for grace that we may be justified and forgiven for our inability to obey the arbitrary fiats of a cosmic despot.’ (A Short History of Ethics, London 1967, 123)

We need to have in mind a couple of passages, bits of which are often used to fasten this view of divine sovereignty upon Calvin.

A tyrant?

While discussing election and reprobation Calvin says:
Foolish men contend with God in many ways, as though they held him liable to their accusations. They first ask, therefore, by what right the Lord becomes angry at his creatures who have not provoked him by any previous offense; for to devote to destruction whomever he pleases is more like the caprice of a tyrant than the lawful sentence of a judge. It therefore seems to them that men have reason to expostulate with God if they are predestined to eternal death solely by his decision, apart from their own merit. If thoughts of this kind ever occur to pious men, they will be sufficiently armed to break their force by the one consideration that it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will. (Inst. III.23 2 Italics added)
For God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God's will, which cannot be found. Let men's rashness, then, restrain itself, and not seek what does not exist. (Inst. III. 23. 2 Italics added).
Here Calvin is both acutely aware of the strength and attractiveness of a particular objection to the doctrine of election and reprobation, and he also appears to silence it by one piece of advice – ‘Don’t pry into the actions of a tyrant’. But also there’s the strange claim that there are no reasons for what God does. God acts because he wills so: end of story.

So Calvin may appear to be arguing as follows:

a. There are no causes for what God’s wills
b. Therefore, it is no use looking for the reasons God has for doing what he does because there aren’t any.
c. Therefore, God’s will is purely arbitrary, and whimsical; he is more like a tyrant than a lawful judge.
d. God’s will is right simply because he wills it.
e. Therefore the correct attitude is to submit unquestioningly to God’s will however outrageous it is.

The idea behind this interpretation is that Calvin’s basic view of God’s mind is that it operates voluntaristically. Indeed, strictly speaking God does not have a mind, but only a will. Voluntarism is sometimes misunderstood. That God is able to choose between A and B does not give us a ‘voluntaristic’ God. Voluntarism has to do with the absence of grounds or reasons for any such choice, leaving the choosing to an arbitrary (ungrounded or reasonless) volition. If for God there are no reasons for acting or commanding as he does, what he does is an act of will alone, and this is voluntarism.

But is this a correct understanding of Calvin’s position? We need to note a number of pieces of further evidence, and to try to understand these.

Calvin’s view

First, Calvin himself demurs from a voluntaristic interpretation .
We do not advocate the fiction of “absolute might”: because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless God who is a law unto himself…But we deny that he is liable to render an account; we also deny that we are competent judges to pronounce judgment in this cause according to our own understanding’. (Inst. III.23.2)
So whatever understanding we have of Calvin’s view it must be consistent with his denial that God is a tyrant.

Second, Calvin adheres to the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God’s nature does not consist of parts which compose it. (Inst. I.13.2) No parts are antecedent to God himself. He exists a se, independently and in an absolutely underived sense. So his will is ‘bound’ to his nature, for it is, strictly speaking, not a separate ‘part’ of it. God necessarily acts in accordance with it.

The will of God

Nevertheless, Calvin denies that we are competent judges of what God does. Why does he think this?

We might at first imagine that Calvin is simply appealing to the regress of explanation. Of anything anyone does, including God, we may ask ‘Why?’ Jones does X for reason R. What reason does he have for accepting R? He has reason S. What reason does he have for accepting reason S? He has reason T. And so on ad infinitum. Of course at some point in the regress we must recognise that although we can go on asking why, like small children do, there is no point to doing so. There comes a place when we must be satisfied with the answer ‘He just does accept T as a reason’.

All this is true. It is not, however, Calvin’s point. Calvin is not saying (I think) that the regress of explanation of any contingent state of affairs, even those ordained by God, knows no stopping place. Rather, Calvin’s position has to do with the respective positions of the Creator and his creatures. It is not that there is no stopping point to the regress, but that in God’s case explanations never get going.

Or at least, that they don’t get very far. For it is not strictly true that God does not give us any reasons for acting as he does in election and reprobation. He deals with Jacob and Esau as he does partly, at least, to show that election is not ‘because of works but because of his call’. (Rom. 9.11), a thought which Paul elaborates in I Cor. 1. Election depends wholly on God, ‘who has mercy on whomever he wills’ (Rom. 9.18) The reasons God has for election and reprobation have nothing to do with human merit. Nevertheless it is true that Calvin thinks that we are not provided with any positive reasons why Jacob is preferred to Esau.

God may have a reason and yet that reason not be available to us. Perhaps this is true of all the particular things that God ordains. Why was Esau the twin of Jacob and not, say, Izzy (or Lizzy)? Or why were there not triplets, Jacob, Esau and Izzy? It may seem arbitrary of God to bring into existence these two, and not some other two, or some three. We may presume that Calvin might say there is a reason for this, but that the reason has not been disclosed to us. There are multitudes of reasons for multitudes of states of affairs, perhaps none of which we can give the reason for. Maybe the reason for this irritating fact is that the will of God is not concerned with separately-identifiable situations, but with whole ensembles, with worlds. That is, maybe we ought to be asking not, why not Izzy? But, Why a world in which there is no Izzy? However, we find, naturally enough, that whether we ask ‘Why not a world with Izzy?’ we do not have a reason for that, though we have fewer questions to ask. Perhaps the reason can be given, and appreciated, only when the world is over, when this passing world is done.

Such general considerations have some value, I think, in helping us to understand what for Calvin is the significance of the point of view of the Creator and that of the creature.

The right to know

But how are we to understand what Calvin says about there being no reason for what God does, that such a reason (he says) ‘does not exist’? Clearly enough, in such passages one idea that Calvin is keen to head off is that God’s will has a cause or reason which arises distinct from the mind of God and which provides the reason why God does X and not Y. In the last quotation of those given earlier, according to Calvin ‘what does not exist' is a reason that is greater or higher than the will of God itself (bearing in mind that the will of God here is not a reasonless, arbitrary volition but the will of God which is (as we a forced to say even though we are trying to articulate the richness of God's simple nature) an aspect or part of the supreme, simple essence which is God.)

And part of the reason why it is ‘very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will’ is not that God has no reasons, but that it is impious to look somewhere other than to God himself for the reasons or grounds that he has for what he does. The regress of explanation is, after all, stoppable, and not at some arbitrary place, for it is grounded in the very goodness of God himself. However, Calvin says, we must resist the urge to demand that God specifies what that reason is, because if we do ask we shall be frustrated by the silence that follows.

Further, if God is not an arbitrary tyrant, and so has reasons for what he does, grounded in his own nature, presumably there must be a reason why we have not been given these precise reasons. We have already noted one such possible explanation for this – that God has reasons for the world he has ordained, but not separate reasons for every separate part of the world he has ordained.

One can think up other sorts of considerations why the reasons are presently hidden, reasons to do with prudence, or appropriateness, or the fact that it is none of our business, or otherwise not in our interests to know them. In modern society there is the problem of balancing the disclosing of information with the right to privacy. In respect of the reasons for the election of one and the reprobation of another Calvin asserts God’s right to privacy, as Paul does in Romans 11.33f. The sources of election etc. are ‘secret’, as Calvin often says.

Perhaps, as Jesus once said of his own disciples, there are reasons that we presently cannot bear. Perhaps because we would necessarily misconstrue these reasons, or make a bad use of them. In any case why, if God has a reason for doing X or not doing it, do we have an overriding entitlement to know what that reason is? As Alvin Plantinga asked, in a rather different context, Why should we be the first to know? Different attitudes to this question mark deep religious differences.


The ground covered in the previous paragraphs supposes that the human mind is wired to receive God’s reasons, and that the question is merely, why are we not given any? But maybe Calvin is implying that there are reasons that we are not wired to receive, or that we are not presently wired to receive. So our inability is not a mere contingent epistemic inability, a lack of information or insight which might easily be satisfied if God chose to satisfy it, or when the conditions are right, but one that we are not presently capable of making sense of. Perhaps knowing as we are known requires not only more data but also an additional bit of circuitry to make sense of them, or to ‘bear’ them. Perhaps it’s the same problem that we have of not knowing what heaven will be like: we are not yet wired up for that.

The moral slippery slope

Nevertheless, if God of elects and reprobates not according to merit, but won’t tell us any more, does this not show that he is someone who is pretty low on the moral scale. Why should we trust a God who is capable of acting like that?

This question turns out to be a bit of a teaser. For it only arises because we already do trust God. Scripture clearly enough narrates God’s differential attitude to Jacob and Esau. Christians believe this because of the trustworthiness of his word. That’s why there’s a problem about election and reprobation in the first place, for Paul and for Calvin and for us. For it is only as a result of trusting God’s word, or at least taking it seriously, that someone may raise the problem of whether or not God’s word is to be trusted. Not to trust God about anything, including what he tells us about the fates of Jacob and Esau, is a perfectly consistent attitude, but it is not the Christian way.

So why do we go on trusting God? What is it that prevents God breaking his promises, or from suddenly announcing to us that he now allows us to torture babies just for fun? Answer: just the goodness of God’s nature, which makes it impossible for him to deny himself, or to enunciate laws that permit one human being selfishly to hate another. The goodness of that nature is also expressed in the careers of Jacob and Esau, but presently we cannot see how.

We must leave it at that.