The problem of evil is one that every Christian has to face. For the vast majority of professing Christians the idea or belief in free will, at least on the surface, seems to solve the problem of evil. These Christians are historically known as Arminians, or less charitably, Pelagians, and their argument generally goes something like this; God made man with a free and undetermined will, therefore all men have the natural ability to chose to do either good or evil. God is said to “permit” men to do evil and it is on this basis of their natural ability toward good or evil that God is said to hold men responsible for their choices. If God could be said to determine man’s choices from Adam’s fall to the crucifixion and murder of the Father’s only Son, then man would not be responsible for their sinful actions. Apart from free will, men would be mere sinners and pawns in God’s hands and God himself would be responsible for their sin. But, what sort of loving “God” would permit men to sin when He has the power to prevent it? Wouldn’t a loving an omnipotent God prevent the Holocaust? And, even if He can’t control the choices of men and prevent them from doing evil, couldn’t He control the weather and at least see fit to prevent tsunami’s and tornados from wiping out entire villages and towns killing countless innocent men, women and children? So, while the “free will” argument at first appears to solve the solution of human responsibility, it would also appear to make God a culpable and admittedly impotent third party who has the power and ability to prevent evil but chooses not to. Hardly what many would consider the Lord God Almighty, much less a God worth worshiping.
Unlike the Arminian, those Christians who have continued in the tradition of the Reformation have historically denied that man’s will is free in the sense of being undetermined or that God somehow passively “permits” evil. Martin Luther argued that man’s will is born in bondage to sin and death. Calvin called sin a “contagion” which all men are infected with from the moment of conception and on account of Adam’s first sin imputed to them by ordinary generation. Men aren’t sinners because they sin, they sin because they’re sinners and are born that way. Further, Reformed men have always confessed that God not only determined Adam’s fall as part of His overall plan or eternal decree, but He also “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass” (see Westminster Confession chapter 3, Of God’s Eternal Decree). So far from being some impotent and anemic cosmic bystander, these Christians maintain that God has determined all things to include the Holocaust and killer tsunami’s and tornados. Yet, these Christians also confess that “neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (WCF III:1).
This raises the question; If God has determined all things including the sinful actions of men, wouldn’t that make God the responsible agent and author of sin, WCF III:1 notwithstanding? Or, to put it another way, How can men be held responsible for their thoughts, words and deeds if God has sovereignly determined them in accordance with his eternal decree? For generations Reformed Christians have seen this dilemma as a profound mystery. For theologians like John Frame this is where “faith” comes in as he explains:
[W]e are in a strange state of affairs: we have two propositions (“God is good” and “God foreordains evil”) which we can show to be logically interdependent in one sense; yet we cannot show them to be logically compatible except by an appeal to faith…This balance of interdependence and paradox is in the interest of thinking in submission to Scripture. Scripture must be followed both in its assertions of interdependence and in its refusal to reconcile all doctrines to our satisfaction.
Thus, a paradox remains for us, though by faith we are confident that there is no paradox for God. Faith is basic to the salvation of our knowledge as well as the salvation of our souls.
Tragically, Frame’s answer to this dilemma, or more precisely his non-answer, is all too common and in many Reformed circles this non-answer has even become a mark of Reformed orthodoxy. The reason for this sad state of affairs falls squarely on the late Cornelius Van Til who publicly excoriated Gordon Clark for even claiming to have solved this problem which “has baffled the greatest theologians in history.” According to Van Til,
Not even Holy Scripture offers a solution. But Dr. Clark asserts unblushingly that for his thinking the problem has ceased to be a problem. Here is something phenomenal. What accounts for it? The most charitable, and no doubt the correct, explanation is that Dr. Clark has come under the spell of rationalism. It is difficult indeed to escape the conclusion that by his refusal to permit the Scriptural teaching of divine sovereignty and the Scriptural teaching of human responsibility to stand alongside each other, and by his claim that he has fully reconciled them with each other before the bar of human reason, Dr. Clark has fallen into the error of rationalism [The Clark-Van Til Controversy, 23].
Now, if you examine Clark’s solution to this problem that “has baffled the greatest theologians in history,” you’ll see that it hinges on how we define responsibility. According to Clark:
Let us call a man responsible, then, when he may be justly rewarded or punished for his deeds. That is, the man must be answerable to someone, to God, for responsibility implies a superior authority who punishes or rewards.
The first thing to notice is that absent from this definition is any notion of man’s presumed natural ability toward either good or bad. Not only is a free and undetermined will absent from his definition, but any will at all, God’s or man’s, is eliminated too. Clark simply avoids the question of man’s will entirely in his definition of responsibility. Similarly, while God can be said to the ultimate cause of whatsoever comes to pass, even the sins of men, God cannot be said to be responsible for those sins simply because there is no higher authority to whom He must give an answer.
Interestingly, and something that eluded Van Til and his many followers over the years, is that Clark’s answer to this theological dilemma is the same form of argument Paul uses in Romans 9 starting in verse 29:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Notice, Paul’s hypothetical interlocutor argues in effect: How can I be held responsible for that which God has eternally determined should come to pass according to His sovereign will? I mean, if I can’t resist his will then I can’t be held responsible for my thoughts and actions, right? It is presumed that for a man to be held responsible requires the freedom, at least to some extent, to have done otherwise. Yet, implied in Paul’s response is that the only thing required for man to be responsible is a superior authority and that authority is God who alone can justly demand a response from his subordinate and sinful creatures. Conversely, and as we can see from Paul’s “O man who art thou,” man has no authority to demand any response from God for what He has decreed. God is the potter and man is His clay to do with what He wills. He hardens the one and has mercy on the other all according to His good pleasure. Or, as the prophet Daniel explains; “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?'”
Interestingly, Clark’s answer to the problem of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty rests squarely on the Creator/creature distinction, a distinction that Van Til claimed was central to all theology. Interesting too, and despite Van Til’s protests to the contrary above, Holy Scripture does indeed offer a solution to this problem that “has baffled the greatest theologians in history” and it is a necessary inference drawn from Romans 9.
While I would certainly encourage readers of this blog to study Clark’s answer as he first proposed it in 1932 in his piece, “Determinism and Responsibility,” or as he develops it in chapter five of his book, Religion, Reason, and Revelation (also found in God and Evil: Problem Solved), I would also like to recommend Robert Reymond’s fleshing out of Clark’s solution found in his systematic theology and presented here below.
Why God Is Not the Author or Chargeable Cause of Sin
If God has decreed all that comes to pass, and if God, by his most holy, wise, and powerful providence, governs all his creatures and all their actions in order to accomplish his own holy ends, how is one to understand all this so that God is not made the author of sin and man is left responsible?That anything-good or evil-occurs in God’s universe finds its account… in His positive ordering and active concurrence; while the moral quality of the deed, considered in itself, is rooted in the moral character of the subordinate agent, acting in the circumstances and under the motives operative in each instance . . . Thus all things find their unity in His eternal plan; and not their unity merely; but their justification as well; even the evil, though retaining its quality as evil and hateful to the holy God, and certain to be dealt with as hateful, yet does not occur apart from His provision or against His will, but appears in the world which He has made only as the instrument by which He works the higher good. (more…)