A reader named David wrote me to ask about how to answer a friend who is “struggling with Calvinism,” because “he has not heard an explanation of the fall (and ultimately reprobation) that goes beyond the idea of a ‘blessed fall.’ In other words, he has trouble accepting that the fall was ultimately a good thing, that it was caused directly by God for the ultimate purpose of saving sinners and sending some to hell, all to glorify himself.”
He continued by asking whether I am a compatibilist or determinist on such questions. I am not a philosopher. I am a church historian and historical theologian. If someone wants to know what a Christian philosopher would say about these questions, he should ask Mike Horton (who teaches apologetics and modern mind, and, though he may not be a philosopher, interacts with them academically), or Bill Davis (Covenant College), or Kelly James Clark (formerly Calvin College).
I do not know whether that makes me a compatibilist or a determinist (or both), but the biblical doctrine of providence as the Reformed have understood it teaches that God operates by concursus, through agents. At the same time, everything happens within God’s decree, but most things, the fall included, are accomplished through agency in a way that does no violence to the uncoerced choice of the agent.
As to reprobation specifically, the “problem” is intensified because we are speaking about things in logical rather than chronological categories. This is perhaps one reason to favor the infralapsarian position whereby it is the fallen who are said to have been reprobated as opposed to the supralapsarian position in which it is the creatable (people considered as potentially but not actually created) who are said to be reprobated. Since I am an infralapsarian and since it is the fallen who are reprobated, this response focuses on the problem of the fall rather than reprobation.
The fall is a great mystery about which Scripture says relatively little. We understand Scripture to teach that God ordained the fall but also that he neither takes nor has moral responsibility for it. The Reformed orthodox worked on ways of speaking about this. They typically used the Christian-Aristotelian language of “second causes.” Adam fell. God did not. Some writers say that God permitted the fall. I have come to appreciate this language more and more. It is not mere or bare permission. Adam, who was created good, exercised his will, which was unencumbered by sin. He freely chose to disobey. Why would a truly good man, created in righteousness and true holiness choose to sin? I have no idea. We say that choice was comprehended in the divine decree and ordained to achieve God’s glory.
The Reformed orthodox often appealed to the analogy of Deuteronomy 19:5,
As when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live.
I am not sure I really get it yet. In the analogy, God ordains the ax head to fly off. The orthodox tended to argue that it is not the fault of the ax maker if the ax head flies off. My response is, “Why did he not make a better ax handle and head?” Of course creation was “good” and without sin, so the analogy breaks down. This is why the medievals and some fathers adopted the doctrine of concupiscence before the fall and the donum super additum. To make the problem ontological, however, is not helpful as it makes God the author of evil all over again.
Every time Scripture touches it directly (e.g., Rom 9 or Job 38), the philosophers are unsatisfied. God refuses to give an account of his lack of moral culpability. He refuses to give a detailed account of his relations to the agents of the fall and evil. Nevertheless, I find very instructive what God says and what he does not say. In Job 38:4–5 God says,
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Job wants an explanation from God who refuses on the grounds that Job lacks standing. In other words, God appeals to the Creator-creature distinction. To paraphrase Tom Cruise in Top Gun, “If I told you, it would kill you.” Finitum non capax infiniti. We are not capable of understanding God’s relationship to sin and evil.
The Apostle Paul addresses this problem directly in Romans 9:14–23
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 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 honored 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.
I have always found this passage most instructive when dealing with the “problem” of reprobation. I put “problem” in scare quotes to signal that I understand that it is a problem for your friend, and it is a problem for the philosophers, but it is not a “problem” for the Apostle Paul, or at least not a problem that he was willing to address at length. Indeed, he seems to do everything he can to intensify the problem. It is his way of preaching the law. We want to hold God to our standard of justice, but God will not have it, and neither will Paul. If we will accuse God of injustice, then Paul (good Lutheran that he was) just makes the problem worse by pointing out an egregious example of what troubles the philosophers. God is the potter. He has ownership of the clay. The clay works for him. He does not work for the clay, and he will not answer to the demand, as it were, by the clay to explain himself. He even invokes the problem of reprobation, but he offers no relief, only a demand for submission to God’s righteousness, sovereignty, and glory.
Your friend is dissatisfied with an appeal to God’s glory, but appeal to the divine glory is exactly what the Apostle Paul does. What does it mean, in this context, to appeal to God’s glory? It is not done facilely. Remember, this is the same Apostle Paul, who, when contemplating the potential reprobation of his kinsmen offers himself as a substitute of sorts. Paul is not glib, but he cannot and will not go behind the glory of God. When we say “glory” here we must think in concrete as well as abstract, terms. We must think of the glory cloud that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:11). In the Hebrews scriptures, the divine glory is closely associated with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep. In other words, we should begin first with the divine persons and then think secondarily of the abstraction. What do we mean by the abstraction, “the glory of God”? At the least we mean, “the humble acknowledgment of God’s sovereign right to dispose of matters according to nature, character, and ends.” It is to speak of his wisdom, power, goodness, and holiness. Mystery is embedded in these very ideas.
How did the Spirit operate when he hovered over the face of the deep or when he accompanied the church through the wilderness? I doubt that any creature could say, but we cannot say that he did not operate. He sovereignly operated. How did he come upon the apostles and cause them to speak in languages hitherto unknown to them? How did he transport members of the apostolic company from place to place? How did he heal people? How did he resurrect Jesus or how does he bring spiritually dead sinners to life?
The plain fact is that we like to talk about divine sovereignty and glory when it comes to election, but we do not want to submit to that same sovereignty and glory when it comes to reprobation and evil. No one can make the problem of reprobation and evil go away, but infralapsarianism does mitigate it. If God permitted free creatures to fall, and if he permitted those free creatures to remain in their fallen state, and if he elected some out of that fallen state, who are we to complain? Any complaint presumes that we fallen creatures had some moral claim on God. Really? How is that exactly?
Let us also go to James 1:13 ff.:
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.
It seems at least possible that James is thinking of the fall. I think the old Reformed were quite cognizant of this passage. We cannot say, “God tempted me.” James is explicit about the fact that God is incapable of being tempted. He has a relation to evil that we do not have and cannot have. I doubt that we can understand the relationship he has to evil. James’ approach is to focus on us, on our agency, on our willingness, on our desire. The law is good, and we were created good and righteous, able to obey, but the law created the potential for evil. It had to be obeyed and it created the potential for disobedience. I suppose we could blame God for issuing the law, but how exactly? We were able to obey. Rome is wrong. There was no concupiscence before the fall. We sinned and gave a place to desire; it produced sin and death.
I suppose this approach is quite pedestrian and certainly unsatisfactory to the philosophers. I have tried and failed, and now I have given up. I am convinced that there is no resolution for the problem of evil in this life. I doubt there can be. That is why I call it a great mystery. There are solid truths to be confessed about this and reasoning to be done, but we cannot climb into heaven and make God answer when he will not.
I doubt I can make your friend’s problem go away. In counseling I always take sinners to the cross. Whatever problems they have with evil I tell them to tell it to Jesus. He was sinless and yet he, the God-Man, faced evil in a way that none of us has and he did not curse God. If someone wants to shake his fist at God, let him do it in front of the crucified Lord of Glory. If he can do that, his problem is not intellectual, it is spiritual, and he just needs to hear the law and the gospel.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Heidelblog in 2008.
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