Jonathan Edwards: God Permits Evil, But Does Not Cause It image

Jonathan Edwards: God Permits Evil, But Does Not Cause It

There was a bit of a theological scuffle two weeks ago over the age-old question of whether we should say that God wills, or ordains, or permits, or allows evil. It followed a discussion on the subject at The Gospel Coalition, which was provocatively headlined, "Why 'God Didn't Ordain That Tragedy' is Terrible News.'" (I know.) Needless to say, sadly, much of the brouhaha was self-replicating, morally loaded and unkind; these things often are. But from my point of view, there was a silver lining, which was that Justin Taylor sent me the link to this superb paragraph from Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, admittedly, is somewhat dense at the best of times, but this is a remarkably insightful analogy on a theological issue in which nuance is incredibly important. In Freedom of the Will, he writes:

... there is a great difference between God’s being concerned thus, by his permission, in an event and act, which in the inherent subject and agent of it, is sin (though the event will certainly follow on his permission), and his being concerned in it by producing it and exerting the act of sin ...

There is a vast difference between the sun’s being the cause of the lightsomeness and warmth of the atmosphere, and brightness of gold and diamonds, by its presence and positive influence; and its being the occasion of darkness and frost, in the night, by its motion whereby it descends below the horizon. The motion of the sun is the occasion of the latter kind of events; but it is not the propel cause, efficient or producer of them; though they are necessarily consequent on that motion, under such circumstances: no more is any action of the Divine Being the cause of the evil of men’s wills.

If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness, it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun; and it might be justly inferred, that the sun itself is dark and cold, and that his beams are black and frosty. But from its being the cause no otherwise than by its departure, no such thing can be inferred, but the contrary; it may justly be argued, that the sun is a bright and hot body, if cold and darkness are found to be the consequence of its withdrawment; and the more constantly and necessarily these effects are connected with, and confined to its absence, the more strongly does it argue the sun to be the fountain of light and heat.

So, inasmuch as sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the Most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence; this is no argument that he is sinful, or his operation evil, or has anything of the nature of evil; but on the contrary, that he, and his agency, are altogether good and holy, and that he is the fountain of all holiness.

It would be strange arguing indeed, because men never commit sin, but only when God leaves ‘em to themselves, and necessarily sin, when he does so, that therefore their sin is not from themselves, but from God; and so, that God must be a sinful being: as strange as it would be to argue, because it is always dark when the sun is gone, and never dark when the sun is present, that therefore all darkness is from the sun, and that his disk and beams must needs be black.

For what it’s worth, I think the word “ordain” is unhelpful in reflecting this level of nuance, since it seems to most people to communicate a far more active agency than Edwards is talking about here; contemporary people would put it closer to “producing” than “permitting”, I suspect. (The explosion that followed the TGC video shows that this is what many think the word means, and in many ways that’s what matters.)

See? Even Twitter spats can be intended for evil, but God can mean them for good.

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