The standard-bearing Reformed confessions state that “God has decreed whatsoever may come to pass” and yet “God is not the author of evil”. While God ordains all things, including evil desires and actions, He does so without being the author of evil.
I think the danger the Westminster Confession of Faith is trying to avoid is seeing God as morally responsible for evil. Every Christian wants to avoid this danger.
However, the strongest critique rests on the fact that it is axiomatic to observe that a person who decides a moral action is morally responsible for that action. The doctrine “God has decreed whatsoever may come to pass” makes God the ultimate deciding factor for every single human choice. How can God be the ultimate deciding factor for an evil action without being morally responsible for that evil action?
I was recently linked to an article from Westminster Theological Seminary, written by J. Gresham Machen that attempts to answer this question! Let’s see if this legendary Princeton New Testament scholar, founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is able to provide a cogent answer to this Calvinist conundrum.
Dr. Machen puts the question like this:
This is a fantastic rendering of the question. How does he answer it?
Let’s unpack if this if we can:
- There is a difference in how God determines the actions of personal beings and how God determines the events of history.
- When God determines what men would do He determines their will rather than goes against their will
- Determining their will preserves human freedom.
What this seems to me is a certain kind of special pleading Drew McLeod has named “The Transcendent Midas Touch”. God is so transcendent that not only can He do things we do not understand (which is true), not only can we not fully understand God (which is true), but also that God can turn our rational faculties and moral intuitions upside down and do things utterly contradictory in our eyes. That is, everything God touches turns to gold, even if we think it is evil.
God is so transcendent “freedom” means “your will is determined”.
God is so transcendent that when He determines evil, He does it in a good way.
Do Not Trust Your Lying Eyes
This is the claim Dr. Machen goes on to make:
God is so Other Than that He causes all the evil actions of man (in what way, how frequently, how severely, and in what manner) but that’s still good because God caused it.
God’s Transcendent Midas Touch is able to cause the actions of personal beings while at the same time those personal beings are free and responsible. In other words, God is so transcendent that, when it comes to His actions in the world, direct contradictions are true.
Dr. Machen answers the question at the top of the article by the simple claim that God can cause evil choices while not being morally responsible for evil because He’s God. I would point out that this is a non-sequitur but I suspect those who buy into this special pleading will simply opt God out of non-sequiturs. God is exempt from basic human reason and moral intuition after all.
Whence Our Reason and Moral Intuition?
It is no small observation that, on Reformed theology, our reason and moral intuition that was given to us by God is unable to rightly know what “God is good” means.
If my moral intuition tells me that murder is wrong no matter the time, place, culture, or setting and yet, “God is good” can include the theological claim that “God determined the will of Dennis Rader to murder the Otero family on Jan 15, 1974 by suffocating them with plastic bags” then do I even know what “God is good” means?
If I cannot fathom how God can determine the will of a man to commit such heinous evil in a not-evil way; is that a failure of my imagination or God’s moral intuition He instilled in me? Why would He give me a moral intuition so incapable of understanding Him?
Why would God give me a moral intuition that sees as evil His determinations?
Dr. Machen seems to sense his previous explanations are insufficient because he attempts to change the subject.
Dr. Machen has another special pleading he would like you to believe. He would like you to believe that allowing evil and determining evil are equivalent moral actions and the free will theist has the same problem as the theistic determinist.
Spiritual Solutions for Theological Problems
If you do not see how being the ultimate deciding cause of moral evil and allowing moral evil are morally equivalent…if you still see the theological problems Reformed theology creates by insisting “God decrees whatsoever may come to pass”…Well, Dr. Machen has a solution for you.
Dr. Machen’s solution? Humble yourself and stay quiet. If, after Dr. Machen’s explanation, you’re still wrestling with the problem that is because you pridefully want to know everything.
If this doesn’t make any moral sense, if you’re unable to rest in the contradictions that wills that are determined are also free, that the ultimate deciding factor for an evil act is not morally responsible for that act…well then, according to Dr. Machen, that’s because you’re not trusting God.
I know our readers will see the tactic here. Dr. Machen knows that the only way Reformed theology is inoculated against criticism is if it can overcome the moral intuitions and basic reasoning of Christians. With the goal of getting you to distrust those God-given faculties, Dr. Machen equates them with pride and lack of faithfulness to God.
Let us again read Dr. Machen’s accurate paraphrase of the question and then ourselves paraphrase Dr. Machen’s answers:
According to Dr. Machen, we meet the difficulty by realizing the difficulty only exists if one is prideful and distrustful of God.
According to Dr. Machen, we are indeed involving ourselves in a hopeless contradiction but this contradiction is true because God is transcendent and we are hopeless in understanding Him.