A Critique of James White and Calvinism Theodicy

I like both Matt Slick and James White—great writers and insightful apologists that have encouraged my faith in the past. That being said I don’t agree with their Calvinist leanings. Today their viewpoints will serve as two principal examples in highlighting the weakness and inadequacies of the Calvinist position in regards to God’s sovereignty and evil.

Calvinists will often attempt to assert that God must have meticulously predetermined all the perverse evils of mankind because if he did not then the evils which do occur would demonstrate that:

1) God is helpless in the face of them.

2) There exists no meaning or purpose in God permitting an evil event he did not predetermine.

For example Matt Slick writes,If libertarians [Arminians] were correct in that man has “free choice,” then when man committed a gross evil against his neighbor, the evil committed would have been pointless. That is, if God had no control over what, where, or when evil took place, then it only naturally follows that the suffering produced from the evil was without purpose, and thus pointless. For example, if someone were robbed and beaten, and yet God had no say in the crime whatsoever (for it was a free, uninhibited action based upon the criminal’s free will), then the person robbed would not have only been unjustly treated, but the evil he endured would have had no point to it.  It was just a spontaneous action from a criminal.  God is sort of left helpless in the matter.”[1]

Calvinist theologian James White takes a similar stance. In a debate with Hank Hannegraaf and George Bryson, White was asked, “When a child is raped, is God responsible and did He decree that rape?” To which Mr. White replied… “Yes, because if not then it’s meaningless and purposeless and though God knew it was going to happen he created it without a purpose… and God is responsible for the creation of despair… If He didn’t [decree child rape] then that rape is an element of meaningless evil that has no purpose.” [2]

As is obvious both Matt Slick and James White are committing the logical fallacy of a false dilemma. Namely they are insisting that there exists only two alternatives or solutions to a problem when in fact there are other valid options to be considered. Clearly the false dilemma presented by them is that God is either meticulously sovereign in the face of evil, decreeing every evil event, choice and thought according to his secret, irresistible decrees, or God is helpless in the face of evil in virtue of not decreeing all evil. Moreover both Slick and White further imply that if God did not meticulously decree all the evil that pervades this world, then there no longer exists any meaning, point or purpose for God to allow evil’s occurrence in the world.

This is a serious contention and challenge. If evils do occur in this world freely, such that God did not divinely predetermine them, does it follow that God has no purpose in permitting such evils? Take for example the child being molested and raped. This would be a tragedy specifically because God did not desire it or will it. Yet it occurs anyway. Does it mean God was helpless in the face of this evil? Does it mean God retains no purpose in permitting choices that result in evil? How do we reconcile this with a sovereign, omnipotent God?

As is obvious the answer to both Slick and White is that if evil actions are done freely— that is the purpose! [3] The overarching purpose God has in permitting evil that he neither desires nor has determined is to preserve his original intention and sovereign decision to create mankind free. That is to say God purposes to allow evil to occur, even rape, because God purposed for the will of men and women to be free and self-determinative. And God refuses to abort that meaningful, sovereign intention simply because of humanity’s misuse and abuse of such autonomy and self-determination.

Notice also how White tries to mischaracterize the Arminian position by smuggling in the word “creation” when he argues that if God didn’t decree the rape but knew it was going to happen (or even knew it was a possibility) then “God created it (rape) without a purpose…God is responsible for the creation of despair.”

Created rape? Not at all.

Only in Calvinism does God conceive of and create evils like rape through irresistible decrees that men are powerless to choose against. The Arminian position is not that God “created rape” but rather God permits it to occur because in his wisdom he knows he can only prevent all evil by countermanding his own sovereign intention to create a world of morally responsible agents capable of good. So it is false to say God “creates” evil in the Arminian context. Rather God created man. More specifically God created man free and God sovereignly permits man to exercise his God-given freedom.

That being said, it does not mean God stands by passive and detached from evil. Not in the least. God seeks in every way to exploit the evils committed against us and ultimately use them for good in our lives. This often requires that we submit our bitterness, un-forgiveness and pain to him, but the good news is that in Christ we never need be completely victimized by evil.

God is fully capable of usurping and ransacking the evil intentions of others and overruling them for our good (as he did in the life of Joseph). But that is a far cry from saying God decreed all the foul, sordid evils of this world for the purpose of bringing about good. Or as John Piper puts it, “to make his glory shine more brightly.”[4]

Calvinism would have us believe God has a need–evil– to bring about good. Moreover the thought is that God’s divine conception and determination of evil provides a necessary context for his glory to stand in contrast to evil– the very evils he predetermined.

Does that sound farcical and confusing?

That’s because it is. It would be akin to an arson setting fire to a house just so he can run in as the hero rescuer and splash his name across the newspapers. In contrast the position of Arminian-minded thinkers is that God seeks to trump the evils of this world and exploit them for good. His glory is in overriding evils for good (Arminianism) not justifying all evil by determinatively decreeing all evil (Calvinism).

All this to say, God’s will is not the only will “in town.” There are other wills in play in this universe: angelic, demonic and human. God has sovereignly given to free agents, not an exhaustive, but a certain amount of “say so” in determining world events. [5] In particular humans were made in God’s image, possessing self-autonomy and self-determination. Right now God’s will is contending with other wills in this universe. God could annihilate all other wills if he so desired, such that only his will determines a course of action or state of affairs, but God could only do that at the expense of jettisoning his sovereign intention to bestow moral freedom on his created order.

Apparently God, as of yet, has sovereignly chosen not to do this. It is not a question of God being helpless in the face of free-will, as Slick seems to think. It is a matter of how God has sovereignly chosen to create his world! That is the point Calvinists seem all to eager to avoid.

As Scott McNight astutely explains, “All of this can all be resolved by positing a sovereign God who sovereignly self-limits himself!…God permits because God chooses to grant humans the kind of freedom that God does not deny. God has a perfect will — what God wants for all — and a consequent will — what God wants in light of human rebellion. God is now allowing his sovereignty to be challenged.” [6]

The point Calvinists are so remiss in fully considering and engaging is the Arminian contention that it was none other than God himself who sovereignly purposed to create man in his own image and give men an autonomous, free will— knowing full well that mankind would consequently have the freedom and possibility to disobey and choose evil.

Why would God do that?

Because in his sovereign wisdom God knew there could be no true worship and no true obedience unless the freedom to not worship and not obey was a viable choice. For indeed God understood that if worship, obedience and love were to be purposeful and mean anything—they required free agency of the will whereby the choice to not worship, to not obey and to not love were real possibilities.

Now let’s delve further into White’s underlying logic that only acts done in accordance to God’s pre-determinative will have meaning and purpose. This too is patently bogus. [7] In fact quite the opposite is true.

Obviously from man’s perspective, if our all our thoughts, desires, choices and actions (both good and evil) are unilaterally chosen for us by an irresistible, divine decree, then all our choices and actions are meaningless and purposeless! For we are no longer in control over what we think and do! We are just God’s passive toys rendered willfully inoperative and motionless until God decrees us to think, choose and act. We aren’t even free to choose what sins we will commit or desire in our fallen natures– for the range of possible sins has been reduced to the one— the one predestined for us by God’s decretive will.

Thus all our choices are meaningless in the sense that they do not really belong to us. Instead they are God’s choices and we are simply his intermediate instruments to bring about his willed decrees.

This raises the question as whether or not our actions are meaningless from God’s vantage point? Maybe that’s what White was talking about when he implied that events outside God’s determinative will of decree are pointless and void of meaning and purpose. But if it were to be conceded that meticulous, divine determinism were true, as White believes, how would this change anything? In what way are evil events suddenly infused with meaning and purpose from God’s perspective?

They could only be said to be meaningful and purposeful in the same way that a stage director shuffles his actors around, scripts their lines and cues their actions. But is this world merely God’s cosmic stage and are we simply thinking, choosing and acting in accordance with God’s divine script?

That hardly seems to do justice to the scriptures admonishes of responsibility and accountability.  The blunt truth is that if Calvinism’s theology of a meticulous, divine determinism were correct— it would logically entail this very post that condemns it! Indeed it is hard to see how from a human vantage point all meaning, purpose and responsibility doesn’t vanish or at minimum become incoherent. For as already insinuated, if anyone were to believe that all their thoughts, choices and beliefs were divinely determined, like White believes, it would necessarily entail their own belief in divine determinism! Moreover it would mean that anyone who disavows White’s beliefs would likewise be divinely determined to disagree with him. 

Thus in a world governed by meticulous, divine determinism, beliefs are not the product of examination, analysis, reason and contemplation whereby we search for truth and weigh various options and make informed decisions. Rather they are just the spin-offs of God’s universal, exhaustive, meticulous divine decrees. White would have to concede that a person who believes in meticulous, divine determinism does so for the same reason that another person disbelieves meticulous, divine determinism. It has nothing to do with evaluation, truth and reason—and everything to do with what has been determined for them to believe!

Indeed it is hard to see how this wouldn’t be the very epitome of a pointless, meaningless and purposeless existence.

-Strider MTB

[1] http://carm.org/god-and-evil-a-philosophical-contradiction
[2] http://turretinfan.blogspot.com/2011/08/why-it-is-important-to-go-back-to.html 
[3] In one sense I could state that certain evils are indeed pointless and meaningless insofar as one is looking for the proverbial “good reason for everything that happens.” We live in a fallen world where the clutter and “fallen leaves” of sin build up and blow over into the “lawn” of our lives—no matter how faithful we are in trying to keep our lives and families manicured and removed from such evil. Take for example a drunk driver killing a mother and her unborn child, or in the example above, a child being molested and raped. As an Arminian I can deny that there is a good or godly reason God purposed to decree every evil and wicked act in human history (i.e. Calvinism). As an Arminian-minded advocate I have other alternatives that retain God’s holy and good character. For instance, a classical Arminian can assert that God refuses to countermand his sovereign decision to create man free, but that does not mean he is passive in the face of evil. Rather he seeks to exploit the evils committed against us, override their evil intentions, and ultimately bring about good as we submit to him. However that is a far cry from saying God decrees evil for the purpose of good. Or I can say as William Lane Craig (Arminian-minded Molinist) does that though God did not divinely determine every evil event, God can have a morally sufficient reason to allow each and every evil event. For example, God, in his omniscience, could have known that if Hitler would not have been permitted to carry out his evil intentions, that an emboldened and more powerful Stalin would have arisen and caused even greater, unspeakable death and suffering across Europe. We can only speculate. I could also opt to hold, as Greg Boyd does (Arminian-minded Open-Theist) that God has a good purpose for allowing every tragic event that occurs, and yet we can deny that any tragic event happened for that good purpose. In this sense Boyd would would say the challenge is to fathom an intelligence so great it has an eternally prepared good purpose for every possible event that might unfold. In all three options the nature of God’s morally perfect character, being too holy to 1) be tempted by sin, 2) tempt men to sin, or 3)causally determine the sin of others, is preserved. This is not the case with Calvinism.
[4] John Piper, Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 44. Of all popular proponents of Calvinism, Piper, exemplifies the pinnacle of Calvinism’s inability to remain logically consistent with its own doctrinal assertions. Piper intuitively knows that suggesting God determined sin for the sake of his own glory is a “tad” over-the-line. So he fudges on his own view of meticulous, exhaustive divine determinism, softens his terms, and inexplicably borrows the language of “permission” by attempting to explain that when God foreordains that evil occur it is because “God either caused something directly or permitted it for wise purposes.” Obviously Piper hasn’t thought through the logic of his own beliefs. Piper thinks God meticulously determined all events and choices–including evil. So does God need to get permission from himself? Calvin–to his credit–was much more appreciative of internal coherency and consistency and rightly understood that saying God “permits” what he divinely decreed is meaningless. Calvin writes, “the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers…” However not even Calvin could make heads or tails of why God would decree that we do the very things he abhors and wishes that we not do! He states, “No, when we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility…” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1 and 3:136, 138-39. When a theology grounds the conception of all evil in the conceiving mind of God and anchors the ultimate cause of all evil in the decretive will of God, and then can only appeal to mystery to extricate themselves from resultant, multitudinous absurdities and inconsistencies, it is high time to re-visit our Bibles and toss our hermeneutical framework in the waste bin of good interpretive intentions gone awry.
[5] Couching creaturely freedom in within a limited context of determinative “say-so” is a helpful concept explored by Greg Boyd in much of his writings. Check out his site: http://www.reknew.org.
[6] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2011/10/20/for-and-against-calvinism-3/
[7] Both White and Slick argue that God would have no purpose in permitting evils he did not divinely decree in eternity past, but their underlying logic takes their contention much further. They are really saying any act outside of God’s divine determination is rendered pointless, meaningless and purposeless. Now the important question to be asked is, in what sense do both Slick and White understand “meaningless, pointless and purposeless?” It may certainly be true that evil events are pointless and meaningless in terms of promoting human happiness and well-being. But that does not seem to be what they are arguing. They seem to be using pointless, meaningless and purposeless in an ontological sense or as philosophical synonyms for senseless, inane and absurd. It is somewhat uncertain, but it is possible they are arguing that any spontaneous act of the human will, un-decreed by God would be an act that has no meaning whatsoever–thus becoming ontologically non-existent, illogical and absurd. It’s almost as if they are advocating some sort of divine verificationism, in that anything not decreed by God is therefore meaningless and absurd. Slick apparently contends that if God were to not have decided to decree action X (evil event), then its effect Y (suffering produced) is therefore rendered meaningless and pointless. But by such reasoning this would not only entail evil events and their subsequent effects of suffering— it would also entail good events and their subsequent effects of joy and love. For example, if a husband were to freely and spontaneously sweep his wife off her feet and kiss her (action X), but God did not divinely predetermine him to do so, does that thereby render her subsequent joy (effect Y) meaningless and pointless? Not at all! But this would then render Slick’s argument invalid. Now what about White’s underlying contention that the action of X itself would be rendered meaningless and purposeless if God did not divinely decree it? His contention doesn’t fair any better than Slick’s. A spontaneous action, such as a husband’s choice to kiss his wife, is obviously infused with meaning and purpose even if were to be outside the realm of what God predetermined. The same would go for evil events. Just because an evil event was not divinely determined by God, does not necessarily mean that the evil act is meaningless and pointless. The meaning and purpose may be self-indulgent in regards to the evil doer or serve no good purpose in regards to promoting human happiness in the life of the victim– but that doesn’t therefore render the action meaningless and purposeless in a philosophical sense. I am not insisting this is the point White and Slick are trying to make, but since they are not more specific we are left wondering.
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About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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4 Responses to A Critique of James White and Calvinism Theodicy

  1. Pingback: Purposeless Evil? | SOTERIOLOGY 101

  2. Pingback: Calvinism’s Greatest Fallacy – SOTERIOLOGY 101

  3. Brian Gaskill says:

    Thanks for this excellent article which I think provides a strong argument indeed against Dr. White’s position.

  4. StriderMTB says:

    Thanks Brian, shalom to you.

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