Clark's God and Evil: The Problem Solved.

Reviewed by Dr. W. Gary Crampton

 

In 1961, the first edition of Gordon Clark’s Religion, Reason and Revelation, [1] was published. It was at that time, and still is, a classic in the field of Christian apologetics. Among those issues which Clark deals with in this treatise are Christianity’s uniqueness, the place  of logic in philosophy and theology, the definition of faith, the usefulness and importance  of language, the inerrancy of Scripture, the standard of ethics, and the problem of evil. A biblical apologetic must be able “to give a defense to everyone who asks you to give a rational account” regarding each of these matters (1 Peter 3:15). And Dr. Clark does so in an admirable fashion.

Of the issues mentioned above, perhaps none is so difficult as the problem of evil. Thomas Warren, for example, has written that “it is likely the case that no charge has been made with a greater frequency or with more telling force against theism of Judeo-Christian (biblical) tradition” than the complication of the existence of evil.” [2] Even the biblical writers themselves address the topic of God and evil. The prophet Habakkuk complained: “You [God] are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do you look on those who deal treacherously, and hold your tongue when the wicked devours?” (1:13). And Gideon contemplated: “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this [hardship] befallen us? (Judges 6:13).

If, according to the Bible, God, who is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, has eternally decreed all that ever comes to pass, and if he sovereignly and providentially controls all things in his created universe, how is he not the author of evil? How can evil exist in the world? How do we justify the actions of God in the midst of evil, suffering, and pain? This is the question of “theodicy.” It has to do with the justification of the goodness and righteousness of God in light of the evil in the world.

In his God and Evil: The Problem Solved, [3] which was originally Chapter Five of Religion, Reason and Revelation, Gordon Clark accomplishes what many theologians and philosophers have attempted and failed to do, i.e., explain the problem of evil. As Clark has said, “whereas various other views disintegrate at this point, the system known as Calvinism and expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith offers a satisfactory and completely logical answer” (7). The answer as we will see, lies in our epistemological starting point: the Word of God.

Throughout the centuries, there have been numerous non-Christian attempts to deal with the matter of theodicy (7-12). Some, such as Mary Baker Eddy, have simply denied that evil exists at all, i.e., it is illusory. Others, such as John Stuart Mill and William Pepperell Montague,  have opted for a finite god, one who is limited in power. Hence, he cannot be blamed for the existence of evil in the world.

Plato and the Zoroastrians, on the other hand, posited some form of ultimate dualism. Good and evil coexist independently, thus accounting for the mixture of good and evil in the world. Aristotle conceived of god as the Unmoved Mover, who was not really concerned about the things of this world. This being the case, the relation of Aristotle’s god to evil and the moral endeavors of men is inconsequential.

These theories, of course, fall far short of a biblical theodicy. Scripture clearly teaches that sin is not illusory (Genesis 3). Further, the God of Scripture is no finite deity. He is the ex nihilo Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 1:1-3), who is very concerned with his universe and the moral affairs of men (Exodus 20). Moreover, the God of Scripture brooks no competition (Job 33:13), so that there can be no form of ultimate dualism.

The great Christian philosopher Augustine, also pondered the theodicy issue. He taught that since God created all things good, evil cannot have a separate or independent existence. Evil is the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. Evil is parasitic, in that it cannot exist apart from good.

This being so, said Augustine, evil cannot be the efficient cause of sin; rather, it is a deficient cause in man. Evil is the result of man’s turning away from the good commands of  God to seek a lesser good: the will of the creature, man. It is man, not God, who is the author of sin. This, though, is no solution to the problem. As Clark states: “Deficient causes, if there are such things, do not explain why a good God does not abolish sin and guarantee that men always choose the highest good” (9).

Arminianism, as an ostensible Christian system, also fails to give us a biblical theodicy (12-19). Arminian theologians attribute the problem of evil to the free will of man. In his freedom, Adam chose to sin, apart from God’s will. Adam had a “liberty of indifference” to the will of God. God merely permitted man to sin.

The idea of God’s merely “permitting” man to sin, however,  is wholly unbiblical and does not give us a solution (17-19). Clark explains: [4]

Somehow the idea of God’s permitting evil without decreeing it seems to absolve God from the charge that he is the ‘author’ of sin, but one must be careful, both with respect to the logic of the argument and to the full scriptural data. God ‘permitted’ Satan to afflict Job; but since Satan could not have done so without God’s approval, the idea of permission hardly exonerates God. Is perfect holiness any  more compatible with approving or permitting Satanic evil? If God could have prevented, not only Job’s trials, but all the other sins and temptations to which mankind is subject – if he foresaw them and decided to let them occur – is he less reprehensible than if  he positively decreed them? If a man could save a baby from a burning house, but decided to ‘permit’ the baby to burn, who would dare say that he was morally perfect in so deciding?

Such a view of permission and free will cannot coexist with God’s omnipotence. Neither is the Arminian view of free will compatible with God’s omniscience, because omniscience renders the future certain (31,32). If God foreknows all things, then of necessity they will come to pass; otherwise, they could not be “foreknown.” God foreknew, even foreordained, the crucifixion of his Son by the hands of sinful men. Yet, according to Scripture the godless men who carried out the act are responsible (Acts 2:22,23; 4:27,28). Could they have done differently? Could Judas Iscariot not have betrayed Jesus Christ? To ask the questions is to answer them; of course not (41). The God of the Bible, writes Clark, “determines or decrees every action” (20). Hence, Arminianism’s attempted refuge in free will is both “futile” and “false; for the Bible consistently denies [the Arminian view of] free will” (19).

Reformed theology does not disavow the fact that Adam (and all men after him) had a “free will” in the sense of “free moral agency” (13-16). [5] All men have freedom of choice in this sense of the term. Men of necessity choose to do what they want to do; in fact, they could not do otherwise. What Reformed theology does deny is that man has the “freedom of indifference.” His freedom to choose is always governed by factors: his own  intellections, habits, and so forth. Of course, all choices are subject to the eternal decrees of God.

As mentioned, this is not only true of post-fall man. It was also true of Adam prior to Genesis 3. The major difference is that post-fall man, who still maintains his free moral agency, has lost that which Adam originally possessed: the ability to choose what God requires. Fallen man, in his state of “total depravity,” always chooses to do that which he desires, but his sin nature dictates that he always chooses evil (Romans 3:9-18; 8:7,8; Ephesians 4:17-19). This “ability” to choose good is only restored through regeneration.

Man, then, is never indifferent in his willing to do anything. God has determined all things that will ever come to pass. Yet, this does not undermine the responsibility of man. There is no disjunction here. The Westminster Confession of Faith (3:1; 5:2,4) correctly states that (26-28):

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established….Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently….The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so as the sinfulness thereof  proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

God, says the Confession, is the sovereign first cause of all things, many of which occur through the free acts of man, which are second causes. The end which is decreed by God must never be separated from the  means which he has also decreed, as second causes. God, writes Clark, “does not arrange things or control history apart from second causes….God does not decree apart from the means. He decrees that the end shall be accomplished by means of the means.” [6]

And this is the reason, according to the Confession, that God is not to be considered “the author or approver of sin.” God is the sovereign first cause of sin, but he is not the author of sin. Only second causes sin (51).

This view taught by the Westminster divines is the Calvinistic concept of “determinism” (19-21). The word determinism often carries with it an evil connotation, but this should not be the case. In actuality, determinism expresses a very biblical and high view of God, and it gives us the only plausible theodicy. God determines or decrees every event of history and every action of man.

Moreover, whatever God decrees is right simply because he decrees it; God can never err (48,53). God, says the Scripture, answers to no one (Job 33:13). He is the lawgiver (Isaiah 33:22); man is under the law. God is accountable to no one; he is ex lex (“above the law”). The Ten Commandments are binding on man, not God. And the only precondition for responsibility is a lawgiver, in this case God. In Dr. Clark’s words: “Man is responsible because God calls him to account; man is responsible because the supreme power can punish him for disobedience” (54). Thus, man is necessarily responsible for his sin, and God is completely absolved of being the author of sin.

The determinism taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith is not the same thing as fatalism (36-42). In fatalism, god, or the gods, or the Fates, determine all things, while man remains completely passive. Hence, logically man cannot be responsible for his sinful actions. In biblical determinism, on the other hand, God sovereignly determines all things, but he also holds man responsible, because man and his ‘freely chosen” sinful actions are the second causes through which things are determined to occur.

But someone will ask: “Is not murder sin and contrary to the will of God? How can it be that God wills it?”  The answer, says Clark (35,36), is found in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed  belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Here Moses distinguishes between the decretive will (“secret things”) and the preceptive will (“those things which are revealed”). God’s preceptive will is found in Scripture. Therein we learn what God requires of man. God’s decretive will, on the other hand, is the cause of every event. Man is responsible for the preceptive, not the decretive will. In the example used earlier, God from all eternity decreed Christ’s crucifixion, yet when it was carried out by the hands of sinful men, it was contrary to the moral law, i.e., God’s preceptive will.

Conclusion

In the opinion of this reviewer, in Gordon Clark’s God and Evil: The Problem Solved, we have the best work available on the subject at hand. The author shows us that standing on the rock foundation of the Word of God (Matthew 7:24,25), we have an answer to the theodicy issue. It is all a matter of one’s epistemic base. With the Bible as the axiomatic starting point, the existence of evil is really not the problem it is made out to be. God, who is altogether holy and who can do no wrong, sovereignly decrees evil things to occur for his own good purposes (Isaiah 45:7). And just because he decreed it, it is right. As stated by the Reformer Jerome Zanchius: [7]

The will of God is so the cause of all things, as to be itself without cause, for nothing can be the cause of that which is the cause of everything….Hence we find every matter resolved ultimately into the mere sovereign pleasure of God….God has no other  motive for what he does than ipsa voluntas, his mere will, which will itself is so far from being unrighteous that it is justice itself.

It is good, then, that sin exists. God has decreed it and it is working for the ultimate: his glory.

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[1] Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (The Trinity Foundation, 1986 [1961]).

[2] Thomas B. Warren, Have Atheists Proved There is No God? (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1972), vii.

[3] Gordon H. Clark, God and Evil: The Problem Solved (The Trinity Foundation, 1996). The pagination used in the body of this review is from Clark’s book.  Much of the material contained in this review is a revision of an article published earlier in The Trinity Review. See W. Gary Crampton, “A Biblical Theodicy,” The Trinity Review  (January 1999).

[4] Gordon H. Clark, First Corinthians (The Trinity Foundation, 1975, 1991), 156,157.

[5] See also Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956, 1965), 105-112.

[6] Ibid., 38.

[7] Cited in Gordon H. Clark, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (The Trinity Foundation, 1993), 113,114.

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