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Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: Introduction to Post Series

I have been aware that this book was in the works for over a year and I’m very happy it has reached my mailbox.

Ever since I was an undergraduate student in the early 2000s, I have been thinking about Calvinism as a philosopher. With the exception of David Ciocchi, who was then an agnostic-autonomist (and I’d bet still is), and a handful of other undergraduate and graduate students, the philosophical climate at Biola University was deeply opposed to Calvinism. My explanation for this environment was partly due to the fact that Biola University and Talbot Seminary had some heavy-hitters in the Evangelical world – J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, amongst others – who regard Calvinists as a fringe element of Christendom, and partly due to the fact that the theologians on campus were philosophically incapable of answering objections from philosophy students. It probably did not help that the undergraduates were assigned R.C. Sproul’s Chosen By God as part of the undergraduate curriculum, which is too shallow a treatment for students enamored with Molinism.

For the Calvinists and Open Theists on campus, this was fertile ground to develop views by testing them with fire. During my time (2000-2004), there was a ridiculous number of excellent philosophy students and many have gone on to be successful philosophers (e.g., Noel Saenz, Josh Rasmussen, Andrew Bailey, Michael Robinson, Jeff Wisdom, Thaddeus Williams, Adam Green, Christopher Franklin, to name a few). Bad arguments were quickly identified as such and appropriately dismissed.

Until I befriended some of the participants in the now deprecated Van Til List (RIP Yahoo-Groups), it was difficult to find other philosophically-minded Calvinists. At the time, I could look at the works of Paul Helm and some of William Wainwright for some sympathetic philosophical treatments of Calvinism; John Feinberg and John Frame had philosophical insights as well. Gordon Clark was outdated, and in my opinion not very good. But from Christians, that about covered it. As a result, I started to look at the free will literature at the time. I began to read the works of John Martin Fischer, Gary Watson, and Harry Frankfurt on whom my undergraduate work was written. I learned very quickly that there was much work for Calvinists to do in philosophy, and it was high time for Calvinists to stop acting like Jonathan Edwards was the last word on the subject. But to whom or to what works could I point people to show that there were philosophically recent treatments on the topic in, say, the last one hundred years? The Reformed tradition had a large number of philosophically minded theologians. Where were the Reformed philosophers thinking about these topics (rather than, say, topics about Dooyeweerd)?

Over the last decade since leaving Biola, I have come to discover that the count of Calvinist philosophers far exceeds the number of which I was previously aware (if you counted, that was two). This book contains essays by authors, some of whom are friends, some acquaintances, and many of whom I never heard. The increase in number and the bringing together of these authors is a good thing.

First, diversity in philosophy helps the development of fruitful ideas (bonus: you might think that there’s a theodicy for ecclesiastical heresies). I certainly benefitted from those who challenged me at Biola; I cannot say whether my arguments were beneficial to them (probably not).

Second, the fact that there is an edited work of this sort rather than a monograph by the (almost) lone Calvinist, Paul Helm, shows that the view is not as fringe as one might have thought. We can now point to a collection of papers on the topic, and which is given a mostly sympathetic philosophical treatment.

Third, as the introduction makes clear, there are a variety of ways to understand how evil might pose a distinct challenge to Calvinism. Equally important, there are a variety of ways in which Calvinists might respond to those problems. This is a crucial corrective to those philosophers who seem to think Calvinism is the simplistic view that “God made me do it and that’s that.” The ethical and metaphysical assumptions Calvinists bring to a discussion can be diverse; failing to see that has allowed for far too many dismissive treatments of Calvinism by Christian philosophers. In addition, young enthusiastic (sometimes belligerent) Calvinists might benefit from learning that these issues are deeper and more difficult than being able to resolve all the problems in a thirty minute discussion or on a message board.

Given the last point, I am going to be writing as I read and think through the problems and solutions in this book. I have views about many of the issues in this book, and I cannot say except in a few cases (of papers I read pre-publication) whether I will find the responses convincing. With that, I’d like to comment on the introduction where Alexander and Johnson write, “Calvinism simply is not a live option for most Christian philosophers. Why is this so?”

According to Alexander and Johnson, Calvinism is not a live option because of the central role of libertarian free will in philosophical responses to the problem of evil. That is the extent of their explanation. Surely this is one of the explanans. But it is not the entire reason for libertarian’s prevalence – dominance! – among Christian philosophers.

The role of libertarianism amongst Christian philosophers is much deeper than the problem of evil. Amongst Christian philosophers, libertarianism has a role to play in questions about the meaning of life, about what a person is, and about what genuine love is. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on Christian education puts libertarianism at odds with certain naturalist views (cf. “On the Idea of a Psychological Model of the Person that is Biblically Faithful”, in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education). Necessarily, if libertarianism has even the slightest application to a topic, some Christian philosopher will eventually make much of the application.

Another reason for Calvinism not being a live option amongst Christian philosophers is that the alternatives to libertarianism in the free will literature are defended almost entirely by naturalists. This gives the appearance that to defend an alternative is to align oneself with naturalism. I do not believe this reason is explicit in the minds of libertarians; but the ease with which philosophers contrast naturalism and supernaturalism by appeal to libertarianism suggests as much.

There is also the issue of who our philosophical heroes are. A student finds a teacher, a book, someone from whom to learn. If this person is perceived to be highly intelligent, prestigious, and even charming or witty, it is natural to look to this person as the model by which one should judge one’s own philosophical growth. The same thing happens in every field. Since the advent of the Society of Christian Philosophers, there have been numerous Christian philosophers who have had these estimable properties. Some of them have been rock stars to younger Christian philosophers; and some of these younger Christian philosophers have become rock stars as well. Since the vast majority of them have embraced libertarianism, I do not believe we should be surprised by the fact that we now have two or three generations of Christian philosophers who almost entirely discount Calvinism.

This last point relates to my final explanatory comment on the state of things. Some in the Reformed community is to blame to the extent that they discount philosophy as merely “human reason.” This attitude, which is not the result of having learned the subject being discounted, has severely demotivated Calvinists from pursuing philosophy done well. The result has been that Calvinists have been without the tools to answer objections or concerns – and they are legitimate concerns. It is like responding to the atheist who doubts God’s existence on the basis of a set of reasons by quoting the Job 38; a satisfactory answer will depend on the person and the reasons that the person gives, and one must then engage with the person and the reasons. By providing very little deep engagement from a Calvinist perspective, Calvinists have given the impression that they have nothing to offer with respect to the reasons Christians have for preferring libertarianism.

Fortunately, this book’s set of papers on a quick glance shows that Calvinists do have something to offer. And that will be the subject of this series of posts.

2018-06-07T21:31:10+00:00 July 27th, 2016|6 Comments


  1. Markus Holmbom August 2, 2016 at 5:55 am

    Encouraging read! Allthough I am from Sweden I can relate to a lot of what you are writing. I found your post googling the name of the book and entries from last week. As I expected there might be someone reading it and blogging like you have started.

    I have been looking forward to this book too for some time since I have been working with the subject a lot both in studies and in my Christian life. My BA examns in theology refuted libertarian FW and defended a compatibilist view in light of the problem of evil and my MA exam in systematic theology was a reformed response to the logical problem of evil posed by J.L. Mackie (which was lacking, since the only real response I have found was from John Feinberg whose resposne I find very unsatisfactory). (I am currently a full time local church pastor and God willing I will continue with a doctorate in the future.)

    I will certainly read and if I have time also comment your further bloggposts on the book. Just wanted to encourage you a bit in letting you know that there are more unknown people digging into these subjects!

  2. James A. Gibson August 2, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Thanks, Markus!

  3. Scott Christensen September 6, 2016 at 8:29 am

    I knew this volume has been in the works for several years now and can’t wait to read it along with your reviews. What is the lone monograph by Paul Helm that you mention? I have read The Providence of God, but that volume is short on PoE. I recently published the book: What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty (2016 P&R) in which I defend Calvinistic compatibilism. The manuscript was thoroughly reviewed by James Anderson (RTS, Charlotte). My editor now wants me to write a book on PoE. I am not a philosopher (I write for a more popular audience), but I recognize the importance of philosophy for these subjects. One Calvinist treatment that has piqued my interest is by Richard Shenk: The Wonder of the Cross: The God Who Uses Evil and Suffering to Destroy Evil and Suffering (his PhD dissertation). I look forward to reading your other posts in the series. Thanks for doing it!

  4. James A. Gibson September 6, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Hi Scott. I was thinking more about the writings Helm has in general rather than a single monograph. So Providence of God is one; he has some papers scattered throughout different journals and then he is the token Calvinist in all those 4 views books. If you have an electronic copy of Shenk’s dissertation, please send it my way. I have a line on how to respond to the (evidential) problem of evil, but I haven’t written anything on it yet. But I’ve used it for years and during my time in graduate school, and so far its held up to scrutiny – and that’s an assessment from my interlocutors. My view is that Christians need to point to the cross to resolve the evidential problem, and that is nothing new. But how I make use of that hasn’t be articulated by anyone else, as far as I know. So I am curious if Shenk’s dissertation scoops my argument. It’ll probably be the next thing I write on for a professional journal, but that is fairly low on my priority list. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Scott Christensen September 6, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    No I don’t have an electronic copy of Shenk’s book. I paid a pretty penny to get it. However, he comes close to the thesis I am working on for my book. Helm has also picked up on a similar theme as has Plantinga in a short article called, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’” in Van Inwagen, Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil. It is a departure from his LFW defense and far more Calvinistic.Here is my rough thesis: God is most glorified in redemption as conceived in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Such redemption is not possible (given God’s purposes) without the introduction of evil. Thus, the fall was planned by God in order that he might magnify his glory through the redemptive work of Christ. His glorify is further magnified by the unusual nature of redemption in which the hero (Christ) achieves victory primarily through unconventional means–the Son of eternal and stupendous glory condescends to a cruel and shameful death in order to defeat evil and purchase redemption for the elect. I believe there is a great deal to tease out here. It is not a comprehensive theodicy. However, neither is it a defense. It is in fact an attempt to supply an actual theodicy, but I agree with Feinberg that there are many problems of evil. I am seeking to answer the evidential problem in a way that mirrors (or better yet, employs) the broad narrative arc of scripture and the Christian faith–namely, creation, fall and redemption.

  6. James A. Gibson September 7, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Oh cool. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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