Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Problem of Evil Revisited—Part I

After I had posted my previous message in response to RC Sproul’s talk: “What is Evil and Where Did it Come From?” some people objected that I had not adequately addressed the specific points that he raises, but simply expressed my own views and left it at that. The trouble is that these folks preach long rambling sermons which makes it difficult to give it a detailed, point by point response. This coupled with the fact that they often do not provide a written transcript, giving it a detailed response makes it doubly difficult. However, with the help of a combination of computer trickery, word-processing wizardry, YouTube magic, and ingenuity I was able to obtain a written transcript of it without too much difficulty; and so I am now able to give it a more detailed response. He begins his talk as follows:

“Well it is not fair. I don’t dream up the themes for our conferences each year. The staff does that. And then they come to me and give assignments as to what I am supposed to address. And you notice on the board a moment ago that I have been given two questions to address, each of which would be worthy of a lengthy series to consider; and I am supposed to answer these questions in one message. Well that is impossible. I won’t do it because I can’t do it; but will give you a little introduction to these questions. And the first of the questions is, What is evil? The second question is, Where did it come from? But the first part of the question is, What is evil? And my immediate response to that in presidential fashion is to say, It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is!

“Now that is really not a joke. I am serious about that, because there are different ways in which we use the verb ‘is’ as a verb ‘to be;’ and when we are dealing with the question of what is evil, we face immediately the issue of whether evil really ‘is’ at all! That might seem strange to you, but my first assertion this morning is that evil isn’t! That is, it is not! Why? Because evil is nothing! Am I going too fast? Evil is nothing!

“Now lest you think that I have fallen into Christian Science, a religion that is neither Christian nor science, where the reality of evil is denied altogether, and considered to be an illusion, I want to clarify what I mean when I say evil ‘is not,’ or that evil is ‘nothing’. …

“But what do I mean when I say that evil is nothing? What I mean by that is, I am taking the word ‘nothing,’ and resting upon its etymological derivation where the term ‘nothing’ comes from, the combination of a negative prefix and a subject; and the word nothing really means no-thing; and the reason I want to stress that point is that in the culture, we get the idea that evil is some kind of independent substance, something that is in your drinking water, or in the cloud somewhere; some force or power that is independent, that exists in and of himself, and influences the affairs of your life and of this world; and so the first thing we have to say about what evil is, is what it is not. It is not a ‘thing’ that has existence. Evil has no ‘being. It has no ontological status. Rather, evil is an action of something that is ‘a thing’. I am something, you are something; and when I do something that is not good, then I am doing something that is evil. But evil then is an activity of some being; it has no being itself.”

The trouble with that argument is that whatever he has said of “evil,” is equally applicable to “good”. Good is not a “thing” in and of itself either; it is an activity of some other being. Good (like evil) can be used as an adverb or as an adjective. We can say that an activity is good (or evil); or we can say that an object (the result of an activity) is good (or evil). We can say for example that sacred music is good. That can refer to sacred music itself (an object), or the activity of creating sacred music. Likewise we can say that pornography is evil. That can refer to pornographic images (an object), or the activity of creating them. But whatever applies to “evil” in that context, is equally applicable to “good”. Therefore the distinction that he is trying to make between the two in that regard is arbitrary and contrived. If you are going to argue that evil is “nothing” in that sense of the term; you will have to conclude that good is “nothing” either, in the same sense of the term. Just as “evil” does not exist, or have meaning except in contrast with “good;” likewise “good” cannot exist, or have meaning except in contrast with “evil”. The concepts of good and evil in that sense of the term are ontologically equivalent. He continues:

“Now that may seem like a pedantic point, and of no immediate concern to the second question of where evil comes from; but later on God willing I will try to indicate why our definition of evil is so important to the deeper question of where it comes from.”

Except that that is a failed argument from the start; because if his definition of evil is of the same quality as his definition of good, or gives both good and evil the same ontological states as far their “nothingness” is concerned; and the argument that he applies to evil is equally applicable to good (which it is, as shown above), then his argument has failed before it has begun. He continues: 

“Now back to the idea of its ‘nothingness’. Historically, the two great theologian philosophers in the history of the church who have addressed the question of what is evil are of course Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine before him; and both Augustine and Aquinas used two Latin words—of course, because you can’t do theology without using Latin words! And that they used two Latin words to describe the nature of evil; and those two words were negatio and privatio; and you can guess the translation of those two Latin words. Privatio comes into the English language with the word ‘privation,’ and negatio comes into the English language with the word ‘negation’. And so historically and classically, the nature of evil has been defined in terms of ‘negation’ and ‘privation’.

“In philosophy and in theology, one of the most important ways in which we try to give definitions to things that are mysterious is by using the method called ‘the way of negation;’ and that method talks in terms of what something is not. For example, when we talk about the character and the being of God, we say that God is infinite. What does that mean? Well, that means he is not finite. That is an application of this way of negation. And so what Augustine and Aquinas were getting at is that to discuss the nature of evil, which the Bible calls ‘the mystery of iniquity,’ we have to first understand it by way of negation—by what it is not. Now evil in this sense can only be defined against the backdrop of what is good; and in biblical terms, evil is defined by words like this: ‘ungodliness,’ ‘unrighteousness,’ ‘injustice’ for example, so that the term is used as the negation, the opposite of the positive thing that is being affirmed; so that ‘injustice’ or ‘unjust-ness,’ it can only be understood against the previous concept of justice; unrighteousness can only be recognized as unrighteousness against the background of righteousness, as the standard by which unrighteousness can be recognized and can be defined. I think that is pretty easy to see, that the way in which negative language is used to describe evil.”

That is more of a linguistic accident than an expression of the nature of evil. Non-negative words like “wicked,” “bad,” “wrong,” “vile,” “base,” “fiendish,” or “evil” itself are also used for evil. The trouble with that argument is that everything that he has said of “evil,” is equally applicable of “good”. Just as evil can only be defined against the backdrop of good, good can only be defined against the backdrop of evil. There is an ontological equivalence between the two. There is no difference between them from that point of view. Just as evil can only exist, or have meaning, by contrast with good; likewise good can only exist, or have meaning, by contrast with evil. If the concept of evil didn’t exist, the concept of good couldn’t exist either, because each is dependent on the other for its conceptual meaning and existence. He continues:

“In this sense the great theologians would indicate that evil is parasitic. It is like a parasite. It can’t be known in and of itself, as some independent being; but can only be known and understood against the positive standard. And like a parasite, if the host dies the parasite dies with it, because the parasite depends upon the host for its own strength and existence; and in like manner and in an analogical way, the same thing is true of evil—is that you can’t really describe it, you can’t really define, it except against the background of the good.”

Except that what he has said there of “evil,” is equally applicable to “good”. Just as evil cannot exist, or have meaning apart from good; likewise good cannot exist, or have meaning apart from evil—and in contrast to it. There is no way that the concept of “good” can exist except in contrast with the concept of evil. He continues:

“Now the other word that is used by Augustine and Aquinas is the word ‘privation;’ and what a privation is, is some sort of lack, or some sort of deficiency. If you don’t get something that you want, that doesn’t mean that you are experiencing deprivation. But if you don’t get something that you need, then it can be properly said that you have been deprived, that you are lacking something that is necessary and essential to your very being.

“If we go to the Westminster Confession of faith, the 17th century reformed confession, and its catechetical formulations in the Westminster larger catechism, and then in this shorter catechism, you have the simple question that is asked, ‘What is sin?’ And since you all know the Catechism, you know the answer to that before I give it. What is sin? Sin is any want of conformity to, or transgression of the law of God. So there confessionally, sin or moral evil is defined in terms of a lack, of a privation, of a want of conformity to. Righteousness involves conforming to the law of God, doing what God commands; but sin enters in when we fail to do what God commands, and we fail to conform to his standards of what is righteous. And so on the one hand the Catechism says that sin is a want of conformity to, which is a kind of privatio, a kind of privation, or transgression of the law of God.”

Describing the “transgression of the law” as some kind of “privation” or “deprivation” is a strange concept, and I am not sure that it is a valid one. If I break the speed limit, whom am I “depriving,” and of what? He continues:

“Now we are moving out of simple privation and simple negation to another element, an element that the Reformers of the 16th century added to the classic definition of evil. They agreed that evil is negation and is privation; but lest anyone should think that because evil has no being, no independent status, is not a ‘thing;’ and lest because of that we come to the conclusion that evil really is an illusion; the Reformers said that yes, sin is negation, or evil is negation, evil is privation; but they added another Latin term. Don’t they always! They added the term, actuosa, that is to say, evil is privatio actuosa, meaning that though evil is not something that exists in and of itself, it is real; and its effects and its impact are devastating. There is an actual privation; that is, an activated privation, an activated disobedience to the word of God. And because real beings act out real evil, though evil is not independent, nevertheless it is real. Am I making sense? You are getting that, you are understanding that point? Is it too obscure? Of course not! You all get it, don’t you? So that is where we start with this question of what is evil, and where does it come from. That is the easy part of the two questions.”

Well he is not making a lot of sense to me! I see a lot of contradictions and inconsistencies there. Either evil is “nothing,” or it is “something”. It can’t be both at the same time. It looks to me like he wants to have his cake and eat it. At first he says that evil is “nothing,” and then he says that it is “something”. And in any case, all of his arguments concerning “evil” would be equally applicable to “good”. There is no ontological distinction between the two in that regard. The distinction he is trying to make between evil and good is arbitrary and contrived.

That is his answer to the first part of the question, and an unsatisfactory one. If he thinks that that was “the easy part of the two questions,” maybe it is because he has either not understood the question properly, or he has not been able to answer it adequately. I will end this post here, and will examine his attempt to answer the second part of the two questions in the next post.

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