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“Sketches Toward a Wesleyan Theodicy: An Examination of Wesley’s Thoughts” Part II

April 5, 2011

II.  The Augustinian and Iranaean Theodicies

Richard Swinburne is right to note that most Christian thinkers throughout history “have held…that God has allowed the bad to occur for some good purpose—whether or not we know what that purpose is.”[1] Thus, as he points out, “That involves, given the later category of the logically impossible, the view that allowing the bad to occur is logically necessary for the attainment of good.”[2] The two major theological strands of theodicy both take this approach, but in very different ways.  Since the Augustinian tradition is the majority view, we will begin there.


Augustine and The Fall

Since the 5th century, Augustine has stood head and shoulders above the other theologians of the early church in Western Christianity.  This is especially true when it comes to his understanding of the God’s creation of man, the fall, and the entrance of sin and evil into the world.  Briefly put, Augustine proposed that God is perfectly good and all that he creates is also perfectly good.  Man, created in the image of God was morally perfect (or righteous) and innocent.  The world contained no pain or suffering or death, because there was no sin.  Yet, mankind was made free and could therefore choose good or bad.  He chose the latter, and sinned against God bringing evil and death into the world.  Thus, all the evil that we now see is a result of Adam’s fall.  This includes natural evil, though it is not always clear how this is so.  Though this view has a great deal that is helpful and good, it has been strongly critiqued on a number of counts.  First, it is impossible to reconcile Augustine’s view of man’s freedom with his view of sovereignty.[3] Augustine believed that God could do whatever he wanted and that his will was always “undefeated.”  If this is so, then it is incoherent to posit a will that can act against God.  Secondly, and more pertinent to our exploration of Wesley, it is very unclear how a man created morally perfect could fall into sin in the first place.  Hick offers a devastating critique on this point:

There is a basic and fatal incoherence at the heart of the mythically based ‘solution.’  The Creator is preserved from any responsibility for the existence of evil by the claim that He made men (or angels) as free and finitely perfect creatures, happy in the knowledge of Himself, and subject to no strains or temptations, but that they themselves inexplicably and inexcusably rebelled against Him.  But this suggestion amounts to a sheer-self contradiction.  It is impossible to conceive of wholly good beings in a wholly good world becoming sinful.[4]

By emphasizing the perfect nature of creation and mankind, the Augustinian theodicy rips the heart out of its strongest point—the free choice of Adam to sin.  Thirdly, and far more controversially, is that the Augustinian tradition cannot account for the current scientific consensus.  The prevailing scientific evidence suggests that violence and natural evils have been a part of the creation from far earlier than the arrival of man, and therefore, man’s fall.  Of course, neither Augustine nor Wesley would have had access to such data; but be that as it may, contemporary theologians in general, and Wesleyans in particular would be ill-advised to continue to use the traditional Augustinian formulation with this in mind.  In the end, the Augustinian theodicy as formulated above is “open to insuperable scientific, moral, and logical objections.”[5] This is especially true from a Wesleyan perspective, which emphasizes the freedom inherent and man and the non-culpability of God in regards to evil.


The “Minority Report”: The Irenaean Theodicy

Though the name of this theodicy comes from the second century church father, Irenaeus, it is perhaps misleading to state that Irenaeus himself developed a full-blown theodicy.  Rather, he and many of the eastern Fathers have merely wanted to emphasize the idea that man was not created morally perfect, but morally innocent, and as such is in a state of process—he is to grow into perfection.  With this in mind, John Hick has developed a sophisticated theodicy of “soul-making” with this basic understanding in mind.  Seeing the major contradiction of the Augustinian view, Hick writes, “Instead of regarding man has having been created by God in a finished state, as a finitely perfect being fulfilling the divine intention for our human level of existence, and then falling disastrously away from this, the minority report sees man as still in a process of creation.”[6]

Some of the more notable features of Hick’s theodicy are as follows.  First, it coincides with the current scientific theory of evolution.[7] I would imagine that this is its most compelling attraction to many contemporary Christian theists.   Second, and related to the first, it can account for natural evil by accepting the evolutionary process.  Yet, it might be asked why God would use such a violent process in creating the world.  This leads to the third and major point of Hick’s theodicy:  God creates the world for the purpose of “soul-making.”  Hick’s major premise is this:  a person who has grown into maturity as a result of overcoming adversity is “good” in a more valuable sense than one already created perfectly.  To use his words:  “human goodness slowly built up through personal histories of moral effort has value in the eyes of the Creator which justifies even the long travail of the soul-making process.”[8] Thus, because God’s goal is to make morally responsible human beings who are capable of such virtues as courage, compassion, justice, and—most importantly—love, this, Hick argues, is only possible in a world that contains adversity.  Hence, it is logically necessary for God to include evil into the world.  Without going further into Hick’s line of reasoning, suffice it to say he presents a masterful case, and his theodicy offers much that is useful.

Some aspects of the Irenaean theodicy are to be preferred over that of the Augustinian tradition.  At the same time, the theodicy put forth by Hick is problematic in the same areas where it should be most helpful.  First, the understanding that man was created in a state of moral incompleteness and was, therefore, to grow into perfection through obedience to God makes the subsequent fall of Adam coherent.  However, in Hick’s theodicy, there is no fall to begin with—it is viewed as an ancient myth.[9] Therefore, we must conclude, that man was born already in a state of sinfulness.[10] From a Wesleyan perspective, this is hardly helpful, for it undercuts the whole of Wesley’s theology of sin, grace, and holiness.  Even more devastating, it places the “cause” of evil firmly in the purposes of God—something Wesley went to great lengths to avoid.

Second, it is true that by holding a “process of becoming”[11] for the maturation of mankind into perfection one may harmonize his or her theodicy with current scientific theory—and I applaud Hick for his attempt to do so—ultimately, all natural evil in this view, is also intended in God’s creative aims.  This means all animal suffering, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., are designed by God (and thus, desired by God) for the purpose of human soul-making.  Though space does not permit a thorough critique of this point,[12] let me state that from a Wesleyan perspective, this is simply incompatible with the utter goodness of God as constantly defended by Wesley.  While it may effective scientifically, it is disastrous theologically—even in a case as sophisticated as Hick’s.  Though there are other points of critique, these two are sufficient in viewing Wesley’s own thoughts on the problem of evil.

[1] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 32.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Ray Griffin, “Augustine and the Denial of Evil,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana:  Notre Dame Press, 1992), 203-207.

[4] John Hick, “The World as a Vale of Soul-Making,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, IN:  Notre Dame Press, 1992), 220.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 223.

[7] Hick, “Soul-Making and Suffering,” 168.  Hick writes, “In the light of modern anthropological knowledge some form of two-stage conception of the creation of man has become an almost unavoidable Christian tenet.”  Further, “By an exercise of creative power God caused the physical universe to exist, and in the course of countless ages to bring forth within it organic life, and finally to produce out of organic life personal life; and when man had thus emerged out of the evolution of the forms of organic life, a creature had been made who has the possibility of existing in conscious fellowship with God,” 168.

[8] Ibid., 169.

[9] Hick, “The World as a Vale of Soul-Making,” 218-219.

[10] Hick writes concerning man’s sinfulness:  “Man’s ‘fallenness’ is thus the price paid for his freedom as a personal being in relation to the personal Infinite.  God is so overwhelmingly great that the children in His heavenly family must be prodigal children who have voluntarily come to their Father from a far country…This means that the sinfulness from which man is being redeemed, and the human suffering which flows from that sinfulness, have in their own paradoxical way a place within the divine providence [emphasis mine],” in “Soul-Making and Suffering,” 178.

[11] Though not within the bounds of this essay, I find the philosophical notion of the “process of becoming” to be extraordinarily helpful in many aspects of reality.

[12] Roland Puccetti provides a superb critique of Hick’s explanation of natural evil from a skeptic’s perspective in “The Loving God: Some Observations on Hick’s Theodicy,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson (Notre Dame, IN:  Notre Dame Press, 1992), 231-246.  Though Hick gives the analogy of a loving parent who desires that their children become morally mature and therefore does not protect them from every mishap, Puccetti proposes that the analogy of a “Stern Headmaster” is more accurate:

Perhaps a more appropriate analogy for Hick’s theodicy would be that of the Stern Headmaster, who prizes moral character highly but is indifferent to hardships.  For this reason he designs a school, let us say, where the buildings are unsafe, the food often contaminated, the playing fields dangerous, and the surrounding grounds unhealthy.  In this way his charges are frequently ill or injured, which gives them ample opportunity to develop certain desirable values.  So far so good.  But suppose there are some accidents which are permanently disabling or even fatal, some diseases which are epidemic?  And suppose further that in each case the Stern headmaster knew what was going to happen and could have prevented it, but decided not to?  Can one also say he is infinitely loving? (236-237)

The key point in my opinion is that God designed it to be this way.  It would be one thing if this tragic school building was the result of a student rebellion and that the headmaster must now work within the structure to bring his students back into growth.  It is quite another thing to say that the headmaster designed (wanted!) the structure to be this hideous.

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