One of my readers had a discussion with someone on the relationship between God and evil. The other person wrote:
In this book, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D. A. Carson says, “It is essential — I cannot say this strongly enough — it is utterly essential to doctrinal and spiritual well-being to maintain the diverse polarities in the nature of God simultaneously. For instance, if you work through the biblical passages that bluntly insist God in some sense stands behind evil, and do not simultaneously call to mind the countless passages that insist he is unfailingly good, then in a period of suffering you may be tempted to think of God as a vicious, sovereign thug.”1 This view allows for the mystery of this doctrine to remain rather than trying to follow it out to its perceived logical end. Where Scripture does not go we must not also.
Carson is also the author of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. Rather than carrying the subtitle, “Biblical Doctrines in Harmony,” which would sound like something that I would say, it reinforces the tiresome assumption that Scripture contains internal “tension,” a pretty word for contradiction.
On this topic, Carson fails to break from the traditional unbiblical and irrational position, and as a result commits himself to a position so profane and sinful that, if not for the sake of education, I would hardly dare to repeat it. This person who cites Carson also echoes some traditional slogans, so we will examine his statements as well.
How shall we proceed? Almost every clause in the paragraph contains some theological abominations. The most thorough method would be a phrase-by-phrase analysis, but it would also be inefficient and repetitious, since along with each phrase, we will have to examine its relation to other phrases that come before and after it. Instead, we will go through the paragraph and highlight several topics for discussion.
Carson writes that it is essential to “maintain the diverse polarities in the nature of God.” To the careless reader who is accustomed to this kind of talk, the statement appears rather innocent, and the word “polarities” may even seem classy and intriguing. But “polarities” refer to opposites — this is what the word means. And “diverse” refers to variety or multiplicity. These words are applied to “the nature of God.”
In other words, Carson says that it is “utterly essential” to say that there are many opposites in the very nature of God. He does not say many facets, but many opposites. Satan himself can hardly come up with blasphemy worse than this. It reaches into God’s very nature and tears him apart from within.
But this only sets up what is to follow.
As an example of the need to maintain the idea of opposites in the very nature of God, Carson writes, “…if you work through the biblical passages that bluntly insist God in some sense stands behind evil, and do not simultaneously call to mind the countless passages that insist he is unfailingly good, then in a period of suffering you may be tempted to think of God as a vicious, sovereign thug.”
Again, to an unthinking person who is accustomed to this kind of nonsense, this sounds innocent, and even reverent. But consider what he is saying here. Keep in mind that Carson is speaking of polarities — opposites — in God’s very nature. There is no wiggling out here — he does not say that these are merely apparent contradictions, which would be bad enough, but polarities in the nature of God. Then, the above offers an example of one of these polarities. Therefore, according to Carson, the fact that God sovereignly “stands behind evil” is the opposite of being “unfailingly good.” In other words, when God “stands behind evil,” he is evil, or he is doing evil. If this is not the implication, then there is no polarity here.
I get nervous even when just pointing out what Carson’s statement implies, but it seems that many Christians are proud to proclaim this blasphemy. And when someone thinks this way, no wonder he is tempted to consider God a “vicious, sovereign thug.” Carson suggests that we must also remember that God is unfailingly good. However, if God is good when he sovereignly “stands behind evil,” then where is the polarity? And if the polarity is maintained, then it must mean that he is evil at those times when he sovereignly stands behind evil, while he is good at all other times. But if so, then how he is unfailingly good?
And what kind of person would think that God is a “vicious, sovereign thug” when he reads the biblical accounts of God’s sovereignty over evil? Does the Bible itself suggest this idea? If the Bible does not suggest it, where does it come from? A non-biblical standard has been used to judge God’s sovereign control over evil. The false notion is not inherent in the biblical passages. And if it is not inherent these passages, then no polarity is needed to balance it out.
Against Carson, the biblical position is that God is good by definition and is the sole standard of goodness. It is nothing less than shameless rebellion to bring in an anti-biblical standard of goodness and see if God measures up to it, saying that he seems to be a thug sometimes, while at other times he seems to be good. Rather, we discover the meaning of goodness by God’s words and actions as recorded in Scripture, and from this perspective, we see that God is “unfailingly good” even as he sovereignly controls evil. There is no polarity in his nature.
Carson’s statement does not permit this harmony, since he offers this as one instance of the “diverse polarities” in God. Therefore, to him it must mean that one set of biblical passages pulls us toward the direction of thinking that God is a “vicious, sovereign thug,” and this is balanced by another set of biblical passages teaching an opposite part of God’s nature, that he is “unfailingly good.” I am happy to assume that this is not what he intends to assert, and that it is an oversight, but this is indeed what his statement implies. Here I bring no charge of deliberate blasphemy, but who can blame me for accusing him and others of unclear and unbiblical thinking? Who can blame me for standing up against this “orthodox” sacrilege?
Let no one be so foolish as to accuse me of misrepresentation. If I have misrepresented him, then what is his true position? Any suggested understanding of his position must maintain his insistance of “diverse polarities in God” and his use of two sets of biblical passages that exhibit these polarities, and this view must still avoid the problems that I have specified. But there is no misrepresentation — although some versions are better formulated than others, Carson’s is a popular view taught in Reformed and other theological traditions, and it is blasphemy.
Then, the person who cites Carson comments, “This view allows for the mystery of this doctrine to remain rather than trying to follow it out to its perceived logical end. Where Scripture does not go we must not also.” Again, different people might state it in slightly different ways, but this represents a popular stance. Continuing with our topical analysis, here we must discuss the ideas of mystery, of logical implication, and of the extent of biblical revelation.
If mystery means something that we do not fully understand, and indeed cannot fully understand in this life, then broadly speaking, it has not been shown that there is any mystery at all regarding God and his sovereign control over evil. I have repeatedly demonstrated that Scripture clearly tells us that God controls evil, how he does it, and why he does it. It is true that we do not know everything about the subject, if for no other reason than that Scripture does not grant us omniscience. But this limitation is irrelevant, since omniscience is not the issue here. Rather, it is contended that the matter remains a mystery even on the broadest level, and this is outright false. What we have from Scripture is full enough to answer all broad questions, as well as many specific ones, and to eliminate all logical problems in our understanding, so that there is not even a hint of contradiction, paradox, tension, or any such thing.
The so-called mystery, then, does not exist because God withholds information from us, nor is it because the matter is so complex that our so-called “finite human mind” cannot grasp it (indeed, that we even need to have this discussion indicates that some minds are vastly more finite than others). But the mystery exists because these people refuse to accept what God has clearly and coherently revealed. There might be a problem of theological aptitude, but along with that is a strong rebellion against divine revelation. The matter is very simple in itself.
They claim that they appeal to mystery where biblical revelation terminates, but this is a lie. Scripture provides an elaborate doctrine on the subject, much more complete than they are willing to acknowledge. The truth is that for them mystery does not begin where revelation ends, but it begins where their position becomes so obviously false and incoherent that they appeal to mystery to stop the discussion by force. For them, mystery begins where their acceptance of Scripture ends.
Here this person says that we should call the matter a mystery even before we follow what Scripture reveals to its logical end. To be fair, whether or not he is being intentionally precise, he writes “perceived logical end,” allowing for the possibility that he is objecting only to false inferences that are regarded as true. We readily agree that false deductions are just that — false. But what about true inferences, valid deductions?
The common resistance to follow what Scripture teaches to its logical conclusion represents the misunderstanding that the logical conclusion of a set of premises can produce something different from or disallowed by the premises. But this is only true of induction. With deduction, the reasoning process by definition derives a logically necessary conclusion from the premises, that is, one that is already contained by the premises. The deduction does not manufacture new information, and the conclusion produces nothing in addition to or different from the premises. This conclusion is not invented as a best estimation based on the premises; rather, it is merely pointed out and made explicit. Therefore, refusing to make or accept a deductive inference from what Scripture asserts is the equivalent of refusing what Scripture asserts, since the conclusion of such a deduction is what Scripture asserts.
He writes, “Where Scripture does not go we must not also.” Good! However, this should be the least of his worries. His problem is his refusal to go where Scripture plainly and explicitly goes. This popular slogan is true in itself, but as it is often used, it is nothing but a smokescreen to cover up a blatant refusal to accept what God reveals. Let us first go where Scripture takes us before worrying about going beyond it.
It is excruciating to bear the constant blasphemies that our brothers in Christ level against God, all the while thinking that they are doing him a service. But blasphemy is not a lesser sin than even murder or adultery — in principle it is much worse. Therefore, as painful as it is to deal with, we must boldly condemn their false teachings and stubborn rebellion in the harshest terms possible, urging their repentance and correction.
The few of us who affirm the obvious perfect coherence of God and his revelation are often accused of teaching rationalism. If the accusation is that we exalt reason above revelation, I am puzzled as to how this is possible, since I affirm that only revelation is rational. And often we are just expounding on what Scripture directly teaches, even in its explicit statements, whereas our opponents create problems where there is none. They seem to love the idea of mystery even more than they love the God who has spoken so clearly to us. They would rather murder God, tearing him apart from within, than to sacrifice their mystery.
A more accurate description of non-biblical rationalism is that it exalts a non-revelational epistemology of human speculation in order to judge the content of revelation. Certainly I do no such thing. In fact, by this definition, our opponents are more readily labeled rationalists, since as we have seen, they judge God’s sovereign control over evil by their non-biblical standard. Applying this term to them is, of course, confusing, since they are not at all rational. The truth is that their rejection of revelation, of valid deduction, and their illegitimate appeal to mystery combine to produce a form of anti-Christian irrationalism.
In any case, if to affirm that God is clearly and perfectly harmonious in his nature and in his revelation is to teach rationalism, then THANK GOD FOR RATIONALISM. May the Lord of Reason sends forth many more laborers to teach this kind of rationalism! This rationalism is not of a humanistic or anti-supernatural variety, which is not rational at all, but it is of a biblical kind — a biblical rationalism, acknowledging the perfect coherence of God and his revelation.
1. D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker Books, 1990), p. 225. The statement appears in a chapter in which compatibilism is expounded and defended. I have reviewed the chapter to make sure that we are not taking this statement out of context. As for compatibilism itself, I have refuted it elsewhere.