Evil And Theodicy by Cornelius Van Til

3 Aug
Evil and Theodicy.”
Handwritten, two bound notebooks. [Van Til Papers, WTS Archives]
This paper dealing with the problem of evil, dated March 31, 1923, won the middler year contest for the A. A. Hodge prize in systematic theology and was presented to C. W. Hodge, Jr.
Part 1-“Philosophy” (95 pp.)
Part 2-“Theology” (87 pp.)

“Anything short of referring the justification of the existence of evil to the character of God and His purpose to glorify Himself and to His sovereign will to accomplish this by means of creation and sin is unsatisfactory. Anything short of this is illogical and unbiblical. With the election to eternal life it is not sufficient to say that it reveals God’s mercy, for he elected angels to eternal life without manifestation of mercy. To man God’s election is mercy only because then He would have to be merciful to all. His Sovereign Will has seen fit to discriminate and that without any reference to human merit. Our minds are baffled and we can rest only in the concept”
Download the complete PDF here:
The following is one chapter from the work entitled:
Calvin and the Reformation

As compared with Scholasticism, it is remarkable how far Calvin adopted practically without change the scholastic view of the faculties of the soul as above discussed. Aquinas and Calvin alike avoid extreme rationalism with its corollary idealism, and extreme empiricism with its corollary materialism. Both maintain the independence of the intellect in its sphere, but nevertheless cling to the formula “nihil est in intellectu quod non prius est at in sensu.” This is no small parallelism. Realism is the only strait by which to escape from stranding on the cliff of Platonic idealism, on the one side, and modern positivism leading to materialism, on the other side. On this question, then, Calvin stands foursquare on the scholastic tablelands and opposes the nominalism of the mystics. He upholds the primacy of the intellect and combats the “mystic ways.”

As to the nature of the human soul, then, scholasticism and Calvinism have the only sound basis upon which to build any adequate conception of evil. But here the Scholastics wander off on a tangent and Calvin must for the rest seek his way alone. When it comes to the question of the noetic influence of sin, Calvin parts once for all from Scholasticism. He has been called pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit. And here seems to lie the key to the difference between Calvin and scholasticism. Thus far they have traveled together; now they part. Guided by his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Calvin journeys a new, less perilous way, a way less beset by the snares of human reason and false mysticism.

Calvin had an intensely deep realization of the wretchedness of sinful man. The heinousness and hideousness of sin he did not underrate. He clearly apprehended his utter helplessness. “Saved by grace” reverberated as a constant echo through the compartments of his soul, when once he found his Saviour. Now his logical mind could not help trace this sense of restoration back to its inception, the predestination of a sovereign God. So here we have the givens. Calvin, possessed of a legal training, as to psychology a realist, bowing in the dust before an incensed God, finding restoration in the blood of the cross, now studying in the scriptures, finds no cause for changing his psychological views. He knows that his adoption of the Saviour is due to a supernatural working upon his consciousness. With the scriptures in his hands he concludes that this must be the working of the Holy Spirit.

Briefly sketched, this doctrine according to Dr. Warfield, who paraphrases and explains Calvin’s first book of the Institutes in his “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,” 3 is as follows. On account of sin, man finds himself in a miserable ruin. To be rescued from this he must truly know self and God. Man as unfallen, by the very implication of his nature would have known God, the sphere of his excellence. But for man as fallen, Calvin seems to say that the strongest force compelling him to look upwards to God above him streams from his sense of sin filling him with a fearful looking forward to judgment. Calvin holds that all men have an ineradicable sensus deitatis and this not only as a bare perception of God but as something producing reaction to this knowledge in thinking, feeling, and willing. This native endowment may consequently also be called the semen religionis. For what we call religion is just the reaction of the human soul of what we perceive God to be. Knowledge of God and religion then, are universal. This knowledge is not, however, a competent knowledge of God. In the state of purity this knowledge would show only love and trust. But in sinful man this knowledge produces a reaction of fear and hatred until the grace of God intervenes with a message of mercy.

In addition to this innate knowledge comes the revelation of God in nature and providence. This revelation is clear, universal, and convincing in itself. But sin has altered the condition of man’s soul, so that he is unable truly to know God in nature and accordingly incapable of giving the proper reactions in his soul. However convincing, then, the ontological, teleological, and other proofs of the existence of God may be in themselves, to which Scholasticism hung with such tenacity, they cannot serve to effect the true knowledge of God in sinful man because his mind is not normal. “Were man in his normal state he could not under this double revelation internal and external fail to know God as God would wish to be known.” 4 But sinful man is incapable of reading God’s revelation in nature aright and his instinctive knowledge of God, embedded in his very constitution, is dulled and almost obliterated. The natural knowledge of God is therefore bankrupt.

What is needed now is a special supernatural revelation objectively, on the one hand, and a special supernatural illumination subjectively, on the other hand. This needed revelation is found in the scriptures. It is a special revelation documented for the universal use of man. It serves as spectacles to enable those of dulled spiritual sight to see God. Of course the scriptures do more than this. They not only reveal the God of nature more brightly to sin-darkened eyes; they reveal also the God of grace. Scripture then provides the objective side of the cure Calvin finds to be provided by God. But man needs not only light; he also needs the power of sight. This spiritual sight is the result of the testimonium Spiritus Sancti.

What does Calvin understand by this testimonium Spiritus Sancti? It is that operation of the Holy Spirit on man’s consciousness which restores to him his true sense of God. The abnormality of man’s consciousness produced by sin is removed and man is made normal in principle so that he can again recognize the divine revelation, thus gain the true knowledge of God, and produce appropriate reactions of soul in the form of religion.

The change in man effected by the Holy Spirit we generally speak of as faith. But what is this faith but an experience of an act of God? Behind faith must lie the truth, the will, the act of God. In other words faith is the fruit of election. “Faith,” according to Calvin, “renews the whole man in his being and consciousness, in soul and body, in all his relations and activities.” 5

We see then that faith restores man’s consciousness in principle to normal, rendering man perceptive and receptive of divine revelation in scripture. Scripture is there manifesting its divinity objectively by its style of speech, its contents, etc., just as plainly as snow reveals itself as white, and now through faith man’s spiritual sight is restored so that he can again see the divinity revealed in Scripture, as easily as his natural eye perceives the whiteness of snow.

Calvin conceives of the action of the Spirit, then, as coalescing with consciousness. Faith is not a new faculty of the soul but it must be brought about before man’s faculties can again function normally. It is not an immediate revelation of supernatural truth, as the mystics conceived of it. “To attribute to the Holy Spirit renewed or continued revelations would be derogatory to the Word which is His inspired product.” 6 Neither does Calvin conceive of it as in the nature of a blind conviction, as has been often alleged by the followers of the so-called “free attitude toward Scriptures.” These people claim that upon Calvin’s theory of faith one can reject as unauthoritative any part of scripture which does not immediately commend itself to the religious judgment as divine. This cannot justly be inferred. In the French and Belgic Confessions, so largely influenced, it would seem, as though the nature of faith is spoken of as a blind conviction, it says that we accept the canon of scripture not so much because the Church says so but because of its immediate commendation of divinity. Dr. Warfield explains this as being due to the fact that the term “canon” is used not only quantitatively but also qualitatively as meaning divine. As such, he claims it is used in the confessions.

Calvin, then, conceives of faith not as a blind conviction but as a grounded conviction formed in men’s spirits by the Holy Spirit, “by an act which rather terminates immediately on the faculties, enabling and efficiently persuading them to reach a conviction on grounds presented to them rather than producing the conviction itself apart from the grounds.” 7 These grounds presented to them are the indicia of divinity spoken of before. Now as to the action of these indicia in conjunction with the Spirit, Calvin does not appear to speak expressly. “He sometimes even appears to speak of them rather as if they lay side by side with the testimony of the Holy Spirit, than acted along with it as co-factors in the production of the supreme effect.” 8 “Nevertheless, there are not lacking convincing hints that there was lying in his mind all the time the implicit understanding that it is through these indicia of the divinity of scripture that the soul, under the operation of the testimony of the Spirit, reaches its sound faith in the Scriptures.” 9 He has withheld from more explicitly stating this only by the warmth of his zeal for the necessity of the testimony of the Spirit which has led him to a constant contrasting of this divine with these human testimonies.

I have dwelt on this question of the indicia rather at length because upon the question of their value and time of employment Scholasticism and Calvin give radically different answers. It was largely because Calvin thus led to a better epistemology and noetics that he was able to give direction to the course of later Reformed thought and thus lead to a much clearer understanding of the problem now before us. With Scholasticism, the indicia have value for the natural reason, so that they can prove to unregenerated man the divinity of Scripture. The indicia and supernatural grace each do their bit in producing faith. Not so with Calvin. The Spirit must operate first before the indicia have any value, or at most they have value in conjunction with the working of the Spirit.

But once the supernatural revelation in Scripture is again accepted by man as divine, his reason is restored to its normal place, at least in principle. Reason, man’s intellect, now assumes its original functions besides those made necessary through sin. But with Calvin it is the reason of a regenerated consciousness, with Scholasticism the reason of natural man.

Calvin thinks it the duty of this regenerated consciousness to assimilate the revelation of God and give it expression according to the nobility of human reason. He rejects speculative Mysticism as a theory of knowledge, of direct individual revelation. He adopted the normal psychology of Scholasticism but differed with it as to the time when reason has any function to perform and what function it has to perform. With Scholasticism, natural reason can furnish proofs of God’s existence, can produce motives of credibility, can furnish constant apologetic, while grace is needed only to know the Essence of God. With Calvin, natural reason can of itself do nothing, but the reason of the regenerated consciousness has a glorious mission, the mission to digest, assimilate, and reproduce the revelation of God.

Calvin’s theology, then, is Augustinianism made more explicit especially through his doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Calvin and Augustine hold to the same root principle. Man is sinful to the core. Mankind is absolutely incapable of knowing the truth. Intellect and will are alike deflected and turned away from God, hence, when restored by the Spirit, its deep, submissive, receptive attitude towards the Scriptures. Both maintain equally strong that God in his infinite mercy has predestined some to eternal life and left others to their sin. Both defend that this is beyond our comprehension; we can only marvel that God has seen fit to redeem any at all out of the mire of sin.

Here we have then a thorough theory of evil, as deep as it can be conceived of. Here also, God is made His own theodicy; it is His inscrutable will in which man is to rest. God’s own implicit love and righteousness is His theodicy, and if this were not enough His free grace will add thereto. But back of all the deepest theodicy lies the mystery of His will and being before which we humbly bow and keep silent.

Calvin worked this out more fully than Augustine because of his doctrine of the Holy Spirit and of Common grace, so that justice could be done to the human faculties as well as to the corrosive influence of sin. Scholasticism deserves the credit that it changed the fight to epistemological fields, but just because it conceived of evil as not having penetrated thoroughly to the human cognitive faculties, it could not have a firm theodicy. Over against this, Calvin’s testimonium Spiritus Sancti is placed. Mysticism, afraid of intellectualisation, sought to find a new individualistic via cognitionis apart from the ordinary faculties of man. Against this, Calvin’s doctrine of Common Grace maintained that the essence of man is not affected by sin, that man’s faculties of intellect and will can be restored to normal, that in fact only through these faculties can man ever truly know God. We cannot but marvel at the genius of Calvin that enabled him to steer clear of the extremes of Scholasticism and mysticism, and to give the evangelical principle such clear expression that for generations after him men have been guided on the right path when using his compass.

Calvin was the theologian par excellence of the Reformation. In him alone the ideas inherent in evangelicalism received logical expression. But the ideas of Scholasticism and Mysticism maintained themselves in the Catholic system and in much of Protestantism. Even within the bosom of the Calvinistic churches there was a departure from the road marked out by Calvin.

As for Roman Catholicism, its position is that of Aquinas as before reviewed. His doctrine was virtually accepted as the church doctrine at the Council of Trent. The original righteousness of man was a donum superadditum to man’s nature, so that with the fall, man did not lose God’s image but only this donum superadditum. 1 Originally God created man soul and body. These were naturally in conflict except when original righteousness was added by God to preserve their harmony. With the entrance of sin, then, man is restored to this original position of disharmony between soul and body. The question of evil is in this manner directly referred to God for creating this good and evil. It is only a refined Manechaeism, of an original evil substance, and fits in remarkably well with the refined form of Semi-Pelagianism of Thomas Aquinas. “The conflict between the flesh and the spirit is normal and original and therefore not sinful.” 2 And man by his natural reason can attain to some knowledge of absolute truth. In immediate connection with this is the sacerdotalism of Rome, which externalizes evil and makes its destruction possible by the mechanical action of the sacrament upon the mere intellectual assent of the recipient. Sin thus becomes not something in the core of man’s heart that needs to be immediately uprooted by the Holy Spirit and a new life implanted. This is especially clear from the Romish doctrine of second causes. God is presented as desiring the salvation of all, but putting the work of its accomplishment entirely into the hands of the Church which must administer salvation through the sacraments. “As this system of second causes has not been instituted with a view to the conveying of the sacraments to particular men or to the withholding of them from particular men, but belongs to his general provision for the government of the world, the actual distribution of the grace of God through the Church and the sacraments lies outside the government of his gracious will.” 3 Salvation therefore depends upon the working of these second causes; if one is lost, it is not God’s fault. This is the best theodicy that Rome can furnish. It is at the expense on the one hand of the biblical conception of God’s omnipotence and direct work in the redemption of man and, on the other hand, at the expense of the biblical conception of natural man as well as that of the penetrating influence of sin. If we maintain that God allowed these second causes thus to function, it does not release Him of responsibility and if these second causes are independent of Him then He is no longer God.

3 B. B. Warfield, Calvin and the Reformation (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1909), p. 139.

4 Ibid., p. 140.

5 Ibid., p. 112.

6 Ibid., p. 85.

7 Ibid., p. 174.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., p. 183.

1 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology 2:103.

2 Ibid., p. 106.

3 Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1918), p. 68.


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