In his book Almighty Over All (Baker, 1999), R.C. Sproul Jr. makes some controversial statements—ones that appear to be sub-biblical. What tipped me off to this was hearing a paper presentation at a conference in April in New Orleans. R.C. Sproul Jr. was being quoted, and I shocked at what I heard. Though the paper presentation came from a reliable source (Dr. Ken Keathley of Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest), I wanted be like the Bereans of Acts 17 and check out Sproul Jr.’s work myself—especially if I wanted to offer some reflections on this topic.
As I assumed, upon further investigation, Keathley’s assessment was correct: Sproul Jr. has simply taken Calvinism way too far. His father R.C. Sproul Sr., also a Calvinist, has been much more tentative and modest about the question of sin’s starting point; he basically concludes that this is a mysterious matter, stopping well short of attributing the origin of evil to God:
Herein lies the problem. Before a person can commit an act of sin he must first have a desire to perform that act. The Bible tells us that evil actions flow from evil desires. But the presence of an evil desire is already sin. We sin because we are sinners. We were born with a sin nature. We are fallen creatures. But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know (Chosen by God , p. 30).
Sproul Sr. allows for a libertarian understanding of free will in Eden, which itself is a departure from Calvinism proper. But let that pass.
Sproul Jr., however, wants to get to the bottom of the matter and weigh in on what he takes to be the source of evil: God! Shocked? I certainly hope so. Sproul Jr. lists the range of possible “suspects” in his third chapter, entitled “Who Dunit?” He lays out and discusses the only five possible alternatives: Adam, Eve, Satan, the environment, and God. God created a good environment (“it was very good”), and Adam, Eve, and Satan were originally created good; so their strongest desire or inclination (which dictates how we will choose, Sproul Jr. claims) must also have been originally good. This, then, means that none of the first four candidates can be the source of sin. The “culprit” (Sproul Jr.’s term) is God himself, who “introduced evil into this world” (p. 51). In fact, God acted according his strongest inclination; he acted on what he most wished to come to pass—as he always does (p. 54).
The reason he wanted Adam and Eve to fall into sin was because of God’s eternal attribute of wrath—and “God is as delighted with his wrath as he is with all of his attributes” (52). So in light of this eternal attribute of wrath, God must create objects of wrath: “What I’ll do is create something worthy of my wrath, something on which I can exhibit the glory of my wrath” (pp. 52-53). Without creating human beings (and let’s include fallen angelic beings here too), he would not have had the opportunity to display his glory in this way. So Sproul Jr. affirms something rather startling: “It was [God’s] desire to make his wrath known. He needed, then, something on which to be wrathful. He needed to have sinful creatures” (p. 57).
Anticipating a rejoinder, Sproul Jr. asks: “Isn’t it impossible for God to do evil?” He acknowledges that God can’t sin. This isn’t much of a consolation, as Sproul Jr. goes on to say: “I am not accusing God of sinning; I am suggesting that he created sin” (p. 54). Sproul Jr. doesn’t think he’s crossed any line by saying this. Referring to the Westminster Confession’s definition of sin as “any lack of conformity to or transgression of the law of God,” he says that this doesn’t exclude God’s creating evil. It seems that Sproul Jr. is not only using an argument from silence from the Confession, but he is ignoring an important emphasis in Scripture—that God cannot be the author of evil. Let me go into a bit more detail about some problem areas in Sproul Jr.’s theology.
1. “God can do what he wants.” Sproul Jr. appeals to Romans 9 to justify his point (pp. 53, 56). If God is accused of doing evil, Sproul Jr. gives a rough equivalent of what Paul is saying: “Shut up! He’s God, and he can do what he wants” (p. 56). Yes, God can do what he wants, but what God does (and what he wants) will be good and just and reflecting his love and his holiness. We can’t rightly say, “God can break his promise or lie because ‘he’s God, and he can do what he wants.” No, what sets God apart from us fallen, rationalizing, faithless humans is that he alone is true (Romans 3:4). We’re told that it is “impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18; cp. Titus 1:2).
James 1 doesn’t only tell us that God can’t do evil; it also tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from above; that is, God shouldn’t be accused as being the source of evil. God is intrinsically good and so cannot “create evil.” This harks back to what Jesus says about the nature of God—in contrast to fallen humans, who still seek the good of their children: “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11). In fact, earlier on, God is said to be one who doesn’t simply love those who love him, but he loves the wicked and unrighteous as well, thus showing a perfect love (Mt. 5:48).
2. The Manichean error: Sproul Jr., it seems, has pushed things over the orthodox edge by saying that God is the author or creator of evil. This stands in violation of what 1 Timothy 4:4 tells us: “For everything God created is good.” Of course, Augustine fought against the Manichean heresy, which takes evil as a thing rather than the absence or corruption of goodness, but Sproul Jr. seems to be slipping into some version of Manicheanism.
One side note here: The King James Version can be misleading on this point. The translation sometimes gives the impression that God is the maker or the source of both good and evil: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7); “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not? Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lamentations 3:37-38); “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). This rendering is inaccurate. The word for “evil” (ra’ah) can also be translated “trouble,” “disaster,” or “calamity.”
3. A God in need isn’t a God indeed: It is quite startling to read a staunch Calvinist who says that God needs something outside himself—in this case, sinners on whom to pour his wrath! The Scriptures are full of reminders of God’s self-sufficiency and that he needs nothing outside himself. For instance, “If I were hungry I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psalm 50:12). Again, “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his adviser? Or who has given him something only to have him pay it back? For all things are from him, by him, and for him. Glory belongs to him forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:34-36).
Orthodox Christianity affirms that God did not need to create. He could have chosen not to create. The doctrine of creation out of nothing affirms that God is not in need of, say, pre-existing matter or of human beings. The triune God is content and joyful within himself. His creation of human beings is the result of God’s gracious choice to extend to others his joy, his love, and his community. Sproul Jr.’s view of God’s needing to create human beings diminishes rather than exalts God. According to Sproul Jr., God couldn’t help but create humans upon whom to pour his wrath. (Keep in mind Sproul Jr.’s insistence that God always acts according to his strongest desire.) If wrath is an attribute that is an eternal and necessary aspect to God, then this means God necessarily had to create; he couldn’t help but create. All of this sounds quite troubling to my mind.
In an attempt at philosophical consistency, Sproul Jr., it seems, has taken his causal determinism to some problematic theological conclusions—a direction his father, apparently, feared to go.