Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Critical Response Paper: Paul Copan on Evil and Original Sin, Chapter 8 from God and Evil

The following partially satisfies the requirements for Dr. Jamie Dew's class: Faith, Reason and the Christian Mind at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Critical Response Paper: Paul Copan on Original Sin a response to Chapter 8, from God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, ed. Jamie Dew and Chad Meister.

How did evil emerge in God’s good creation? If it is true that while God permits humans to be tempted, he does not tempt, if God is neither the instigator nor the source of sin, and if every good thing comes from God, how could sin originate in these moral creatures that were created good?[1] Those are the very questions that Copan seeks to answer in this essay.

In this essay, Copan considers some problematic passages of Scripture, which seem to imply that God is the source of evil. Then, he looks at not only a standard Calvinistic view, but also a hyper-Calvinist interpretation of the source of evil. Finally, based on the writings of Augustine, he concludes sin was neither created from some mysterious hidden will of God,[2] nor did God need to create sin in order to have sinful beings upon which to be wrathful.[3] Created moral creatures were the source of sin. The original sin was voluntary, driven by the sinner’s motives and could have been avoided.

The first place Copan looks to discover how evil arose in God’s good creation is the Bible. He shows how on the surface, some passages of Scripture seem to indicate that God is the author of evil. He mentions several Old Testament passages where the King James Version translates the Hebrew word ra’ah as evil. He explains that ra’ah is really a broad term for an over all bad situation rather than specifically meaning evil or wickedness.[4] He next looks to other passages, such as Proverbs 16:4, on which Derek Kidner comments: “The general meaning is that there are ultimately no loose ends in God’s world: everything will be put to some use and matched with its proper fate. It does not mean that God is the author of evil.”[5] And as William Fitch also writes concerning the Bible ascribing the authorship of sin to God, “we can say very definitely that the words before us do not mean that God is the author of sin…A sinless God, a God whose very nature is holiness, could not Himself produce sin. Nor can these words imply that God would ever entice a man to sin.”[6] Furthermore, the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself, and James 1:13-14 says “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”[7] The Bible is clearly saying that God is not the source of sin or evil, and that God would certainly not tempt someone to commit a sinful act.

Before digging into a particularly hyper-Calvinistic view, Copan observes how those with a more orthodox Calvinistic interpretation would approach the matter. For example, as the respected reformed theologian R.C. Sproul Sr. writes, “one thing is absolutely unthinkable, that God could be the author or doer of sin.”[8] Likewise, the majority of Calvinists stop short of pinning the origin of sin or evil on God. Correspondingly, all of the Calvinistic thinkers Copan quotes, including Calvin himself, appeal to God’s mysterious choice.[9] This however, just seems like a way to evade the issue.

Next, comes the hyper-Calvinistic explanation from R.C. Sproul Jr.’s book Almighty Over All. His goal is to eliminate the mystery that traditional Calvinism depends upon for its understanding of the topic. [10] Copan shows that in this stunning interpretation, Sproul Jr. calls God “The Culprit”, and identifies God himself as the one who “introduced evil into this world.”[11] Reading beyond what Copan quoted from Sproul Jr.’s book, we see that he even likens God to man by saying: “like man, God always acts according to His strongest inclination…we can know whatever comes to pass is what God most wished to come to pass, His strongest inclination.”[12] In response, Kenneth Keathley writes:

To say that God created sin is astounding. Sproul Jr.’s position flies in the face of the teaching of Scripture, historical Christian doctrine, the major Reformed confessions, other Calvinistic theologians, and, notably, the statements of his father. … To say that God had to create, that he lacked the ability to do otherwise, is also astounding. At this point the irony must be noted. Even though proponents of casual determinism advocate their position for the purpose of promoting the glory of God’s sovereignty and freedom, in the end determinism teaches that God’s choices are just as determined as ours. Sproul Jr. does not hesitate to say that in any given situation only one choice is truly available to God, and that decision is determined by His greatest inclination.[13]
Furthermore, Sproul Jr. goes on to say: “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.”[14] It is astonishing to think of God, who is good, creating sin, which is not good, in order to have the ability to display his wrath. This was the most extreme view that Copan examined, and it was most beneficial that he included it in this essay.

Finally, Copan presents a feasible libertarian view. It is interesting that although reformed theologians affirm many of Augustine’s soteriological views, Copan is able to draw upon this church father to build his view of primeval sin.[15] He mentions that in “Augustine’s Retractions, written toward the end of his life, [he] never repudiated his original conviction of libertarian freedom that led to the Fall; rather, he continued to affirm that ‘man was able to fall of his own free will…even if he is not able to rise of his own accord.’”[16] To illustrate the relationship between humans and sin, Copan references Genesis 4:7, where it is says, “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”[17] This is interesting because it is the same Hebrew verb, teshuqah, used here that is used in Genesis 3:16b where God says to the woman that her “desire shall be” for her husband. This indicates that sin is trying to have a similar relationship with mankind, as the woman desires to have with her husband. It is curious that Copan relegated this reference to a brief mention in an endnote when it makes such an excellent point once it is expanded upon.

Copan next considers this question: In order to define evil, must good be defined also? No, says Copan; good is something that is sought for its own sake, and evil requires reference to the good. Sin is a corruption of God’s good creation, and good can exist without evil. Copan presents this analogy: “in order to detect the fake, we need to know what genuine currency looks like. One can know and use genuine bills even if counterfeit ones haven’t been produced”. [18] This does an excellent job of illustrating that good and goodness can exist without evil, by comparing evil to counterfeit money.

According to Copan, the first sinners “voluntarily directed their affections toward the creaturely and away from God.” By doing this they moved toward being preoccupied with themselves and their own desires, rather than focusing on God.[19] All of these points add up, according to Copan, to mean that evil entered creation because free willing agents turned away from the immutable good, and turned toward changeable, finite goods.[20] Therefore, only a free, rational, finite, soul could be responsible for creating sin.[21] This again provides a solid point that God cannot be the source of evil in the world.

While Copan’s arguments were strong and well presented throughout the essay, his explanation of the Manichean heresy in particular was weak. He simply defined it as taking “evil as a thing rather than the absence or corruption of goodness.”[22] This definition is simplistic and incomplete. John Frame’s definition is more complete and helpful in understanding the Manicheans beliefs: “The Manichees saw good and evil as equally powerful realities, in constant warfare. When Augustine became a Christian, he saw clearly that, in God’s world, good is ultimate and evil is not.”[23] Because Copan leaned on Augustine heavily to support his thesis it would have served him well to further expand on this aspect of Augustine’s background.

Copan says: “The God and Creator of free moral agents is no more the author of sin than the Wright brothers are the authors of airplane crashes.” [24]  That analogy is particularly well chosen, because it demonstrates that just because God gave us the ability to make our own choices, He did not make us fly nose first into sin. This chapter establishes that every good gift comes from the Father; evil, however came from the choice of free agents who abused their God-given freedom. Simply put, we can’t point to God as the source of evil. Likewise, we aren’t subject to a “hidden will” of God to explain evil in the world.[25] Copan’s own view that only imperfect moral creatures could sin, is the most plausible explanation presented. These first sinners did not have to sin, but because they did, the consequences of their sin are suffered to this day. Only good comes from God.


Works Cited

Copan, Paul. “Evil and Primeval Sin: How Evil Emerged in a Very Good Creation,” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, edited by Chad V. Meister and James K. Dew, 109-23. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Fitch, William. God and Evil: Studies in the Mystery of Suffering and Pain. Grand Rapids: William   B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002.

Keathley, Kenneth, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Kidner, Derek Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964

Sproul, R.C. Jr. Almighty Over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Sproul, R.C. Sr. Chosen by God. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986.


[1] Paul Copan, “Evil and Primeval Sin: How Evil Emerged in a very Good Creation,” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, ed. Chad V. Meister and James K. Dew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 109
[2] Ibid., 123
[3] R.C. Sproul Jr., Almighty Over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 57
[4] Copan, 110
[5] Derek Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 111-112.
[6] William Fitch, God and Evil; Studies in the Mystery of Suffering and Pain, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 20
[7] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011 Text Edition).
[8] R.C. Sproul Sr., Chosen by God,  (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 31
[9] Copan, 112-113
[10] Ibid., 112
[11] Sproul Jr. 51
[12] Ibid., 54
[13] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, (Nashville; B&H Academic, 2010), 83
[14] Sproul Jr., 57
[15] Ibid., 117
[16] Ibid., 118
[17] Ibid., 118n31
[18] Ibid., 118
[19] Ibid., 119
[20] Ibid., 119
[21] Ibid., 118
[22] Ibid., 116
[23] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 167n12
[24] Ibid., 111
[25] Ibid., 123

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