God causes evil actions without causing the evil in actions

On a recent episode of Unbelievable?, William Lane Craig and James White discussed whether Molinism or Calvinism provide the better approach to God’s providence in light of the reality of evil. Craig is a proponent of Molinism, which seeks to reconcile libertarian freedom with divine providence by positing a special kind of knowledge in God called middle knowledge. White, on the other hand, is a proponent of the compatibilist model of providence common among Reformed theologians, which posits that divine determinism is compatible with human freedom because the latter doesn’t require alternate choice.[1] In the course of this discussion, Craig presents an argument for thinking that the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) are part of God’s middle knowledge. These CCFs are propositions about what free creatures would freely choose when put in various circumstances. Both Craig and White agree that such propositions are contingently true, but they disagree on whether they are decided by God or are true logically prior to God deciding anything. Craig’s argument, which he presents here, can be formulated as follows:

  1. The CCFs are either true logically prior to the divine decree, or they are true only posterior to the divine decree.
  2. If the CCFs are true only logically posterior to the divine creative decree, then God is the author of evil.
  3. God is not the author of evil.
  4. Therefore, the CCFs are true logically prior to the divine decree.

My interest in this post is to evaluate this argument from the perspective of the Thomistic model of omni-instrumentality I have explained in previous posts (see here).

A major feature that differentiates omni-instrumentality from Molinism and compatibilism is that it doesn’t treat human choices as an atomic reality. While Molinism and compatibilism may grant that there are various psychological and other parts that make up a human choice, when it comes to explaining how God can exert control over these choices these parts do not play an explanatory role. When considering a creature’s choice of X, for instance, the Molinist focuses on the circumstances of the choice (as captured by the relevant CCFs) while the compatibilist focuses on God’s ability to make the creature choose X, both of which are factors external to the details of the choice itself. Even if we consider the underlying models of concurrence, which analyze the components of the choice, we see the same thing. The Molinist holds to the view of simultaneous concurrence, wherein God provides the indeterminate being of the choice and the creature provides the details that determine it to this or that particular choice, and so the atomicity of the details of the choice remains. The compatibilist holds that God causes the whole choice, details and all, and so there is just no need to decompose the choice any further in the account.

By contrast, the omni-instrumental view requires that we analyze the details of the choice in terms of what aspects of it originate from God and the creature. I discussed this in some detail in the third post on the view, but to summarize the point briefly: the goodness of the choice—its proper ordering toward an end truly worth pursuing—arises from God as the primary cause, whereas the evil of the choice—its failure to fully realize this goodness—arises from the creature as a limited secondary cause. Any choice is a result of one or both  of these factors coming together in some way. A purely good choice is one in which the creature introduces no privation of the goodness originating from God, whereas a choice is said to be evil precisely insofar as such a privation is present.[2] The upshot of this is that God causes evil actions without causing the evil in actions.

This conclusion helps us to see that there is an important ambiguity in Craig’s argument: when it speaks of “evil” in (2) and (3), is it speaking of evil actions or the evil in actions? This ambiguity is not relevant to Craig or White because their respective positions treat actions as atomic. But for the omni-instrumental position, it affects which of the two premises we should reject.

If what the argument has in mind is evil actions, then we should deny (3). God is the author of evil actions in the sense that he is the primary cause of these actions. This does not mean, however, that he is the cause of evil as such, because God the evil of these actions does not arise from him, but from the creature.

If, on the other hand, the argument has in mind the evil in actions, then we should deny (2). The CCFs concern the actions taken by creatures, whether good or evil. These are logically posterior to the divine decree because in causing creatures to act freely as they do, God thereby determines how they would act in various circumstances. However, as we have said, this occurs without God thereby causing the evil in the actions, and therefore (2) is false.

So, then, as far as the omni-instrumental position is concerned, Craig’s argument fails to establish its conclusion. But the exact reason why depends on how we nuance the reference to “evil” in the argument, in light of the distinction between causing evil actions and causing the evil in actions.


[1] I have discussed both views in my posts “Omni-instrumentality 4: Contrasting Views” and “God’s control and our free will.” As mentioned in the former post, the word “compatibilism” admits of multiple senses. Here we take it in its most common sense (in the context of this debate) or soft determinism, which rejects the libertarian view of human freedom in order to justify divine determinism as the mechanism of providence.

[2] There is no such thing as a purely evil action in the sense of there being no good whatsoever, since evil is the privation of good and therefore parasitic upon it. Nevertheless, there are purely evil actions in the colloquial sense of an action being so significant that there is no way for it to be morally justified by the good within it.

3 thoughts on “God causes evil actions without causing the evil in actions

  1. Something I struggle with in the omni-instrumental view you’ve presented is the idea that all actions have a “proper ordering toward an end truly worth pursuing”. It makes sense to me when pondering well-intentioned actions that result in evil through some mistake or temptation or other imperfection in the creature. But what about premeditated or malicious evil actions performed by a human, for example the rape or murder or torture of an innocent person. I struggle to mentally conceptualize these as actions with some “proper ordering” from which the creature has strayed. Perhaps you could provide some thought experiments or illustrations to better help me understand how actions like these are explained under the omni-instrumental view.

    • It’s quite possible that your difficulty arises from my poor wording in the post (owing in part to its brevity), so let me try to clarify. I’m not suggesting that every action has a proper ordering toward an end truly worth pursuing. Rather, a purely good action is one that has a proper ordering toward an end truly worth pursuing, and an action is evil to the extent that it fails to be such. An action can fail to be good, then, on account of a corruption of the means (when the ordering is improper), or the end (when it is not truly worth pursuing), or both. There’s a much wider theory of action here, including things like happiness as the ultimate end, the guise of the good thesis, the privation theory of evil, etc. but we could roughly say the following: in the thinnest sense, evil actions can be good (though not morally justifiable) insofar as they exercise the various natural powers of the agent according to some measure for the sake of some end the agent takes to be worth pursuing. So, torture might be done for the sake of gaining information for national security or even just for the sake of pleasure, both of which are good ends but not at the cost of that means. Murder might occur as a disproportionate response to a perceived slight, where the good response would be much less violent.

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