I am going to repost an exchange I had with Roger Olson, author of Against Calvinism, on the question of distinctions without differences. Original discussion here. I plan to post more exchanges like this in future since they are helpful to other Christians. Roger’s comments are blockquoted; mine are inline:
One thing that puzzles me (and more) in theology is the frequent appeal by theologians (including philosophers doing theology) to distinctions that seem to me to have no real differences. I cannot claim to be innocent; I’m sure that (at least to others) I have sometimes fallen into the same trap. But when I do I expect to be called on it.
I’m taking you at your word when you say you expect to be called on it when you appeal to distinctions without a difference.
With that in mind, what about the distinction between permitting evil and causing evil?
Now, of course I don’t think it is a distinction without *any* difference. But it is a distinction without a *relevant* difference with respect to the purpose for which it is deployed: namely, absolving God of evil. After all, we know that in many situations it is evil to permit evil as well as to cause evil. It is evil to permit a toddler to walk into a swimming enclosure and fall into the pool and drown when you are standing two feet away, just as it is evil to push a toddler into a swimming pool and hold his head under while he drowns. One is *more* evil, certainly; I’m happy to admit that distinction. But the Arminian doesn’t say God is *less* evil under Arminianism than under Calvinism. He says God is *not* evil under Arminianism. So it seems to be a distinction without a difference.
Well, I don’t see that at all. To me it is a very strong difference–in everyday life. We make that distinction and difference all the time. I could easily assure that every one of my students passes each of my classes but only by overriding their own free will and responsible decisions and choices and simply recording a passing grade for them–whatever they do or achieve. Instead, I permit some to fail a course. That’s just one analogy of the distinction with a difference.
But I didn’t deny there is *a* difference. What I said is that there doesn’t seem to be a *relevant* difference *with respect to God’s being evil*. I’m not sure why you made up a new, seemingly irrelevant analogy instead interacting with the one I gave.
You’re drawing a distinction between causing and permitting evil, to get God off the hook for sin. You have an argument something like this:
1. To cause evil *is* evil
2. God is not evil
3. Therefore, God does not cause evil
Then, in order to preserve God’s sovereignty, you say that God merely *permits* evil. Obviously evil is not outside his control altogether.
My contention is that you are drawing a distinction which amounts to no difference whatsoever; and I can construct a parallel argument to show this:
1* To permit evil *is* evil (relevant example: toddler at the pool)
2* God is not evil
3* Therefore, God does not permit evil
But of course, (3*) is manifestly untrue.
Notice I am not arguing that causing evil and permitting evil are *identical* kinds of evil. I am only arguing that permitting evil *is still evil* — and since permission is supposed to get God off the hook, the distinction between causing and permitting is therefore *irrelevant*. It is a distinction without a difference, because *either way*, God is *still* evil.
All I can say to this is “sheer nonsense.” To permit evil is not always evil. Everyone knows this.
Roger, I never claimed that to permit evil is *always* evil. Why would you even raise that?
I claimed that *in this relevant circumstance* it is evil to permit evil.
An intelligent, well-adjusted athletic man who is a strong swimmer, is following a step behind his child (it could even be an adult child who can’t swim). The child walks into the swimming enclosure, falls into the pool, and drowns. The man, standing at the edge of the pool, does nothing to save his child.
Again, I’ll ask you the question you keep avoiding: did this man do good, or did he do evil?
If you agree that he is evil, then you seem to be drawing a distinction without a difference between causing and permitting evil *in this kind of case*. One may be worse than the other, but *both* are evil.
But a fortiori, God is much more powerful and much more loving than a human father. So if it is evil for a human father do permit evil in a situation like this, then it is a fortiori even more evil for God to do so.
You can certainly say that how God causes evil under Calvinism is *worse* than how he permits evil under Arminianism. But nonetheless, you do seem committed to saying that he *is still evil*.
My point was simply that there are human circumstances were permitting evil is not evil so we can imagine from that to a real difference between God permitting evil and “doing evil.”
But I never claimed that permitting evil was evil in *all* circumstances.
My argument is that *in some relevant situations* the distinction between permitting evil and causing evil collapses *inasmuch as* both are still evil.
Why do you keep responding to a position I never took, rather than interacting with the argument I have carefully and repeatedly articulated?
But I have never said that there is NEVER a difference…so why are you responding to a position I never took? YOU said (in your original comment) that there is NO difference between “doing evil” and “permitting” evil. I said that in SOME situation (e.g., teaching) there is a difference. All I was doing was showing that your generalization could not hold because there are many exceptions. I’m tired to debating about who said what when. State your case very carefully with all necessary qualifications and let’s see where that leads. Mine remains that in the case of God and the human fall into sin there is a clear difference between God “doing it” (causing it directly or indirectly such that he wanted it to happen and rendered it certain) and “permitting it.” (By the way I’ve explained this distinction-with-a-real-difference here several times before. I’m reluctant just to repeat myself. Try googling key words to find what I’ve written about this already.)
Roger, I was and always have been talking about a toddler falling into a pool. Not the fall into sin…
I’ll restate my case again.
If it is evil for a loving father to permit his child to drown, then it is, a fortiori, significantly more evil for God to permit the child to drown. *In this scenario* there is no *relevant* distinction between permitting and causing evil.
But if even just *one* real world event occurs where it is evil to permit evil (and I’m sure you’ll agree plenty of toddlers do drown, let alone all the other examples we can imagine), then the Arminian position collapses — because God does evil.
You need to read one of two (or both) books: Evil and the Christian God by evangelical philosopher Michael Peterson and/or Is God to Blame? by Gregory Boyd. Both answer your claim successfully. I don’t have time to repeat their arguments here.
If we’re just going to wave at a book to rubberstamp our views, why didn’t we do that to start with and avoid all this unnecessary discussion?
My hypothetical explicitly takes into account the distinction between God “doing it himself” and God “letting it happen”.
Even if counterfactual theories of causation are false, and permitting is actually different from causing in this case (another distinction without a difference?), I made allowance for that from the outset — but still showed that permitting is evil. So on your view, God is evil in many real-world circumstances.
Now, you can try to run damage control by showing that God has some overriding reason to let this happen (eg, if he kept intervening our actions wouldn’t have predictable consequences such that we couldn’t make meaningful choices). But aside from looking like hypocritical special pleading — since you won’t let Calvinists appeal to overriding reasons when it comes to God causing evil — this move suffers defeat at the hands of the very same analogy I’ve been using from the beginning: we don’t think a parent is illicitly interfering with his son’s free will choices by preventing him from drowning. Neither do we think it is wrong to have life-guards posted at a beach only some of the time. A fortiori, the idea that God is absolved of culpability merely because he can’t make the world too unpredictable is so morally unintuitive that it’s not even implausible; it’s just absurd. [See The Molinist/Arminian ideal of fatherhood and Why can’t God interfere with our free will?.]
Sorry, what seems absurd to you seems completely plausible to me.
But this is completely reversible. You’re arguing like a relativist. What seems absurd to you (that God can cause evil without being evil) seems completely plausible to me.
What privileges your intuition over mine?
You can’t say Scripture, because by your own admission *whatever* the Bible says, it can’t say that God causes evil, since that conflicts with your intuitions.
But what if the authors of Scripture didn’t share your intuitions? How could you even know that, since your intuitions can’t be falsified against the Bible?
I think you’re arguing like an authoritarian relativist. What seems plausible to you must be believed by all.
Ironically, that’s both hypocritical *and* a false ad hominem.
First, it is hypocritical because your exact method of argument is to say that what should be believed by all is that Calvinism is completely implausible because, on your intuition, it makes God the author of sin. Worse—you use your intuition to stake out the “plausible” limits of what *God* must believe and convey to us in Scripture!
Second, it is false ad hominem because I don’t believe—as should be obvious from my previous comment—that our intuitions can (or should be) the final arbitrators of truth. I believe God’s word should be.
Since your acceptance of one theology over another comes down to your private intuitions, I’ll ask you again: what if the authors of Scripture didn’t *share* your intuitions? How could you even know this? Suppose for the sake of argument that Scripture does teach Calvinism. How could you ever discover that, given that you use your intuitions to demarcate acceptable exegesis, rather than exegesis to demarcate acceptable intuitions?
And if, in principle, you cannot discover that Scripture is teaching something that deviates from your intuitions, how can you plausibly claim to be doing *exegesis* rather than *eisegesis*?
Olson has written a followup post, Is There a Difference Between Permitting Evil and Doing Evil? I assume this is prompted by our discussion, but it substantially misses the point. The issue is not, as Olson has it, that there is no distinction ever between causing and permitting evil; it is that if there is even one case where permitting evil is, itself, evil, then the Arminian appeal to permission collapses. Contrary to Olson’s contention that it takes only one case to disprove the claim, the fact is it takes only one to prove it. God only has to be evil once under Arminianism for Arminianism to be demonstrably false.