Thursday, August 3

The Authoring of Sin

Last week I looked at one of the standard rebuttal phrases in theological discussion. This week I'm moving on to another one of these phrases--the old stand-by accusation that a particular view of God's relation to sin makes God the author of sin. This phrase, too, is meant to be an automatic discussion stopper. The phrase is seen as a whole argument in and of itself, so that once the author of sin bomb is dropped, no additional argumentation is needed.

But does it really work that way? Does that argument carry any weight at all, let alone the whole weight of an argument?

First off, let me point out that this phrase, though often used in theological discussions, is not a phrase used in scripture. There is no verse that says, "God is not the author of sin." Don't tell anyone, but I think I once had a vague notion that this was actually a quote from scripture. We can, of course, know a few things from scripture about the nots of God's relationship to sin. To name two nots from James 1, we know that God cannot be tempted with evil, and that God himself does not tempt anyone. So, then, if you define the phrase author of sin to mean "the one who tempts", then it is quite true to say that God isn't the author of sin. The phrase, however, isn't a scriptural proof text, and if all you mean by author of sin is "one who tempts," then you'd probably be better off using the scriptural word tempt instead of the word author, because not only would everyone understand what you meant, you'd also be quoting right from scripture, and who could argue with that?

Of course, that makes the phrase not nearly so useful, because almost no one argues that God is in the business of tempting people. Nope, part of the reason the phrase author of sin is so useful is that there is no agreed upon definition. It sounds really, really bad, but it's also really, really difficult to nail down a definition, so it doesn't require that the opponent's viewpoint meet any specific criteria before the author of sin rebuttal can be used. As long as our opponent's statements about God's relationship to sinful acts of men sounds too direct to us, we can use the this accusation and feel it applies.

What does author of sin mean, anyway? I'll be the first to admit that I don't know the absolutely correct definition. I can't find the definition in any dictionaries. I can find lots of statements saying that this statement or that statement "makes God the author of sin," and lots of affirmations of the truth that "God is not the author of sin," all without explanations of what that means. We can learn a little bit about what people mean by terms, however, by examining how they use them.

The phrase author of sin is used in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III, Section 1.
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin....
So whatever the Westminster divines meant by the term author of sin, it doesn't include unchangeably ordaining every single thing that happens in human history, including sinful acts of men. Unchangeably ordaining something, then, is not authoring it according to those who authored the Westminster Confession.

When it comes to Adam and Eve's action in the fall, the Westminster Confession tells us that
their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (Chapter VI, Section 1)
This is more evidence that as far as the authors of the WCF were concerned, for God to purpose a sinful act for a good result was not authoring it. You'll notice that they use the word permit in relation to God's role in our first parent's sin--he purposed or ordained this particular event, but he accomplished it by means of permission. I'm guessing that this is where the authors of the WCF draw the line in their definition of author of sin. If God had worked to convince Adam and Eve to sin, or, to put it another way, if he had actually tempted them, then God would be the author of sin; but as long as God ordained their action, having purposed it for good purposes, and then permitted it to occur according to his plan, he was not the author of sin.

I'm not sure the phrase ever had an agreed upon definition. Jonathan Edwards, a man you'd think would know the correct definition if there were one, has this to say about the phrase:
They who object, that this doctrine makes God the Author of Sin, ought distinctly to explain what they mean by that phrase, The Author of Sin. I know the phrase, as it is commonly used, signifies something very ill. (On the Freedom of the Will, Part 4, Section 9)
He gives two possible definitions. The first is that it means that God is
the Sinner, the Agent, or Actor of Sin, or the Doer of a wicked thing.
This definition seems to be pretty close to how the Westminster Confession uses the phrase. If someone defines the term this way, and understands their opponent's viewpoint, most likely they'll never have a chance to use it in an argument, because people to whom you'd be able to define the term this way and still say, "You're making God the author of sin" are few and far between.

The second definition suggested by Jonathan Edwards is more likely closer to the way most people who use the phrase define it. By author of sin they mean
the permitter, or not a hinderer of Sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that Sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow.
The particular part of this definition that makes God the author of sin, in the eyes of those who define the term this way, cannot be the permission of sin, since anyone who believes God is all-powerful and all-knowing must necessarily believe that he permits sin; nor can it be that God knows that if he permits sin, it will certainly follow, since this, too, must be true for an all-knowing God.

The author of sin accusation, then, must accompany the idea that God disposes of those events for his purposes; or, to put it another way, that he has reasons for choosing to allow sin; or yet again, that his permission of sin is a piece of a purposeful plan on his part. It's not the permission that's the problem, but the purpose. If God had reason for permitting sin, then he's the author of sin. And, supposedly, that's bad. Really, really, bad. Or as Jonathan Edwards puts it, "something very ill."

This last idea is one that boggles me. Somehow, for those who argue that it's the purposeful nature of God's permission of sin that makes him the author of sin, a supreme being who permits sin for no reason is better than one who permits it for a reason. When it comes to the permission of sin, in their view, arbitrary is better than purposeful.

There's yet another possibility, and I believe this to be the most common way people use the phrase author of sin. In this usage, it's not the purposefulness of God's permission of sin itself that is seen as making God the author of sin, but the particular reason for which he permits it. For instance, someone might argue that if God permits sin for the ultimate purpose of his own glory, then he is the author of sin; but if his ultimiate purpose for the permission of sin is the free will of humankind, then he is not the author of sin. That would mean that the term author of sin applies to the specific purpose, rather than the means or the purposefulness of the means.

This is yet another idea that confounds me, because the only way I can see this distinction being reasonable is if the purpose for permitting sin is of itself a sinful one. So, for example, if someone makes the distinction that it is the specific purpose for permitting sin that makes God the author of sin, and they believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith makes God the author of sin, they would be arguing that "to His own glory" is a sinful purpose. This is not to say that most (or even any) people who argue this way mean to argue that, but that is, in effect, what they are arguing.

To sum up, I'd say that if you feel the urge to say, "You're making God the author of sin" in a discussion with someone, you might want to do these things first.
  1. Know exactly what you mean by authoring sin.
  2. Make sure you understand their view so that you're positive that what they are arguing falls under authoring sin according to your definition of the term.
  3. Define the term so they understand what you mean when you use it, because chances are, they don't.
  4. Make sure you understand everything you're saying about your own view of God's relation to sin when you define authoring sin the way you do. You may be inadvertently supporting ideas you don't agree with.
Better yet, strike it off your list of rebuttal phrases altogether. Use more scriptural and easy to understand terms instead, like tempting to sin, or sinning, or commiting sin. And if none of those more specific terms apply to their view, you might want to consider that your opponent could be right.

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