Since it’s relevant to some current discussions, I’m posting here a short section from a forthcoming essay entitled “Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Incompatibilism versus Compatibilism,” which is due to appear in a multi-author volume on the doctrine of unconditional election.
Does Divine Determinism Make God the Author of Sin?
Reformed compatibilism maintains that divine determinism is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility, where divine determinism is understood as the view that all events within the creation, including human choices and actions, are ultimately determined by the will or decree of God. It is commonly objected that divine determinism, if true, would make God to be “the author of sin,” but since God cannot be the author of sin—James 1:13 is commonly cited here—it follows that divine determinism must be false.1
Let us note first that Reformed theologians have consistently repudiated the idea that God is “the author of sin.”2 To take one representative example: the Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on God’s eternal decree, affirms that God has sovereignly ordained from eternity “whatsoever comes to pass,” but denies that God is thereby “the author of sin” or that his decree does “violence” to the will of his creatures. Similarly, the Confession’s chapter on divine providence, while asserting that God’s providential control of events extends even to creaturely sins, insists that God “being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”
Of course, the mere fact that Reformed compatibilists have issued such denials does not refute the charge that divine determinism makes God the author of sin. But it’s crucial to recognize two things about this objection. First, the initial burden of proof lies with the objector to offer a serious argument in support of the charge, not with the Calvinist to provide an argument to the contrary. In response to the question, “How do you avoid making God the author of sin?” it is entirely appropriate for the divine determinist to reply along these lines:
First, tell me exactly what you mean by “the author of sin” and why it would be objectionable for God to be the author of sin in that sense. Second, explain how it logically follows from my position that God would be the author of sin in that objectionable sense. Until you’ve done that, there’s no argument to respond to, only a vague assertion or insinuation.
If the objector obliges by explaining what is meant by “the author of sin,” the divine determinist has two options by way of response. The first is to concede that divine determinism does indeed imply that God is “the author of sin” in the specified sense, but it hasn’t been shown that there is anything morally or theologically objectionable about such an implication. In fact, it often turns out that the ‘implication’ is no more than a restatement of the divine determinist position itself, and thus the objection begs the question. If, for example, “the author of sin” is understood to mean that God ordains or determines or causes (in some ultimate sense) the sins of his creatures, then the objection merely pastes a dubious label on the opposing position. We still need an argument as to why God himself would be culpable for the sins of his creatures if he ordained or determined by some causal means that they commit those sins. Absent such an argument, the objection amounts to no more than the claim that divine determinism entails something entailed by divine determinism—hardly a devastating criticism.
The second line of response is to deny that divine determinism really does entail or imply that God is “the author of sin” in the specified sense. If the phrase is understood to mean that God creates sin, commits sin, tempts or incites people to sin, or is the efficient cause of sin, the divine determinist can agree that it would be problematic for God to be the author of sin in any of those senses, while also denying that anything in his position commits him to such a claim. The burden lies with the critic to show that divine determinism really does have that objectionable implication. Rarely if ever is that burden shouldered.
In sum, the charge that divine determinism “makes God the author of sin” typically functions as a proxy for an argument rather than an actual argument that merits rebuttal. As I have concluded elsewhere:
[W]hat is widely regarded as a grave problem for Calvinism—that it makes God the author of sin—only appears so while the term “author” is left ambiguous and unanalyzed. The critics have much more work to do if this commonplace objection is to have any real bite.3
- For examples of this charge, see Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, 168. Often the objection is expressed in rather cagey terms, as though the critic wants to claim that divine determinism entails or implies that God is the author of sin but lacks a specific, positive argument in support of that claim. Thus, we encounter statements like, “If divine determinism is true, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that God is the author of sin,” or rhetorical questions such as, “How can divine determinists avoid the conclusion that God is the author of sin?”—as if the burden of argument lay with Calvinists rather than their critics. In such debates, it is essential to distinguish between a stated argument (which can, in principle, be refuted) and an allusion to an unstated argument (which cannot). ↩
- Calvin, Institutes, I.18.4. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:509–10; Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2004, 2:615. Jonathan Edwards is more nuanced, distinguishing different senses in which “authorship” might be attributed to God. Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will (London: Thomas Nelson, 1845), 286–88. ↩
- Anderson, “Calvinism and the First Sin,” 213. ↩