The Cause and Not-Cause of Sin

There are four terms commonly used in the discussion of the relationship of God and sin. In a sort of continuum from hard to soft (or heavy to light, etc.) these terms are “author,” “cause,” “permit,” and “bare permission.”

The Reformed Faith, as exemplified in the Westminster Confession of Faith, strongly opposes using the word “author” when it comes to the relationship of God and sin. (Chapter 3 of that confession says “neither is God the author of sin.”) The same confession (chapter 5) opposes also the use of “bare permission” to describe the relationship of God and evil in saying that sin is “not by bare permission.”

Thus, we have the two remaining acceptable terms in the middle of the continuum, “cause” and “permit.” While the Confession does not use the word “cause” it uses the word “ordain” in saying God did “ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” And in Chapter 6 the Confession uses the word “permit” specifically in the context of God’s relation to the sin of our “first parents,” Adam and Eve.

The use of the terms “cause” and “permit” in Reformed authors varies and tends to confuse rather than clarify the situation.

Chad Van Dixhoorn, for example, in Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Confession of Faith, while accepting the terms “ordains” and “governs” (p. 75) opposes the term “cause.” He writes, “But in spite of the fact that he ‘unchangeably ordains whatsoever comes to pass,’ including great calamities (Isa. 45:7), he is not the cause of sin.” (p. 44) Yet, in what might be inconsistent, he writes, “All events—even those which we see as secondary causes—are also part of God’s decree, and so God’s decree establishes these causes and events too.” (p. 46)

Van Dixhoorn then also opposes “bare permission” writing, “Is he associated with sin by giving it his ‘bare permission’? By setting up a world that could sin and then allowing sin to happen? Did God simply not interfere, and in that way permit sin to happen? The answer to that must be no. God permits sin, but it is the sort of permission that is ‘joined with … a most wise and powerful bounding’ or limiting.” (p. 74-75)

Can a clear distinction between “permit” and “bare permission” be made? Perhaps Van Dixhoorn’s distinction is between a Theistic ordaining and a Deistic “setting up” and leaving be. But what precisely is the distinction?

All good Clarkians know where the problem lies—definitions. How does “author” differ from “cause?” Does “cause” differ from “ordain?” And how does “permit” differ from “bare permission?”

Some make the distinction between “author” and “cause” to be in regard to the responsibility of the actor. God is not the author of sin, because he is not responsible for it; that is, He has no one to be responsible to, whereas man is responsible to God for his sin.

This may be a good solution to part of the issue. But I want to suggest a broader idea under which the entire problem can be viewed.

Calvin makes a distinction between ultimate and proximate causes. In this distinction God is the ultimate cause of all things; we can say he ordains all things. But sin is carried out proximately, in its final act, by man. The proximate actor, man, could be called the author of sin. God’s role, being ultimate not proximate, is not the author of sin.

This has long been the concept I’ve used to explain the difference between “author” and “cause.”

But there is another half of the situation that I have only recently been considering. That is, cannot the distinction between “permit” and “bare permission” also be made on the basis of the ultimate and the proximate?

First, the proximate. God cannot sin. God is not the cause of sin on the proximate level. He is the not-cause. He permits man to sin.

But, on the ultimate level God does not permit man to sin; he in fact ordains man to sin. “Bare permission” could best be used to refer to what God does not do at the ultimate level.

1 thought on “The Cause and Not-Cause of Sin”

  1. Great post! I do wonder if we should make it so confusing in our confessions by what appear to be contradictions. If God ordains all things (and he does) then why not say he is not the immediate author of sin but the ultimate author of it. He did predestine Christ’s death before the foundation of the world.

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