‘Lord Willing and God Forbid’
Divine Permission, Asymmetry, and Counterfactuals
by Guillaume Bignon
In the literature on divine providence, an important argument against Calvinism and its determinist view of free will is the claim that determinism prevents Calvinists from employing about God a language of ‘permission’ for sin. Determinism allegedly requires one to say that God ‘intends’ or ‘causes’ sin, and thereby forbids saying God ‘permits’ it.
This paper first argues that contrary to what is often assumed, indeterminism alone is insufficient to rescue the meaningfulness of divine permission of evil: asymmetry in divine providence is a problem for everyone, and indeterminism alone cannot justify this asymmetry.
Accordingly, this paper turns to a conceptual analysis of ‘permission’ in the sense that is relevant to divine providence over evil, and offers a (Calvinist-friendly) criterion that does suffice to anchor such language. It is argued that permission language is in fact predicated upon the truth (and hence divine knowledge) of certain active/passive pairs of counterfactuals, about what would not happen in the absence of special divine intervention, and would happen if said divine intervention occurred. That is, counterfactuals about what would happen just in case God intervened specially at the moment of choice, such as the pair: 1-If God refrained from a special intervention on his heart at the moment of choice, the sinner would sin; and 2-If God did intervene specially on his heart at the moment of choice, the sinner would refrain from sin.
Since the truth and divine knowledge of such counterfactuals is affirmed by both Calvinists and Molinists alike, it will follow that even though these two teams disagree on the nature of free will, the foundation of a language of divine permission should be a point of happy agreement between them (over against simple-foreknowledge Arminianism and open theism).