Review of David Ray Griffin, Evil Revisited1

 by John M. Frame

[I am reprinting this review here, which originally appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal.2]

 

Griffin is one of the most prominent advocates of process theology and perhaps the movement’s leading spokesman on the question of theodicy, the problem of evil. In this volume, he restates the theses of his earlier book, God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), and he offers rebuttals to the critics of his earlier argument.

There is not much in this book for those of us who hold to a traditional Calvinistic position (he calls it ”all-determining theism”). He brushes that position aside with quick strokes: all-determining theism makes sin meaningless and evil ultimately illusory (pp. 13-14). In this short but rather confusing discussion, he mixes up Lutheran (“God’s left hand”), Reformed (“revealed” vs. “secret” will) and Roman Catholic (evil is non-being) motifs.

Nor is there anything much in the book for those who have basic questions about process theology, such as,

(1) How do we know that the world is made up of creative actual occasions, without resorting to the fallacy of division– i.e., without gratuitously attributing the qualities of our experienced world to its supposed basic elements?

(2) What are the qualifications of process theologians to revise the biblical teachings about God? (They have academic credentials, yes; but those are usually considered inadequate to convey religious authority. Are they known for their piety, their holiness, their kindness, their prophetic mandates, their extraordinary friendships with God?)

(3) Is process theology too high a price to pay for a solution to the problem of evil? Do we really want to give up the central biblical teaching of the sovereignty of God so that we can get an intellectually satisfying answer? Or does loyalty to Jesus Christ demand that we put up with an occasional mystery?

(4) Is the process God any more than a principle of unity within the plurality of the world itself? If not, why should we call it “God?”

We can grasp at least the general direction of Griffin ’s thinking on these matters by his statement on p. 52:

My position, by contrast, assumes that we have no infallible revelation. That assumption is based partly on the fact that no such revelation seems to exist, but partly on the fact that my understanding of the God-world relationship does not allow for any such revelation to occur.

The latter clause indicates the presupposition which he brings to the question of revelation: his own autonomous thought must always be the ultimate judge of any purported revelation. Therefore, the Bible, which on the contrary claims the right to rule over all human thought, must be dismissed as, in effect, fraudulent. Those who accept the Bible’s claim must similarly dismiss Griffin ’s approach.

Who, then, can benefit from this book? Well, those of us who, for professional reasons, must keep up with the ins and outs of process theology probably cannot legitimately avoid this volume. There are a few new wrinkles here. Griffin announces in the preface that this book contains a stronger doctrine of evil, which he calls “the demonic.” He also tries to answer the objection that the process God, while answering the problem of evil, enfeebles our hope by raising questions about God’s ultimate triumph.

There is also an interesting discussion in which Griffin  distinguishes between efficient cause and coercion (PP. 96-119): God does not coerce (he only “persuades,” as the process tradition emphasizes), but he does cause efficiently. This distinction requires Griffin , of course, to redefine “efficient cause” so that it refers only to the divine gift of each occasion’s “initial aim”. In my view, this redefinition does not help very much to answer the concerns which prompted the question. There is still nothing in the process system that corresponds well to the traditional concept of efficient cause.

The book also contains a relatively new process doctrine of the Trinity: God, the world, and creativity (pp. 188-192). Process theologians have found it notoriously difficult to formulate a functional equivalent to historic trinitarianism compatible with their system. Their God, of course, is bi- or di-polar, not tri-polar. Griffin ’s approach is more cogent than the alternatives, granted his premises; but it does in effect grant the charge of pantheism.

The volume will also be of interest to those whom Griffin  calls “traditional free will theists” and to those with a scholarly interest in that position. Most of the critics to whom  Griffin replies are of that persuasion: people who hold an Arminian-libertarian view of free will and who believe that is a sufficient answer to the problem of evil. Among them are David and Randall Basinger, Steven T. Davis, Alvin Plantinga, Nelson Pike, Bruce Reichenbach. Griffin ’s dialogue with these (and with some fellow process theologians) takes up most of the book.

It does seem to me that this sort of Arminianism faces a crisis today. Griffin’s critique of it, like the critiques of less extreme thinkers like Richard Rice and Clark Pinnock, seems to me to be cogent in this way: if Arminians really want to say that man is fully autonomous in his choices, then they must deny the biblical teaching (Rice and Pinnock, of course, would not put it this way; nothing would prevent Griffin from doing so) that God’s omniscience includes future events (cf. pp. 83-87). If God knows the future perfectly, then somekind of fore-ordination exists, either from God’s will or from some other mysterious source (fate?). To eliminate this “determinism,” one must eliminate divine foreknowledge or rest with mystery; but of course the hallmark of Arminianism is not to rest with mystery. So the Arminian is balancing on a razor’s edge. The more he thinks, the more he is in danger of falling either to one side (denying scriptural teaching, or even embracing process theology itself) or the other (Calvinism, or “all-determining theism”).

Griffin is an intelligent writer, whatever one may think of his presuppositions. Every now and then, he presents an insight that deserves consideration even by Calvinists. For example, on pp. 31-32, he argues that God’s goodness follows from his omniscience, since his omniscience is not merely a propositional understanding but an actual “feeling” of all that is happening. Orthodox Calvinists will reject the pantheistic assumptions here; but can we deny that God knows not only the propositional truths about the universe but also, somehow, knows how every finite being feels? To follow out the implications of this fact might help us to a better balance between intellect and emotion in our view of God and in our human epistemology.

On the whole, then, this book is a worthy sequel to God, Power and Evil; but its usefulness is limited for those who reject the distinctives of Arminian and process thought.

 

 


1 Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.

2 27:2 (Nov., 1992), 435-38.