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Lecture III: God and Evil


A year ago we were considering some of the problems presented by the existence of evil to natural theology in general, apart from the Christian revelation.1 The analysis of our experience showed that we have to recognize the reality within creation of four kinds of evil: ignorance, ugliness, wickedness and suffering. I then argued that if we are to be able to make sense of all these, it must be on the ground that somehow or other each is incidental to the Creator's central purpose to create a community of persons endowed with genuine freedom. I made some suggestions about this, but had to conclude that ‘we look out from the sphere of our immediate experience in which we can see this more or less clearly, peering into a world around in which there is much that is obscure’. We have now added one point of detail to last year's statement of the problem, that the evil of ignorance is manifested in the fact that the history of human thought is the history of men struggling for rescue from webs of erroneous presuppositions which miscolour their apprehensions of truth.2

This year we have to ask how far the witness of the Christian revelation fits in with these conclusions of natural theology in general, and whether it can carry us any further towards an understanding of the mystery of evil. But first there is something more to be said about the relative insistence of the problem on the minds of Christians and non-Christians, of those who profess belief in God and those who do not.

At the risk of being tedious, let me repeat once again my reasons for holding that we can only ignore the problem at the cost of abating the rigour of our thinking. We set out to try to make sense of the universe, of what we experience as actually existing and happening in this world of space and time. In order to make sense, everything that exists and happens must somehow or other be fitted into a pattern that approves itself to our minds as good, as such that we are content to have it so and question it no further. Among the things that are to be fitted in are the various kinds of evil. We cannot hope to dispose of them by finding a point of view from which they may be seen to be either unreal or good in disguise. Unless we can find some other way of fitting them in we have to admit that it is impossible to make sense of the universe, an admission which hamstrings all inquiry after truth, and leaves scientists to be the tools of existentialist dictators. To ignore this dilemma betrays insufficiently rigorous thinking.

If we compare the development of Greek philosophical thought from the Ionians to Socrates and Plato with that of Hebrew religious thought from early polytheism to the prophetic faith, we find that both leave to their successors the heritage of this dilemma. The difference between the secular philosopher and the Christian believer is that the latter, because of the nature of his belief in God, feels the pressure of it the more acutely. We are often reminded of how it weighed upon the mind of St. Augustine,3 and I have a vivid recollection of an evening I once spent in Albany, New York, at the house of the late Archdeacon Guy Purdy. He had invited me to spend with him the four hours or so which I had to wait between trains, and had asked in some three or four of the neighbouring clergy to meet me. The talk turned on this problem of evil. We exercised our ingenuity in trying to find ways of approach which might lead, if not to the solving of it, at least to the easing of the burden. Now one of us, and now another, would make a suggestion, which was seized upon and examined, its inadequacy discovered and exposed. When towards midnight I had to leave for the station we confessed ourselves still baffled and unsatisfied. I came away encouraged by the thought that in no gathering of students of philosophy, or of any other subject, had I ever found a more rigorous refusal to be satisfied with anything that would cover over or evade the issue than in this group of my brother clergy. From that day to this I have found it difficult to restrain my impatience whenever I hear it said that Christians cherish the comfort of blindness to the problem of evil. The truth is that of all men they feel it most acutely and are troubled by it most deeply, because from the nature of their faith in God they are jealous for His honour. The secular philosopher, while forced to confess that he can give no satisfactory explanation of the co-existence of good and evil in one universe, can coolly and dispassionately put the matter aside as one on which reasonable men must maintain an attitude of suspended judgment. He cannot, it is true, be entirely unconcerned about the fundamental question on which the value of all his thinking turns, the question whether it is possible to make sense of the universe. But the act of faith on which all thinking is based obtrudes itself more insistently on the mind when the faith is consciously acknowledged as faith in God.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when we study the history of Christian thought we see repeated efforts by Christian thinkers to relieve God of any responsibility for the evils which infect His creation. We saw last year that in secular thought there are three lines along which a solution of the problem is pursued: (a) the explanation away of evil as unreal; (b) the explanation away of the distinction between good and evil as unreal; and (c) the acknowledgment of an eternal dualism.4 Of these three hypotheses, which between them apparently exhaust the possible ways of accounting for the co-existence of good and evil, two at least appear, clad in religious garb, in Christian attempts to justify the ways of God to man.

(a) I said last year what I have to say about this hypothesis as it appears in traditional Thomist theology. Its persistence in spite of its inadequacy is evidence of the continued uneasiness produced in the Christian mind by the existence of the problem. Until the holes in it are discovered, it appears to swimmers struggling in a sea of doubt as a raft on which they may climb and rest in safety.

(b) The attempt to solve the problem of evil by explaining away the distinction between good and evil can take either of two forms. One is the hypothesis that the ultimate reality is, in Nietzsche's phrase, ‘Beyond good and evil’. God, if there be a god, must be thought of as neutral, equally manifested in what we think good and what we think bad. The other is to maintain that while the distinction may be a real one for God as well as for man, we men in our blindness are incapable of drawing it in a way that would be valid for Him. Here we see through a glass darkly. When we know even as we are known we shall find that our distinctions were mistaken, and that what we thought to be the problem of evil was really no problem at all.

The Christian cannot avail himself of the first of these expedients. To do so would bring no advance in understanding; it would be a reversion to the primitive religion out of which his ancestors were led by the Hebrew prophets. He would resolve the difficulty inherent in his Christian faith by ceasing to be a Christian. Nor would he be in any better case if he tried to make use of the second. As I have already argued, God's revelation of Himself in judgments of value is on a par with that in judgments of fact. It is true that all our judgments are provisional, subject to revision by those who will be able to dispel our miscolouring. But unless we are willing to put our trust in what it has been given to us to see, we have no faith in such revelation as God has thought fit to give us. To hold that I am to be prepared to wake up in the next world and discover that I had been mistaken in rating unselfishness above selfishness and honesty above low cunning is to make nonsense of any claim that the Bible bears witness to God's revelation of Himself.5

In spite of all this, some Christian theologians try to deal with the problem of evil on these lines. A recent instance is to be found in Bishop Anders Nygren's commentary on Romans ix. 14–29. To the suggestion that God has acted unjustly St. Paul replies: ‘Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why didst thou make me thus? Or hath not the potter right over the clay, from the same clay to make one part a vessel unto honour, and another a vessel unto dishonour?’ At first sight that certainly looks as though St. Paul were denying the validity of any of our moral judgments, were saying that good and evil are whatever God says they are, that we simply have to take what He gives and ask no questions. But, as Sanday and Headlam point out, this passage is part of a sustained argument which does not reach its conclusion until the end of Chapter xi. The sequence of thought is that while, in virtue of being our Creator, God might have taken that line, as a matter of fact He has not done so, but has enabled us to see that His rejection of the Jews was incidental to His beneficent purpose of saving all mankind. The three chapters are a carefully worked out theodicy. Bishop Nygren, however, ignoring the bearing of the whole argument on our understanding of its first step, writes as follows:

The question asked comes quite close to the traditional issue in theodicy. It is of particular interest to see how Paul, by his answer, completely rejects the issue. Otherwise we should have expected that, when the question was raised, he would have presented an array of arguments to defend the righteousness of God. But there is not a trace of that in Paul. We get the impression that the problem of theodicy does not even exist for him—and that for good reasons. For there is a basic fault in all that concerns theodicy: it measures God by human standards. But when man sets out to judge God's dealings by man's own standards, the results cannot be other than the conclusion that God's goodness is faulty.6

In view of much that I have said in earlier lectures I need not linger now to expose the confusion of thought displayed in these last few lines, or their inconsistency with the revelation that God has actually thought fit to give us. I have quoted them to illustrate the pressure of the problem of evil on Christian minds. It is a counsel of despair to seek to escape from the need of a theodicy by denying its legitimacy.

(c) I have said that of the three possible ways of explaining the relation between good and evil, ‘two at least appear in Christian attempts to justify the ways of God to man’. I said ‘at least’ because of the third, the acknowledgment of an ultimate dualism, I have not found a clear instance to present from modern theological writing. If there were such a theology it would, I suppose, take the form of a modernized version of second-century marcionism or third-century manichaeism. The Christian Church rejected both the manichaean attribution of the evil in creation to a source independent of God and Marcion's antithesis between the good God of the New Testament and the tyrannical creator God of the Old. Under the pressure of the problem of evil Christians are always subject to the temptation to be false to their monotheism by seeking relief along these lines, and of late years in some religious teaching there has been a christocentric emphasis so excessive as to imply, if thought out to its logical conclusion, a theology of this kind—teaching reflected in the reported saying of a learner: ‘If Jesus had been God, there would not have been any Crucifixion’. But so far as I know responsible Christian theologians have avoided committing themselves to this position by drawing out these implications. In his explicit revival of such dualism H. G. Wells opened his preface with the statement that his belief ‘is not orthodox Christianity; it is not, indeed, Christianity at all’.7

I have said enough to show how persistently the Christian mind is troubled by the problem of evil, what strenuous efforts it has made, and continues to make, to struggle with it. In so doing I have indicated various lines along which solutions have been sought. Let it be clearly understood that in what follows I do not claim to have found the solution we are all seeking. We are still in the position of men peering into a world in which much is obscure, asking to what extent the rays of the light that is given us will enable our mental eyes to penetrate the surrounding darkness. But I want to suggest that from the Christian revelation there shine out certain rays of light of which full advantage has not hitherto been taken. It is as though to Christian thinkers, thinking along lines traditional in human thinking, there speaks the revelation of the love of God: ‘And yet shew I unto you a more excellent way’.


‘It is not surprising’, I have said, ‘that when we study the history of Christian thought we see repeated efforts by Christian thinkers to relieve God of responsibility for the evils which infect His creation’. That God must be relieved of this responsibility is the presupposition common to all the attempts we have considered. If evil can be dismissed as unreal or explained away as good in disguise; if our value judgments are of no value towards the knowledge of what is good and what evil in the judgment of God, and to think that they are is arrogant impiety; if on a dualist theory the existence of evil is to be traced to some source independent of God—could conclusions be established along any one of these lines of thought, God would be relieved of all responsibility for the existence of evil in His creation. No longer would there be any difficulty in thinking of Him as both omnipotent and good. That, for believers in God, this must be the aim of their search in all attempts to find a solution of the problem of evil seems so self-evident as not to be open to question. It is not surprising that Christian thinkers should think along the lines traditional in human thinking, should make this their goal. Yet it is this presupposition which the revelation of God to which the Bible bears witness not only questions but denies.

Consider once again the nature of this revelation. It comes to us in the words in which the biblical writers set down their interpretation of events in the history of this world. We become convinced of the truth of their interpretation in so far as, when we read or hear their words, our eyes are opened to see the events through their eyes and we say: ‘Now I see it for myself, and see that it is so’.8 But in coming to see that it is so we see it with a difference. We see it as Western Europeans of the twentieth century, and what we see we see as the answer to our question: ‘What must the truth have been and be if men who thought and spoke as they did wrote of it like that?’

In succeeding lectures we shall be considering some of the points which to-day we see with a difference. For the moment I want to concentrate attention on the central core of the biblical testimony, ‘the belief that in Jesus Christ we see God at work in the history of this world, personally incarnate for the purpose of rescuing His creation from the evil with which it had become infected’.9 I believe myself that this is the true interpretation of the facts, a truth of which, after scrutinizing the evidence, a natural theologian of to-day is justified in saying: ‘Now that I see it for myself I see it to be so’. My reasons for this belief are irrelevant for our present purpose and must be deferred till the next lecture. Right or wrong, it is undoubtedly the central affirmation of the Christian creed. For the time being we must content ourselves with treating it as a hypothesis as we try to draw out its implications and ask what would be their bearing on our thought about the relation of God to evil.

In the history of Christian theology there have been many so-called theories of the Atonement, attempts to determine the meaning to be given to St. Paul's words: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’. If, as we have seen, one form of evil is ignorance and error, and the history of human thought is the history of God making Himself known in the minds of men, stripping off successive layers of misconception which hinder them from grasping His truth, this forms part of God's rescuing activity. Already, in the sphere of revelation in general, of what we can learn of God from observation of what has been going on in the universe, we find activity which may be called redemptive. Man's quest for the knowledge of God is met by such words as ‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father’.

Some expositions of the Atonement have tended to speak as though this were the whole of it, as though man's only need were for knowledge and Christ's whole work could be summed up as revelation. This is true not only of those with an over-intellectualist emphasis, such as Rashdall ascribes to Clement of Alexandria,10 but of the ‘moral influence’ theory which Rashdall himself favours. In this the explanation of the Atonement is that the revelation in Christ of the nature and depth of the love of God wins men back to penitence and obedience on the principle that ‘man needs must love the highest when he sees it’. As William Temple has put it: ‘We cannot go on wounding One who accepts our wounds like that’.11

So far as it goes this is true. But it is not the whole truth. I have argued this at length elsewhere and will not go over all the ground again.12 For our present purpose it is enough to call attention to one point. The moral influence theory assumes that when a man has committed a sin, all that needs to be put right is the state of his soul. It ignores the fact that the sinful act may have let loose in the world's history forces of evil which will continue to work havoc long after the sinner himself has repented and been forgiven. This can most clearly be seen when the sin takes the form of the injury of one man by another. If as a result the injured man becomes embittered and revengeful, there is no telling how far the ensuing corruption may not spread. If God's creation is to be rescued from evil, not only must we men be rescued from our intellectual and aesthetic blindness and our moral sinfulness; somehow or other the forces for evil set in motion by our sinful acts which have passed beyond our control, the objectively existent sources of corruption which we have brought into existence, must be taken in hand and deprived of their power of spreading further evil.

Somehow or other. I use these words because, apart from those which are inadequate through failing to face this problem, theories of the Atonement are attempts to explain the action taken by God to secure this end. The Christian gospel is the proclamation that somehow or other through the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, this has been done: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’. All start from this, but vary in their attempted explanations of the somehow or other.

We are not now concerned with these various explanations but with that which all are trying to explain, the belief that in virtue of what God has done in Christ the power of evil to corrupt God's creation has been met and overcome. Indeed, our present concern is narrowed down to one point, to the use of the word ‘done’ in the statement that the Christian gospel is the proclamation of what God has done.

Consider this in the light of all that I have said about the nature of the biblical revelation. To us Christians the Bible is a medium of revelation because it bears witness to events in which we recognize the rescuing activity of God. The enduring substance of the revelation, the depositum fidei is what God has done. ‘Christ gave His life, it is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’ God seeks to make Himself known in our minds by stripping off successive layers of misconceptions which hinder us from grasping the significance of the evidence He has provided for us in what He has done. To accept the biblical revelation is to take the biblical witness to what God has done as the basis for our thought about what He is. What must God be like if He has thus revealed Himself in His action? In the last lecture I was arguing that acceptance of the revelation drove those who thought about it to acknowledge internal differentiations in the unity of God.13 This revision of the idea of unity was an instance of God stripping off a layer of misconception. I am arguing now that our thinking about His redemptive activity should lead us to see that He is seeking to free us from the misconception that He must be relieved of responsibility for the existence of evil.

Over and over again I find myself driven to the conclusion that to accept the revelation which God has actually thought fit to give us requires a revision of the presuppositions with which we start our thinking. It is so with the idea of revelation itself. We have to be content with a revelation which is not the kind of revelation we think we would have given if we had been God. It is so with the idea of the divine unity. And it is so with the idea that if God be wholly good He cannot be responsible for the existence of evil in His creation. No one of us left to himself would dare to make such an assertion. It sounds like self-contradictory nonsense, and blasphemous at that. Yet to preach the Christian gospel is to preach that in His actions God has revealed Himself as claiming this responsibility.

Just as we have found that evil, and other irrationalities, are obstacles to thought which cannot be removed by thinking, which have to be changed in deed in order to become transparent to thought, so the Christian gospel is the proclamation that God has not regarded the evil in His creation as something which can be cured either by the communication of some explanatory truth or by the issue of a decree bidding the evil become good or be gone. It has been revealed to us that for God Himself evil had become such that it could not be remedied by any kind of word in any ordinary sense of the word ‘word’. Deeds, not words, were called for. Something had to be done. God took upon Himself the doing of it, made Himself responsible for casting out the evil which He had allowed to enter in.

To say that God has made Himself responsible for remedying what has gone wrong is not, of course, the same as to say that He has made Himself responsible for its going wrong. But to divorce the two implies a dualism inconsistent with a genuine doctrine of creation. In traditional Christian apologetic a distinction is drawn between what God does and what He permits. This distinction only throws the question a stage further back. It does not dispose of the question of God's responsibility for having permitted evil to become what it is. How can it help to say that by the nature of His redemptive activity God has revealed Himself as claiming to be held responsible?

We begin to see some light on the mystery when we put together two conclusions reached in last year's lectures: (i) that ultimate explanations must be in terms of the Creator's personal will, and (ii) that the clue to understanding His will is to see it as a will to create persons endowed with genuine freedom.

(i) We find it difficult to take seriously the conclusion I reached in my final lecture last year: that we think most philosophically and most truly about the nature of ultimate reality when we think in terms of personal will, when our analogies are drawn from our experience, admittedly imperfect as it is, of personal life rather than from the behaviour of impersonal forces, logical abstractions, or linguistic habits.14 I have noticed, for example, in some Reformed theologians a curious combination of the statement that we know nothing about God except through the revelation in Christ with an acceptance as a fundamental principle of an idea of the sovereignty of God which is not derived from that revelation but is an a priori notion, taken for granted and unquestioned. My contention is that instead of arguing that God must behave in accordance with our idea of sovereignty we must learn from His revelation what for Him the exercise of sovereignty actually entails. To do otherwise is to seek our ultimate explanation not in terms of His personal will but of some impersonal abstract idea of sovereignty to which He has to conform. Once more we shall be trying to fit God into a metaphysical system which shall explain His relation to the universe, an attempt which we have seen to be inconsistent with belief in Him as Creator.15

I do not say—note this carefully—that our ideas of sovereignty are of no value in our attempts to think about God. That would be to fall into the error for which I was criticizing Bishop Nygren a few minutes ago. What I am maintaining is that we must always be prepared to revise our categories in the light of fresh evidence, that if the historic Christ be fresh evidence for our knowledge of God we must ask what is its bearing on our thought about His sovereignty.

Our natural theology has driven us to postulate a sovereign Creator and to think of Him as personal and good. By ‘good’ we mean such that the more we learn to know Him, the more content we are that He should be what He is—and more than content: ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. We have learnt to see that the essential character of this goodness is love of the kind made manifest in Jesus Christ, in whom we see ‘what love might be, hath been, indeed, and is’. We are to ask how far this revelation will cast light on His exercising His sovereignty in such a way as to allow the evils in creation to be what they actually are.

The parable of the labourers in the vineyard16 provides an illuminating illustration of the way in which our existing categories both help us to understand the revelation and are modified in the understanding. At first hearing it seems unjust that those who had borne the burden and heat of the day should be given no greater reward than those who had been hired at the eleventh hour. How can the ruler of the universe be just if this is how he exercises his sovereignty? But think of it like this. Imagine yourself to be a Christian who for many years has been trying to live a Christian life, saying your prayers, going to church, living a disciplined life which involves the denial to yourself of many pleasures and indulgences. Imagine yourself, being such a one, to be thinking about and praying for a friend who has no belief in God, for whom life has been a series of opportunities for enjoying the things that you, because of your Christianity, have had to do without. Whatever your Christianity may have cost you, for the privilege and joy that have come to you through faith in Christ it has been well worth while, and you cannot help praying that your friend may come to share these too. Now suppose that while you are praying there comes into your mind a questioning thought: would it not be unjust and unfair for your friend by a conversion late in life to be admitted to share equally with yourself the joys and privileges that are yours through bearing the burden and heat of the day for forty years or more? It comes into your mind, but it is a thought you cannot think. You cannot think it because, if you really love your friend, you are linked with him in a relationship in which such questions are not asked. Just or not, fair or not, you want him to have the best that can be hoped for, in this world and the next. The parable opens our eyes to catch a glimpse of a world in which such questions have no place, for all its inhabitants are linked together in such bonds of love.

Our world is not like that. We cannot love like that, except fitfully and here and there. How, then, is it that we can have a glimpse of an understanding of what such a world would be? Because, as we have noticed before, when our eyes are opened our experience of imperfection reveals to us the perfection to which we can aspire.17 At our present stage in the creative process, the stage at which it is only fitfully and here and there that we can love like this, it is usually, if not always, through feelings rooted in the sexual character of our human nature. From the experience of what it is sometimes given to us to feel in connection with those to whom we are physically attracted we can form some idea of a world in which we could care for all men as now we care for him or her. It is from our experience of eros that we begin really to understand what is meant by agape.

Hear a Christian bearing witness to what he learns from the revelation of God in Christ:

It is no happy guess of mine that God is Love. This strange figure on the Cross shows me love—thus and thus God loves me. In that depth and breadth and length, God loves the world.18

Now add to this another element integral to the Christian idea of God, that we think of Him as our Father. In its Christian setting this must be clearly distinguished from apparent parallels wherein to think of God's relation to the world after the analogy of human parenthood takes the place of the Christian doctrine of creation. Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New were Israelites thought of as sons of God in a sense analogous to that in which they were sons of Abraham. It was not in virtue of their physical origin, but of God having called them into a covenant-relationship as His chosen people. The analogy was not with the initial act of procreation but with the enduring relationship of the head of a family to its members as their ruler and protector. Already in Old Testament times fathers knew what it was to feel affection for their children as well as to govern, provide for and protect them. This enriched their thought of how God cares for His people. For us Christians the relationship between our Lord on earth and the Father in heaven, as we can learn about it from the gospel record, is the pattern for all our thought about fatherhood and sonship in heaven and on earth.

We are to think of the Creator as one who thinks and feels like that kind of a father and loves like Christ. This is what we learn if we accept the Christian interpretation of the events which form the substance of the biblical revelation.

(ii) We now go back to what we learnt about the Creator from the manner of His creation, that we can best make sense of it on the hypothesis that His purpose is to create a community of persons endowed with genuine freedom. His omniscience tells him that He can no more produce such persons ready made than He can make a square circle: if He is not to deny His omnipotence by admitting that their creation is beyond Him, He must devise a method through which they can be brought into existence. From the harmony of His omniscience and omnipotence there issues the spatio-temporal process, the mechanism for the individualization of persons and the sphere for their growth in freedom.

Consider further what is implied by saying that our ultimate explanations are to be in terms of God's personal will. We need not assume, as sometimes seems to be supposed, that we have to choose between two alternatives: either to think of God as arbitrarily determining truth and values so that for us the words ‘God is good’ can have no intelligible meaning, or to hold that He is determined by some factor external to Himself, by some rationality which prevents Him from making square circles or some moral force which ensures that God cannot he. When we postulate God the Creator as the ultimate term in our search for an explanation of the universe, we think of Him as the God who makes Himself known to us as He opens the eyes of our minds to understand His manner of working. When we think of Him as rational and good we do not think of Him as a characterless Being conforming to standards external to Himself, but as expressing His own essential character, as expressing that which He is. This is what is meant by saying that in God esse and essentia are one.19

We think of God as willing to create a community of finite beings whose goodness shall be the goodness of genuinely free persons. His essential character, the essentia which is one with His esse, is love of the kind revealed to us in Christ, and the word Father best suggests to our minds the nature of His concern for His creatures. Is it possible that when we think of God like this we can think of Him allowing to exist in His creation the evils of our actual experience?

Last year I suggested that we can go some way towards finding this possible if we think of the endowing of His creatures with genuine freedom as central to the Creator's purpose.20 The Christian revelation dovetails into this hypothesis of natural theology with its message that the God who has willed to create genuinely free beings has taken upon Himself the responsibility for whatever evil such creation may entail. To quote from my earlier work on this subject:

… There is nothing unphilosophical in speaking of the evil in creation presenting a practical problem to God. In religious language, there is nothing irreverent in asking how, in the pre-Christian era of this world's history, the problem of its evil must have appeared to God as a problem for action.

As God surveyed the world, He would see that the evolutionary process of His creation had reached the stage at which, in human beings, endowed as they were with the freedom He had given them to enable them to grow into persons, evil had taken on the form of immorality and sin. How could this world be rescued from its evil without infringement of the creaturely freedom that was essential to the creation of persons? Sin could not be ignored or connived at by the God of righteousness; sinners could not be abandoned by the God of love.…

If we accept the Bible as the record of God's revelation of Himself, we must not shrink from the belief that He has Himself claimed the ultimate responsibility for the evil in His creation. If we seek to excuse Him by the invention of tome theory which will account for it otherwise, we must expect to receive His rebuke: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan: thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men’.21

I have spoken of the Christian revelation as dovetailing into a hypothesis of natural theology. We must not forget that logically both have the same character. The one is the interpretation by human reason of the appearance of human beings and their history in the evolutionary process; the other is the interpretation by human reason of the appearance within that history of the events to which the Bible bears witness. Those of us to whom the latter, equally with the former, approves itself as apprehension of truth, do find in it some further light on the dark mystery of evil. We still have to walk more by faith than by sight. But light shines into the darkness from the faith that the mystery we seek to fathom springs from the intensity of our Creator's care for our freedom. Whether we walk by the path of philosophy, of theology or of religion, we draw nearer to our goal when we think of the ultimate reality not as It but as Him of whom the prophet wrote: ‘He said, Surely they are My people… so He was their Saviour, in all their affliction He was afflicted’.22


Here, if this Christian faith be true, we have discovered the sense in which the Bible is unique as a medium of God's self-revelation. It does not come from its writers having been inspired to surpass all other men in moral and spiritual insight, but from the fact that the events to which they bore witness were those in which God was surmounting the difficulties inherent in His will to create genuinely free beings. If in theological language we call this His redemptive, as distinct from His creative, activity, we must be careful not to press the distinction so as to think of it as an afterthought, a remedy devised to recover from ‘a divine fiasco’.23 The will to create persons endowed with genuine freedom includes within it the will to remedy their misuse of it in such a way as not to set aside but to set forward their growth in true freedom. The Christian gospel is the proclamation that actually, in the history of this world, God has been at work, and is still at work, doing this. We are not to proclaim this gospel either as derived from a divinely guaranteed manual of doctrinal information or as a theory issuing from the minds of men specially endowed with religious genius. We are to proclaim it as the true interpretation of a series of events, starting with the story of Abraham, continuing in that of the children of Israel, culminating in the coming of Christ and issuing in the history of the Christian Church. If we want to commend it to others we have to do what we do in all spheres of discussion: we have to explain how we see the evidence and ask, ‘Cannot you see it for yourselves?’24

In saying this I am not intending in any way to undervalue he extent to which the Bible comes to us as the witness of men gifted with inspired insight into the truths of God. It may be that the uniqueness of their witness is in part due to the Hebrew race having been such as to produce men apt to receive such gifts of insight; and that this underlies the enduring value of the Bible as an aid to devotion. What I am denying is that the uniqueness with which I am now concerned in this lecture was a uniqueness in their bodily, mental or spiritual characteristics. It was the uniqueness of that to which they bore witness. Their insights were inevitably coloured by the outlook of their age and culture. We have to do our best to understand and allow for the colouring, asking what the truth must have been, and be, if they wrote of it like that. We grasp the true uniqueness of the Christian revelation when as a result we say, ‘Yes, now we see for ourselves that this is the story of God rescuing His creation from evil’.

This is a uniqueness which does not require us to shut our eyes to the truth and the value of God's revelation of Himself in other ways and through other channels. Undoubtedly the Christian creed has in its content certain standing truths about God, as that He is the Creator of the universe whose essential nature is love. Moreover, if the Christian is asked on what grounds he believes in these truths, he will reply that they are implied by his acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. They are thus, for him, part and parcel of the biblical revelation. But they are not the specifically biblical, the specifically Christian, element in that revelation; and if in Greek, Persian, Indian, or Chinese writings, or anywhere else, he finds teaching which bears witness to such truths, he will welcome it as coming from the one true God who reveals Himself at sundry times in divers manners as and when and where He will. In order to maintain the uniqueness of the biblical revelation it is not necessary to assert that men who have never heard of Christ are on that account unable to hold and teach truths about God through which men may live lives pleasing to Him. That a certain streak of history embodies the unrepeated and unrepeatable acts of God for the rescue of His creation from evil is the specifically Christian content of the revelation, the gospel which we hold in trust to proclaim to all mankind.

More than once last year I distinguished the Christian doctrine of creation from the metaphysic of absolute idealism. On one occasion also I remarked that the time would come when we would be able to estimate the value of its contribution.25 That time has now come. The account of the Christian gospel which I have been giving in this lecture brings out its similarity to the idealist teaching. In both the centre of interest is the activity of God manifesting Himself in the transforming of evil into good. When one sees this one can understand how it was that half a century ago this philosophy was widely welcomed by Christians as rightly interpreting their faith, that when I was ordained, a book prescribed to be read by candidates for ordination in the diocese of Winchester in the year 1913 was Pringle-Pattison's Gifford Lectures on The Idea of God in Recent Philosophy. Both then and now, to think of the ultimate reality as God transforming evil into good is more akin to Christian faith than to think of it as a meaningless interplay of impersonal forces inexplicably giving birth to human beings and human society.26 Indeed, when I reflect upon what I believe to be the gist of the biblical revelation, that it tells of God claiming responsibility for having allowed the existence of evil and taking upon Himself to overcome it, I have to ask myself wherein this differs from what the idealists were saying.

As I have repeatedly reminded you, sooner or later all human thought comes up against the fundamental antinomy: how can we make sense of the universe and our own existence, seeing that to do so requires the acknowledgment of both their reality and God's perfection?27 Where all have to acknowledge mystery which neither I nor you nor any creed, philosophy, or school of thought can claim to have dispelled, it ill becomes us to dismiss with scorn any of those who have wrestled profoundly with its problems. For reasons that I have given I think that the Christian doctrine of creation enables us to maintain a truer estimate of the reality of certain elements in our experience than does the idealist metaphysic, and that the Christian doctrine of God, which enables us to seek our ultimate explanations in terms of His personal will, throws some light on the difficulty which that metaphysic was devised to surmount. But to these idealists, as to pragmatists and behaviourists,28 although we cannot go all the way with them, we owe a debt of gratitude for their contribution to our understanding of the nature of the mystery with which we have to deal.

  • 1.

    Vol. I, Lecture IX.

  • 2.

    Above, pp. 29 ff.

  • 3.

    E.g., in M. Knight, op. cit., doubtless referring to De Ordine I.

  • 4.

    Vol. I, pp. 199 ff.

  • 5.

    See Vol. I, pp. 106 ff., 145 ff.; above, p. 34; and below, p. 180. Also my Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 143 ff.

  • 6.

    A. Nygren: Commentary on Romans (London, 1952), p. 365.

  • 7.

    H. G. Wells: God the Invisible King (London, 1917), p. ix.

  • 8.

    See Vol. I, p. 104.

  • 9.

    Vol. I, p. 82.

  • 10.

    ‘With him the chief purpose of the incarnation is the communication of knowledge—fuller knowledge of the truth about God and human life than the world had ever known before.’ H. Rashdall: The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London, 1919), p. 214. See also below, p. 227.

  • 11.

    The Faith and Modern Thought (London, 1910), p. 135.

  • 12.

    See The Doctrine of the Atonement (London, 1951).

  • 13.

    Above, pp. 38 ff.

  • 14.

    Vol. I, pp. 218 ff.

  • 15.

    Vol. I, pp. 135, 143 ff.

  • 16.

    St. Matt. xx. 1–16.

  • 17.

    Vol. I, p. 193.

  • 18.

    L. Menzies: Retreat Addresses of Edward Keble Talbot (London, 1953), p. 133.

  • 19.

    See Vol. I, pp. 199 ff.

  • 20.

    Vol. I, pp. 203 ff.

  • 21.

    The Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 69, 77

  • 22.

    Isa. lxiii. 8, 9.

  • 23.

    Robert Bridges: The Testament of Beauty, I, 476.

  • 24.

    See Vol. I, p. 104.

  • 25.

    Vol. I, p. 39.

  • 26.

    On this see also The Doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 124 ff.

  • 27.

    Vol. I, pp. 68, 133.

  • 28.

    Vol. I, pp. 180 ff.