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The Irenaean Theodicy and Its Problems

February 25, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
John Hick

Image courtesty of superscholars.org

I recently learned that John Hick has passed away at the age of 90. I have been holding on to this piece for quite some time, as I feel I haven’t quite said what I want to say, or am not saying it quite as succinctly as I would like. Regardless, I would like to post this in memory of John Hick, with whom I have almost always disagreed but always enjoyed reading nevertheless. As always, please feel free to offer your critiques and comments, especially since I view this as a fairly rough piece.

John Hick begins his explication of the Irenaean Theodicy by briefly summarizing and simultaneously discounting the Augustinian approach. I shall not spend much more time than Hick does in defining the Augustinian approach, and the only reason I do so at all is to offer a companion against which Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy might be compared as divergent from traditional Christian theodicy. In short, the Augustinian model follows a traditional Christian viewpoint of creation and the fall of man. It postulates that men (and angels) were created as perfect, free, and finite beings who fell from perfection as a consequence of their misuse of freedom.[1] Hick states that, “the Augustinian approach…hinges upon the idea of the fall as the origin of moral evil, which has in turn brought about the almost universal carnage of nature.”[2] An integral piece of Augustinian Theodicy inherent in thinkers all the way from St. Augustine to Alvin Platinga is the free-will defense against the Problem of Evil. This defense chiefly rests upon the idea that God’s creation was entirely perfect and yet man and angels chose to sin of their own free choice, which resulted in the evil that we now see present in the fallen world.

Hick rejects this view on the account that few contemporary Christians still believe that man was created fully formed and that the Biblical accounts are not factual but rather illustrative.[3] Specifically, the Augustinian account fails to make room for evolution or development of the species, since it assumes that God created man fully formed. In place of the Augustinian model, Hick offers up an Irenaean Theodicy based on the theodicy of St. Irenaeus which avoids these problems rather neatly. In his review of Hick’s theodicy[4], Rowe calls the Irenaean Theodicy a “historically significant, although less dominant, Christian theodicy.”[5] Particularly relevant because it successfully responds to the issue of evolution is the Irenaean Theodicy’s dual stage conception of human development: the first stage as man’s creation in God’s “image” and the second stage as man’s creation in God’s “likeness”.[6]

The Irenaean Alternative

Hick compares the first stage, that of man made in God’s image, with the contemporary idea of the evolution of the homo sapien. In this stage, man is simply another form of life in nature. However, early men for Hick are “intelligent, ethical, and religious animals.”[7] Despite this higher nature, homo sapiens are distinct from the fully-formed man in the Augustinian view. Where Adam and Eve are perfectly whole in all of their capacities upon creation, “Existence “in the image of God” was [in contrast] a potentiality for knowledge of and relationship with one’s maker, rather than such knowledge and relationship as a fully realized state.”[8] Thus this first stage shows man as a yet undeveloped being that nevertheless possesses the raw materials for spiritual and moral maturity. The second stage, that of man’s likeness to God, is the stage in which Hick believes humanity to currently be. Human beings in this stage are brought closer to God’s likeness through their own free actions. An important distinction to note here is that Irenaeus reversed the Augustinian timeline of humanity, shifting from decay to development. For Augustine our origin was our perfection, a state from which we inevitably fell. Contrary to this, Irenaeus saw our perfection as the summit to which we advance and one that lay at the end of our development.[9]

Working off of this developmental image of mankind, Hick asks the pivotal question for the Irenaean Theodicy: why “should humanity have been created as an imperfect and developing creature rather than as the perfect being whom God is intending to create[?]”[10] To this end he introduces two explanations for this: our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. Together these form the basis for his Soul-Making theodicy of human development. Regarding the second relationship, that of the individual to other individuals, Hick articulates a picture that requires suffering in order for human beings to develop compassion for one another. If in our world only the unjust were punished and the just were spared all evils, then if our counterpart experienced suffering we would know that he deserved it. If all evil actions were punished, then “truly moral action, action done because it is right, would be impossible.”[11] Thus indiscriminate evil builds mutual love and caring among humans, because “the righteous as well as the unrighteous are alike struck down by illness and afflicted by misfortune.”[12] In this way we develop love and compassion as individuals and a society, and take one more step towards the perfect end state which God intended for us. In this particular piece, Hick does not address perhaps the greatest evil inherent in this system: that God allows or directly causes widespread suffering on quite literally global and historical scales in order that some humans might develop compassion for one another. Such a trade off seems questionable at best and morally reprehensible at worst.

Regarding our relationship to God, Hick argues that if we were created in perfection with divine knowledge of God, the disparity between our finite nature and God’s infinite nature would make impossible any truly free or autonomous choice. On this Hick asks, “For what freedom could finite beings have in an immediate consciousness of the presence of the one who has created them, who knows them through and through, who is limitlessly powerful as well as limitlessly loving and good, and who claims their total obedience?”[13] To this end, Hick claims that to truly be a person, a creature must be created at an “epistemic distance” from God, and must live in a world where God’s presence is not immediately certain. It is with this point that I turn to my main criticisms of Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy, skipping the obvious moral travesty that would be God’s wholesale blind punishment of humanity in order that some might become more developed souls and be closer to him.

The Problem

The theodicy Hick presents is that he fails to qualify exactly how human beings who are perfectly good as a result of this soul-making process are of a better value than human beings who were created perfectly good from the start, who (freedom aside) are metaphysically possible. He assumes this is intuitive, but I do not think it is. Hick admits that it is logically possible for God to have created a perfectly moral and perfectly free being who, by virtue of her nature, would never be inclined to sin. He likens this state to Newton’s first law of motion, saying that “perfectly good beings would continue in the same moral course forever, with nothing in the environment to throw them off it.” This raises the question of why God would bother with any sort of soul-making process if he could skip all of that and make perfectly free and moral beings. Hick’s response lacks substance and force. On this he says:

The answer, I suggest, appeals to the principle that virtues that have been formed within the agent as a hard-won deposit of right decisions in situations of challenge and temptation are intrinsically more valuable than ready-made virtues created within her without any effort on her own part. This principle expresses a basic value judgment that cannot be established by argument but which one can only present, in the hope that it will be as morally plausible, and indeed compelling, to others as to oneself.[14]

I reject this type of value judgment for a number of reasons. First, this answer begs the question of value itself by asserting that “hard-won” virtues are intrinsically more valuable than those virtues that have always been present. However, it makes no sense to ascribe these types of value judgments to virtues in human beings, which serve as attributes.

Let us take George W. and Abraham L. as an example. George, by way of his upbringing or any number of elements, has always been honest – in fact, he is so honest that he cannot tell a lie and has always been perfectly honest. Abe, on the other hand, did not have the fortune to be born so perfect. He had a normal upbringing, and his parents never scolded him for telling lies. Over a period of time, and after a myriad of negative experiences and hardships caused by his deceit, Abe comes to learn that honesty is the best policy (sorry for being trite.) Now, let us suppose we can narrow down the exact day that Abe has truly earned his honesty and understood that he ought never to tell a lie. And let us also suppose that we can know for certain that he shall never tell another lie as long as he lives. On that day, wouldn’t both George and Abe be equally honest men? True, one has been honest for longer. But they are necessarily equal in their virtue. Hick would have us believe that Abe, due to having “earned” his honesty by trial and error, misstep, pain, and suffering, possesses superior honesty. But this cannot be! For any statement regarding Abe that might qualify his honesty as having more worth than George’s concerns separate attributes, not his honesty itself.

For example, Hick might argue that, because Abe has witnessed the pain that lies can cause loved ones, he can more greatly appreciate the value of being honest. George, on the other hand, is honest because he is honest. While George may be aware of the short-term benefits of deceit, he is not inclined to lie due to his nature and thus, while certainly honest, he does not appreciate or fully understand the gravity of the virtue itself and the stakes of the matter. However, such a scenario hides that the conversation has shifted away from honesty and onto another attribute, in this instance knowledge. In this case, though George and Abe are equally honest, though they may have unequal knowledge of the virtue, as Abe would seem to have more complete knowledge of the importance of being honest than George.

We can see that earned-vs-given does not work in a variety of other situations where attributes are applied and attributes are earned. If Roger is born with the ability to run 9 mph, and Tom is born with the ability to run 6mph but practices for 10 years until he can run 9mph, their ability to run does not differ. We cannot say that Tom is a better runner, because to do so means they are not of equal skill and is tantamount to arguing that, in Hick’s case, God is incapable of creating a human being who is perfectly virtuous. Similarly, if we focus on a virtue other than “goodness”, perhaps determination, it still cannot be that Tom and Roger possesses identical determination but somehow Tom’s determination is more intrinsically valuable.  And even if it did, that is a discussion of determination and not ability to run and we are again discussing a different attribute than the one with which we began.

Lastly, as a throw-away point, if Hick’s argument is truly that virtue gained as a result of development is intrinsically better than that which simply is virtuous, then wouldn’t this necessarily apply to God himself? In this way it is absurd to think that God would somehow be intrinsically better if he had worked for his virtue than if he had had it all along. While apologists will certainly claim that God is the exception, he is fully developed, his nature differs from ours, etc. this would nevertheless seem to follow from Hick’s argument.

Concluding Remarks:

Hick markets the Irenaean theodicy as a viable alternative to the more traditional Augustinian theodicy, chiefly because it does not explicitly conflict with developments in evolutionary biology. But this alternative creates equally problematic situations. At root, the issue lies with an inconsistency in the trend of Hick’s argument. If God is able to create human beings who are perfectly virtuous and never sin, and yet does not do so because he wishes instead to create whole human beings who must work for an even greater level of virtue, then (1) surely God is not omnipotent or (2) these two levels of virtue are not equal. For, if human beings who earn their virtue are intrinsically more virtuous than any who could be created by God, then God’s omnipotence is violated and the entire Christian enterprise is called into question. On the other hand, how could God create perfectly virtuous beings who could be more virtuous if they were instead created at an epistemic distance from him?  At the heart of this last point lies the quite obvious problem that virtues cannot both be equal and unequal; Honesty won cannot be equal to and yet better than honesty given. Either God is incapable of creating us with perfect virtue, or intrinsic virtue is equal to given virtue and there is little palatable reason to posit the Irenaean alternative, since it necessitates God’s indiscriminate punishment of mankind.

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  1. Adam
    April 8, 2012 at 7:37 PM

    I agree with you entirely. The Irenaean theodicy does not solve the problem of evil.

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