Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ and Evils: Assessing an Aspect of Marilyn McCord Adams's Theodicy

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ and Evils: Assessing an Aspect of Marilyn McCord Adams's Theodicy

Article excerpt

Review Article

The problem of reconciling the evils of the world with the existence of omnipotent Goodness is not, despite recent critiques to the contrary, a sheerly "modern," Enlightenment problem. Thomas Aquinas was well aware that evil constitutes a prima facie objection to the existence of God, and his reply to this objection at the beginning of the Summa theologiae is instructive. He quotes Augustine, to the effect that God would not have allowed evil to be, were he not able to bring out of evil a greater good. Exactly what, for Thomas, this greater good consists in is a further question, but at least we may reasonably infer that the specification is to be looked for within the Christian dispensation which is the subject matter of the rest of the Summa.

Another, quite different way to approach the "problem of evil" takes as one of its methodological premises the notion that a satisfactory solution must be one that pertains not only to the world in which, as it actually exists, God has brought or is bringing "greater good" out of evil, but also to every other possible world. This approach calls for a solution that is necessary in the sense that it is independent of the contingencies of history. The later Scholastics, notably William of Ockham, made possibility and necessity their touchstones, and much the same emphasis has characterized the analytical movement in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion, down to the present.

Although she is both an Ockham scholar and an adherent of the analytical school, Marilyn McCord Adams has found herself dissatisfied with current discussion of whether God and evils can both exist. As she rightly notes, it is a very abstract discussion, which in Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God' she aims to push towards greater concreteness in two ways. On the one hand, she concentrates not on evil-in-general, but on what she calls "horrendous evils"-massive, overwhelming, intense, or extreme instances which seemingly make it impossible for the life of anyone who experiences them to be for him or her a good. On the other hand, by way of mitigating if not removing the incompatibility of such evils with divine goodness, Adams proposes that the "received standard theism" on which analytic philosophers have been accustomed to exercise their ingenuity needs to be expanded. Instead of arguing on "religion-neutral" grounds, she draws on a variety of "resources" that include elements of the doctrinal tradition of Christianity.

In particular, orthodox Christology, as defined by the council of Chalcedon, gives Adams a major (though not the only) component of her argument for holding that horrendous evils do not make it intellectually impossible to believe in God. I will try to suggest that, in this regard at least, her position is not so stable as it might be. Chalcedonian Christology should indeed play a role in expounding a Christian understanding of the relation between evils (horrendous or otherwise) and God. But it cannot serve the function that Adams wants it to serve without at the same time calling into question some of the postulates, stated and unstated, which on her position define that function. Stated in "Lonerganian" terms, then, my argument is a small and partial application of the functional specialty "dialectic." It aims to develop a position and reverse a counterposition.2 The position is that the Incarnation has a bearing on the "problem of evil." The counterposition regards conceiving the God in relation to whose existence evil presents a problem.


Christology enters the argument of Adams's book at two main points. The first is her discussion of how the calculus of purity and defilement might serve as an alternative or supplement to moral categories in conceiving horrendous evil. After summarizing Mary Douglas's sociological thesis in Purity and Danger, and noting its correspondences with Levitical prescriptions and proscriptions,3 Adams shifts to the book of Job to speculate that the metaphysical roots of evil-as-defilement are to be found, first, in the "size gap" between divine being and creaturely being, and second, in the "metaphysical straddling" that characterizes the human compound of body and soul, matter and mind, the corporeal and the spiritual. …

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