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Is evil privation?

It has become an almost undisputed datum in contemporary theology that evil is to be understood in the Augustinian manner as a privation of goodness. Evil has no reality or being as such. Rather it is simply a lack, a minus within the plenitude of goodness (See for example Confessions VII 13[19]).

This sounds absolutely lovely and certainly gives theologians a great way to posses answers.

However lately I’ve been thinking through some problems with Augustine’s account. Three things:

  1. Its unclear why a lack of goodness necessarily makes something evil. My biceps are probably not as strong as the could be. They lack strength, which is good for biceps to have. Doesn’t seem evil. Or to use a specifically moral example, it would be good if I gave $100 to every needy beggar I ever came across. But instead I’m more likely to give a couple bucks if I have it on me. Is there any evil going on here? I doubt it. At the very least there is no necessary evil going on here, but there is a certainly “lack” of goodness.
  2. There’s absolutely nothing in the Bible I can find that remotely describes evil this way. If it is in there, show it to me. I can’t find anything that gives even a hint that we should understand evil as a lack of goodness in Scripture.
  3. Not only does the Bible not describe evil in this way, it actually describes it in ways that seem to outrightly contradict it. All throughout the NT Paul and the other apostolic authors speak of evil as involving cosmic forces, powers, demonic agents, Satan, etc. Evil is not talked about as a lack of goodness, but an utterly real group of forces of darkness. Obviously we need to work hard at interpreting this language, but I don’t see a way to make it square up with the Augustinian notion without very intentionally bringing a pre-determined axe to bear on the Bible.

Now, of course this will bring about the oft-thrown down gauntlet that “you’re ontologizing evil!” (here’s looking at you, Horstkoetter). In response to that I find myself inclined to say “So?” Saying that evil exists or has some sort of being is not, prima facie problematic as far as I can see. Now, to be sure it would be problematic to claim that evil and God are both equally ontologically ultimate; that would be to end up Manichean. But that is decidedly something different than recognizing that evil has (contingent) being in some sense. Obviously that one needs to be unpacked more, but at the very least I’m hoping to forestall the facile accusations of Manicheanism that are so readily made these days.


  1. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    The way I’ve explained it to my students is via the classical “problem of evil,” where one has to deal with the mutual incompatibility of these three statements:
    1. God is all-powerful.
    2. God is good.
    3. Evil exists.

    Traditional theology solves the problem by negating #3, which is ironically the only one we have direct and unequivocal experience of. Many contemporary theologians want to negate #1 in some way.

    Maybe eventually we’ll all just settle on negating #2.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  2. JohnO wrote:

    I wish you luck! To meet your first example; I don’t think the lack of potentiality creates a privation, and thus evil. Augustine implicitly talks often about our lack of potential in certain areas – and in most areas these are not described as evil, nor as privation. I think that a given nuance would overcome this objection. As for the other two I think you’ve got a main point. As far as I’ve seen Augustine’s description has been the most compelling to me thus far. So again, I say good luck!

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  3. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Perhaps evil is something like the reifying of being-as-such. In other words, perhaps it is not the “ontologization of evil” that is the problem, but the inability to think and to act otherwise than ontologically — to map one’s world onto the coordinates of whatever it is one takes to be being-itself.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink
  4. Adam Nigh wrote:

    I don’t see Augustine denying #3 as much as qualifying it. Or, you could say he denies that evil exists but affirms that evil happens, which is what we really have direct and unequivocal experience of. I take his account in the Enchiridion 10-12 to be fairly the same as Barth’s in CD IV.3.1 173-180 in speaking of evil as an ‘impossible possibility’ where evil’s presence does not ultimately call #1 or #2 into question, but gives them a dramatic scenario in which to be played out and manifested eschatologically.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I agree entirely. The problem is with the metaphysical priority of ontology, so to speak.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  6. Kampen wrote:

    I agree with Adam. Also, read Pierre Gilbert’s recent book “Demons, Lies, & Shadows.” (He was one of my OT profs).

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  7. Marvin wrote:

    It’s pretty easy to square #3 with a sense of evil as privation by understanding the powers as fallen, as turning away from God and turning to themselves. The powers’ pride is a lack of humility; their cruelty a privation of love.

    That said, evil as privation presumes a doctrine of creation out of nothing that Genesis 1:1 can no longer bear. If creation is God’s ordering of chaos, and the Bible is silent about the origin of this chaos, what we’re left with is a semi-Manichaeism, a real, but lopsided struggle between good and evil.

    I like Adam’s summary. I’d just add that Walter Brueggemann is at least one theologian who seems ready to opt for #2, certainly in his lectures if not in his books.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  8. Marvin wrote:

    I meant opting to negate #2.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Halden, good questions. However, I am not quite sure that your first point is really fair to Augustine. What we perceive as ‘evil,’ for Augustine, is the lack of goodness, yes. But I am not sure it logically works if we say it the other way around–that is, that all ‘lack of goodness’ is necessarily evil. Perhaps I’m wrong on this score, but this is not the way I read Augustine’s point, at least as articulated in the Confessions Book VII.

    Also it seems that Augustine makes a point to distinguish between moral evil and ontological evil. ‘Lack of goodness’ talk is usually not applied to morality; instead, he talks about the “corruption of the will.” The way I see it Augustine is trying avoid easy ways of absolving ourselves of responsibility for our sin. For Augustine, if we speak in terms of an ontological evil, at least in the Manichean sense, then we too often begin to blame some ontological evil reality rather than taking appropriate responsibility for our moral weakness.

    As far as the NT account of ‘the powers’ goes it seems the one thing we can say for sure is that the powers have been subdued and some sense already broken of power as such. So, even from a biblical perspective, I think we’re bound to say at some level that ‘evil’ has no power as such, but if we leave it at that I think we perhaps risk slipping into an over-realized eschatology.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  10. Daniel wrote:

    I think Greg Boyd’s “God at War” and “Satan and the problem of Evil” would be very helpful in this discussion, and he refuses Augustine’s definition evil and replaces it with the story of Zosia (A Jewish girl in Nazi Germany had her eyes ripped out in front of her mother, and then was sent away because obviously a eye-less Jew is of no worth to the Nazi’s).

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  11. I think this is right. The first objection misses its mark, since no one argues, to my knowledge, that every absence of good is evil, only that evil, when it “exists,” is an absence of the good.

    The second objection doesn’t much bother me—plenty of philosophical descriptions that are perfectly compelling can’t be found in the Bible. The third might be true, though you’d have to make a longer argument. Augustine spoke of evil as “an utterly real group of forces of darkness” all the time, and never thought it contradicted the philosophical description of evil as a privation of goodness.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  12. Thomas wrote:

    “Saying that evil exists or has some sort of being is not, prima facie problematic as far as I can see.”

    Really? You don’t see a problem with making God the cause of evil?

    As far as I’m concerned, this is handled thoroughly in Denys’ “Divine Names”.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I see a bigger problem with making God omni-causal.

    Pseudo-Denys doesn’t really offer us much of anything helpful, and certainly not anything biblical. He’s about as washed-up nepolatonic as you could get. Worse than Augustine ever was on that score.

    But more importantly, your comment just gives evidence of the problem Nate diagnosed above, namely of only being able to think “ontologically.”

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  14. Thomas wrote:

    If you don’t consider God to be the cause of creation, then I’m not sure you should be calling Denys unbiblical. And your post doesn’t evince much familiarity with Denys, since he explains quite coherently how, for example, evil does not properly exist, but beings are nevertheless called evil. Neither do you distinguish between difference sorts of lacks, which is essential to this discussion.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  15. My comment on ontologizing evil was, that in the conversation, it seemed you were setting up evil on its own — with its own foundation — rather than something parasitic on the good. I wonder if we can understand evil as the warping of good (perhaps from what is fitting and telos), rather than simply ‘lacking’ good. This may help bring the biblical text and philosophical definitions into agreement.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    I said nothing about God not being the creator. Geez, obfuscate much? See Nate’s comment again.

    I get that you love Pseudo-Denys and seem to think he’s the answer to all these problems. Good for you if that helps you have answers. Unfortunately I don’t see how his views are compelling or how they take seriously either the Bible or the actual experience of evil in the world.

    Now by all means proceed to pontificate some more about how much smarter you are than people who want to do more than merely name drop some patristic texts without bothering to do any real engagement with the question.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I agree. Just had to give a wink in your direction since that’s what got me thinking about the matter.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  18. But saying evil is privation is the only way to say it consistently within terms of ontology. There are other ways to speak of evil than ontologically (I may be repeating your point). Theology has more than one mode of discourse, of course, and in different grammars/discourses we may need to say the same thing differently (And, I might add, I think both God and “evil” both exceed linguistic circumscription).
    I would agree with Nate if he is saying that it is a problem to be unable to think and act other than ontologically, but I would disagree if he means that we therefore should not ever think and act with reference to ontology.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Thomas, I’ll leave Nate to reply about what he strictly means, but for my part I think this is helpful in that it gets us moving towards how to maybe approach the question better. From where I stand the one thing that I can say for sure is that the claim that “evil is privation” is utterly inadequate to inform any meaningful moral and/or biblical discussion of the issue.

    Now, if it is still correct, within the terms of ontology to call it that, then ok. Maybe. But the problem as I see it is that the ontological scripting of evil as privation seems precisely intended to deal with the moral and biblical problem that evil is. And this, it seems to me, is precisely what such ontological statements fail to do.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    If the gloves are coming of, it’s worth saying that you have obviously failed, to this point, to understand the tradition of “platonic” thought in anything like a sympathetic fashion and your interaction with it has been entirely reactionary and typically third or fourth order. I’m not saying anyone is bound to agree with it or think that it is compatible with Christianity or reality, but you’ve made it clear via this post and it’s comments, as well as many others, that you don’t actually know much about what you speak in this regard. I’m saying that as charitably as I can. There is plenty of room to debate these questions, but you have failed in exercising due diligence in attempting to understand the positions you critique.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  21. Aric Clark wrote:

    I agree with some who’ve said here that ontology in general takes us the wrong direction. Maybe I haven’t read enough to understand properly, but it seems difficult to talk much about the “existence” independently of adjectives. I mean “Good” doesn’t really exist either, does it? Good is a descriptor. Things can be or seem good from a certain perspective and that is about as much as we can say. Surely we might argue that there are some things which seem good from a vast majority of perspectives, but I doubt we could come up with more than a handful of examples.

    So I think talking about either “good” or “evil” in ontological terms might be a red herring.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    I’ll grant you that I haven’t exposited in a thorough systemic way my problem with the “platonic tradition.” Not in this immediate blog post anyway. Frankly we both know that would be impossible. None of that however means that I have failed to understand it, and honestly, I think you know that.

    So sure, you can say that I haven’t proven anything or set forth a systematic treatise dealing with all the relevant issues that pertain to these question. But I never intended to do that nor can blogs, as far as I’ve ever seen, ever do that. Nor have any of the exponents of the “platonic tradition” made any effort to show what’s being allegedly misunderstood and how it ought to be understood. People simply seem content to retort with throwaway lines and accusations that clearly I’m not privy to their more substantive understanding of the matter. Well, if that’s true then some sort of counter argument or substantive response would be nice.

    If I’ve been reactionary its been to Thomas’s tripe and throwaway lines. Admittedly those piss me off.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    Me too.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Brian, just wanted to say, thanks for this point, I find it helpful. I agree that my first thought is not really that damning. The whole post is more me just trying to think through the matter afresh, of course.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  25. I think it is an intentional failure to “deal” with evil, a failure I want to repeat. I am with you in saying that “evil is privation” is inadequate, but I want to extend this to any “dealing” with evil.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    Of course. I have no interest in ever “explaining” evil. This sounds like fodder for another post…

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  27. Hill wrote:

    All I’m saying is that you claim to not find the “evil as privation” tradition convincing, but your characterization of much of the thought underlying it belies a failure to engage it first hand in an honest way. I was wrong to say a failure to understand, because I am certain you are capable of understanding it. I really think you have just failed to interact with it in a genuine enough fashion to warrant actual incredulity at some of it’s conclusions. I wish I had the chops to do some edifying on the matter, but I am in the midst of genuine engagement myself. All I can say is that it has been illuminating (and not in the sense of coming around to some sort of ideological position). Just that smart people have been talking about these things for quite some time, and there is almost more to it, but it takes time to mine it out.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    And I do want to “mine it out” as you say. I hope to do more of that and am looking forward to reading McCabe’s now book on God and Evil in the theology of Thomas Aquinas as soon as it comes out. I’m sure it will be the best thing on the topic to come from the “tradition” in a while.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  29. Hill wrote:

    You might not enjoy it, but entirety of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus can be completed in a day. I think that would be a great blog series, especially with some pulled quotes. Probably would be a great penitential act on your part, as well.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  30. Thomas wrote:

    The reason I mention Denys is because his discussion of evil is a excellent and pretty thorough introductory summary, and because you don’t seem to be familiar with the basics either of the arguments for it (not even being able to see why the existence of evil is problematic), or for its application (asserting the existence of evil beings as a problem). It would be one thing if you were arguing that, for example, the traditional argument inconsistently maintains the existence of evil things while holding evil as such to be non-existent. Instead you just posit as a problem something that has been much discussed without any apparent recognition that advocates of the doctrine of privatio boni have argued that it is not a problem. Another example is that you conflate carentia (mere lack of a certain property) with privatio, which is a well-known distinction. Your first objection is predicated on this mistake.

    As “omnicausality”, if it doesn’t mean that God is the cause of all things that are through his act of creation or his self-subsistence, then no-one has actually committed the error of making God “omnicausal”. If evil has existence, and God is the cause of all things that exist, then God is the cause of evil. It’s that simple (making, of course, the distinction between primary and secondary causality).

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  31. Done much on divine perfections? This would challenge such notion that there is any perspective. I suggest a look at Thomas on this.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  32. kim fabricius wrote:

    If you want to get rid of #2, don’t you really want to get rid of #1 along with it? And wouldn’t a deity who is #1 but not #2 leave us with the God of nominalism-gone-mad?

    Some theologians – the process theologians – do want to jettison #1. Others, however, to avoid the pitfalls of certain repugnant forms of Calvinism, want to recalibrate it. Perhaps that is also what we need to do with #2. Here is the Thomist Herbert McCabe:

    “It is true that not everything we see is evidence for the goodness of God (sin is not evidence for the goodness of God), but the point is that it is not evidence for his badness. This odd situation arises because we do not see the goodness of God in itself. The meaning we give to phrases like ‘the goodness of God’, or the word ‘God’ itself, derives not from what we know of the nature of God but from what we know of creatures. It is as though we only had a few fragments of a map of God. Everything we can see on the map points to his goodness, but there are many bits missing. The holes in the map (sin and evil) are places where God is not shown to be good. They are not places where he is shown not to be good. The world is a bad map of God. But it is not the map of a bad God” (Faith within Reason, p.92).

    (By the way, McCabe is typically hilarious in refuting the suggestion that because evil is a negation it is not real: “If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is no comfort at all to be told that the absence of a parachute is not a real thing at all. When we say, ‘That man has not got a beard’, we cannot ask, ‘Which beard has he not got?’, for there is no such thing as the beard he has not got, and yet his beardlessness is a perfectly real condition” [p. 86].)

    Also, #2 is sometimes parsed as “God is love” . It would be hard to let go of it in that form – I John 4:8. And even in the form “God is good” – Mark 10:18!

    Mind, I guess many of you know Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003), which is certainly a tour de force and reopens the discussion of theodicies and the creatio ex nihilo in an enthralling and compelling way.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  33. Halden wrote:

    I never admitted to feeling penitent!

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  34. Er, when I say “any perspective” I mean any number of perspectives that the adjective good denotes. There is a reason why the Good has an article and is capitalized.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  35. Nate Kerr wrote:

    If I remember correctly (and I am certainly open to being corrected, as I am away from my library), “cause” is actually one of the names/characteristics (perhaps the only such name) that Pseudo-Dionysius does not attribute in an eminent way to God, in the Divine Names.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  36. Chris Donato wrote:

    I’ve also, generally speaking, questioned the ramifications—or unintended consequences—of holding to any sort of privation theory.

    Here’s why:

    1) it’s attempt at theodicy doesn’t work, basically for the same reasons that the so-called “free-will defense” is sketchy. But if that doesn’t sit well, it still doesn’t absolve God; the privation theory still implicates the creator God as the source of the privation.

    2) it’s actually the privation theory that potentially suffers from the Manichean problem: opposites are typically regarded on the same ontological level; the mere concept of negation doesn’t demand non-being. All kinds of things are negated, are opposites, of other things. But they’re all things; they all have being, and they’re typically equal.

    3) it suffers from neoplatonism—contra Scripture, i.e., being slipping into non-being assumes degrees of being. Biblically, God and his creation are; everything else is not.

    4) And finally, to Halden’s #3 above, Scripture never presents evil in this way, i.e., it never speculates as to where evil fits into the metaphysical structure of the universe.

    On a related note, the privation theory potentially reduces evil sin to a mere defect in creation—indeed, in God’s creative act—rather than the rebellion of created persons against their personal creator (among other things). It depersonalizes it and therefore proffers an excuse for the evil one(s)—his/her created finitude and mutability.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  37. Aric Clark wrote:

    Yeah, Kim. There is absolutely no way I am giving up #2. God is good. that is the beginning and end of all theology in my opinion. I’ll give up everything else and be an avowed enemy of whatever anyone calls God if that God is something less than good, something less than love.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  38. Nate Kerr wrote:


    You said: “But saying evil is privation is the only way to say it consistently within the terms of ontology.”

    Hmmm. Maybe. I’m not so sure, though. I think that is the case only if you presume being-itself to be a category of eminent appellation for God. What if God is not being-itself? What if God’s kenotic activity as thought in terms of creation leads us to think of being not as something that God “is” but as the life that God gives? What if God’s kenotic activity is a kind of life-giving poverty of being? Then it might be that evil is not the privation of being so much as it is the possession of being, the lust to “have it” — as one (etymologically speaking) “has” a habit, or virtue, for example. Were we to go on speaking of privation here, we certainly would not be speaking strictly in terms of evil as a privation of being.

    As to the point about thinking and acting with reference to ontology — I would agree. The trick, it seems to me (and here I have learned much from my friend Josh Davis — who works this stuff out in ways that I do not, and who I’m sure would disagree with some of the directions I take this stuff), is to think “being” non-ontologically. The point is not that we don’t talk about being; that is inevitable. The question is rather how it is that we talk about being and what it is that we do with such talk. As I think of it, being is that which comes into our hands, which is there either to be grasped and possessed, or unhanded and transformed under the weight of and in the direction of God’s doxa. Of course, the nature of the work involved in such unhanding needs to be considered. But at the very least, such unhanding and transformation short-circuits the whole idea of being in-itself and as such. And here at least it could be said that we are moving in the direction of relating to being not ontologically, as such, but rather doxologically.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  39. Halden wrote:

    Preach it.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  40. Hill wrote:

    As our dear friend APS has said before, this sounds nice, but it’s doesn’t seem to have any traction outside of a particular language game within a subset of Christianity. In other words, it is basically incomprehensible outside of a (basically) fideist to certain concepts. I don’t say any of this to weigh in on whether or not it is “right” or “wrong,” just in curiosity regarding how this description could possibly have any purchase on someone that hasn’t already bought in, or modes of thought that are not Christian. I would like to be able to explain to someone what doing anything “doxologically” means. Most disagreements on these questions tend to boil down to someone’s failure to be sufficiently doxological, but it’s very difficult to know what that might mean in a contested rhetorical landscape. In other words, every time a discussion ends with the imperative to be more doxological in some fashion, virtually no progress whatsoever has been made in terms of interpersonal understanding.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  41. Halden wrote:

    I’ll let Nate reply if he wants, but in response to your claim that this “doesn’t seem to have any traction outside of a particular language game within a subset of Christianity”, I must say that I fail to see how the privatio tradition fares any better. Clearly it doesn’t have any “traction” either “outside of a particular language game within a subset of Christianity.”

    Not that this settles everything, just saying.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  42. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    I think Augustine’s privation explanation may have been his attempt to formulate an understanding of evil that didn’t automatically lapse into Manichean terms. He had already been part of a cult that held to ontological dualism and was trying to keep some distance from that. In City of God he just flat out states that the origin of the evil will is a mystery. If Augustine ultimately punts on explaining the precise nature (by way of origin) of evil we can hardly imagine we’ll do better. For all the limitations of evil as privation it is still useful if we see it as a partial examination, sort of like penal substitutionary atonement is a partial but by no means complete examination of how we can understand what Christ accomplished on the Cross.

    There is no serious Christian theodicy that can really “absolve” God of bearing responsibility for the existence of evil. I came to that conclusion about twenty years ago early in my college years. In fact the whole point of the cross is that God himself saw that not going to the cross through Christ meant he was, as we might put it, letting himself off the hook for the existence of evil. Since our understanding as Christians is that God is not that sort of God (however often we, in our theology, attempt to make him so) he, through the Son, went to the cross on our behalf. I’ve been disputing for years with some fellow Calvinists that this is the real scandal of the cross they want to avoid. The theological reading I’ve done is limited but Bonhoeffer was the first theologian to articulate the “scandal” this strongly, that in Christ God counts himself guilty of our wrongs. The generosity displayed on the cross may be what makes negating 2 so profoundly unappealing to most Christian thinkers. The only way to negate 2 is to either have a God who does not go to the cross (which means we’re not even dealing with Christian theodicy anymore) or to have a limit on the effect of the cross (i.e. the various forms of limiting the atonement, which (to be fair) is a problem not just with Calvinists but with all Christians who don’t affirm some form of universalism and perhaps even those who do, since a completely universalist approach can start to look suspiciously like a monist/pantheist/panentheist schema that starts to obfuscate other things Christians traditionally affirm).

    All that is to say that to be fair to Augustine, if he ultimately had to plea “Well, I don’t really get it” in City of God I won’t feel bad not getting any further than he did.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  43. I’d really like Nate Kerr to expand on what he means, or has he written about this elsewhere (who has)?

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  44. Halden wrote:

    Tyler, I have to process and write more on this before I say more, but I think Nate’s move from “privation” to “possession” is precisely the right one. And an utterly valuable source to turn on this point is the work of Arthur McGill in his books Suffering and Death and Life. They really get at the ontological issues at work here in a way that I think is quite brilliant and very apropos to this conversation.

    Hope that’s some help.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  45. Hill wrote:

    It actually does, though. I’m not saying it’s obviously right, but it is at least mappable on to lots of commonly understood philosophical concepts. I can explain in a span of 15 minutes the concept of evil as privation to anyone with a college education and there’s a pretty good chance we’ll have a significant amount of shared understanding at the end. I don’t see how that is possible with “doxology” without making a dubious appeal to some kind of interior subjective experience.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  46. Halden wrote:

    I think you’re overreaching. A lot. The only reason privatio makes sense is on the basis of a particularly Christian doctrine of God. If someone doesn’t accept that there’s no way they’ll accept privatio.

    And while you’re fixating a bit on the langauge of doxology here, I don’t think that the position Nate is articulating (as far as I understand it anyway) is any less “explainable.” It seems that what’s being proposed is that we think “being” as the life that is given as gift by God and evil is the attempt to “possess” it rather than handing it over in praise (“doxology”). Seems cogent and explainable to me. Certainly not less so than the notion of privatio.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  47. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I work out what I’m saying above in what will be the third chapter of my forthcoming book. The chapter is entitled: “The Prevenience of God’s Apocalypse: Creation, Sin, and the Being of Poverty.” I am in the midst of working on that chapter now.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  48. Thomas wrote:

    This is because God causes things in a multiplicity of ways. As the Good, he is the cause of all that is insofar as it is. As the Life, he is the cause of all living things insofar as they are living. As Wisdom, he is the cause of all things that have reason. So you’re right that “cause” is not really a divine name in itself, but only because all of the Divine names include already causal implications.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  49. Hill wrote:

    What does it mean to hand over being?

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  50. Halden wrote:

    To love, to give oneself away in love. We do this toward God in worship and towards others in friendship, service, care, etc. That is the handing on of the gift of life (“being”) that God continually gives.

    Here I’m riffing somewhat on McGill’s absolutely excellent account of “ecstatic identity” in Death and Life.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  51. Hill wrote:

    I think what I’m saying here is that privatio boni actually constitutes a self-consistent word game. It wouldn’t have the force it does if it weren’t readily understood. The metaphysical leaps it makes are relatively small and tend to cohere with a shared experience of a certain culture to which the concept is germane. I mean… it’s really not hard to explain. It is something every freshman theology course would require you to understand in more or less complete terms. It even has convenient physical metaphors to help one grasp the possibilities of a non-dualistic conception of good and evil (I’m thinking of light and darkness not being proper opposites).

    Again, I’m not arguing for the truth or falsity of this doctrine, just that it is conceptually rather transparent (even if that is a result of my residing in a particular culture… which happens to be a trivial point). This conception of doxologically relating to being may have a similar transparency to some other culture but I don’t live there and no one else I know lives there either, as far as I can tell, so how are you going to explain it to me? Privatio boni, like much of early Christian orthodoxy, was metaphysically novel without requiring a some sort of radical sublimation into a completely other mode of conceptuality, a phenomenon that very often ends up being a euphemistic reference to an unresolvable and unproductive aporia in one’s thought, which is my concern here.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  52. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I won’t say much here except to say that I take it to be the vocation of the Christian to pray and to worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ in joy and thanksgiving. I take it then that at least a major part of the theologian’s vocation is for her talk of God to be undertaken in such a way as to speak to the ways in which that God ruptures the presumed models and paradigms of human cognition, explanation, and fabulation that we create for ourselves and according to which we are determined to receive and to understand that revelation. And so the theologian’s task it seems to me is to loosen us up a bit from the ties of idolatry that bind us so that we might be free to live free in the face of this self-revealing God. This is not to say that we cannot talk about what is meant by “doxology” in a given context (as I have elsewhere, along with a number of others). But it is to say that when we demand a straight-forward answer to questions like “What is doxology?” we should not be surprised to be met with the same kind of silence which Pilate met with when he asked Christ “What is truth?” Nor should we be surprised if, when we attempt to understand and to name that event of God’s doxa (the event within which the event of our own doxology alone truly unfolds) so as to “place” it within the fractured and balkanized terrain of discourse that is academe for the sake of some kind of philosophically determined and artificially accepted condition of “interpersonal understanding,” Christ rebukes us as he did Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  53. Hill wrote:

    You are using the word “being” for sure, but the phenomenon you are describing obviously does not exhaust it’s meaning. You do not literally cease to exist by “handing over being” in this manner. There are lots of productive (indeed necessary) way to talk about the way in which you “are” even in loving someone else. I’m not denying the narrative force of kenosis. I’m just pointing out that it can’t really do all of the metaphysical heavy lifting required to dispense with “being” altogether.

    For what it’s worth, I think your description of handing on the gift of being in a way that participates in God’s infinite gift is obviously compatible with the best understanding of evil as privation. You actually sound Milbankian!

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  54. Halden wrote:

    I feel like I just explained it rather clearly. Or put differently, I don’t see how any of this is somehow less “self-consistent” than the alternatives, to use your language.

    As far as I can tell you seem to be saying that you don’t think talking about being this way is helpful because it isn’t as easily assimilable to other cultural and philosophical frames of reference. You’ve expressed this under the rubric of “explainablity.” Well, I feel like I’ve explained it in a fairly concise way that isn’t just some ephemism or aporia. You’d actually have to show me how that’s what’s being done if you want me to really take that implication seriously, I guess.

    Not that I think any of this issue of cultural transparency really matters. Whether something can be easily mapped on to cultural or philosophical categories hardly counts for much in terms of establishing what is theologically right.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  55. Hill wrote:

    This is helpful. I wanted to clarify that I’m not so much pointing out an expository failure on your part as I am trying to understand how we handle, in an expository, interpersonal context (i.e. blogs, the encounter with something that cannot be exposited (God’s doxa) for instance. If the long and short of all of this is that “if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me,” then why are we not always silent in the face of the questions of theology generally, choosing rather to pray or carry out works of mercy? How can we even do meaningful, discursive theology without simply repeating Pilate’s question?

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  56. kim fabricius wrote:

    What if God’s kenotic activity is a kind of life-giving poverty of being? Then it might be that evil is not the privation of being so much as it is the possession of being, the lust to “have it” …

    Philippians 2:6:ff. is a good text for Nate’s point, particularly if Paul is deploying an Adam/Christ typology.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  57. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I actually think that what you are saying makes eminent sense, and that this theologically is one of the strongest arguments against the privatio bonum: that to understand this account of evil does not require a metabasis eis allo genos. It does not truly require a “transfiguration” (if you will) of our discourse about being, a transfiguration which presumes nothing less than “a totally other foundation for things” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Lehmann).

    Shall we dare to risk speaking and hearing in parables? Of course, such speaking and hearing would itself require a transfiguration of our presumed modes of understanding, not least of which is that mode of understanding which presumes that talk of “being” demands a logic of identity and correlation. The kingdom is “like this,” Jesus says. And most often he rather crudely and offensively leaves it at that.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  58. Hill wrote:

    It’s unclear in the sense that there is always a remainder of existence (and this existence is actually the existence to which we are called!) after kenosis. It’s almost like the opposite privatio boni in that what is actively sought is unbeing. This is of course not clear, because as I’ve said, the result is not actual non-existence, it is actually the fullness of existence, understood in common English.

    You seem to be advocating a framework of thought that remains untouched by any pre-existing linguistic or cultural framework, and I think there are insurmountable epistemological problems with this, unless one is willing to invoke unmediated revelation of God’s will. That’s fine… we are talking about God after all, but if that is the reality of the situation, again, what is the point of talking about it?

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  59. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  60. Hill wrote:


    I really like what you are saying. My issue is with the maneuver (not necessarily executed by you) where the compelling case you’ve made against metaphysical theology is used to raze a tradition of human groping towards speaking of God only to erect another theology that is equally metaphysical, only now in a covert (and for that reason potentially more sinister) sense. “Being can’t be this or that” I’m ok with. Following that with “because being is actually…” is the problem. I feel like there is a tendency to use “your” thought not as an impetus to move beyond theology, but as a reboot so we can just do different theology which often suffers from precisely the same problems, only more convincingly disguised. I’m totally comfortable with responding to philosophical/theological inquiry with stark, ungraspable parables. They are conversation-enders, but as you’ve mentioned, that’s the point.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  61. Thomas wrote:

    In order to understand what the “Good” means in theology, it would be best to go back and read Plato’s Republic. I’d suggest the Joe Sachs translation.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  62. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Thanks for these replies. I have to go pick up my daughter right at this moment, and she and I have a “date” tonight, so I’ll be away from my computer for a while. I’ll try to respond later if I am able. There are at least a couple of points in your last two posts that I’d like briefly to address. But anyway, thanks for the…err…conversation.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  63. Of course! And now you’ve had me thinking about it all day… Thanks for the post.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  64. Thanks, I’ll be looking for the book!

    Halden, I just checked out McGill. I hate to admit that I’ve never heard of him, but both of those books looked fascinating and I’ve consequently ordered them. I appreciate the heads up.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  65. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I’m not sure I’m thinking as clearly as I was earlier, but a couple of things as to your last two comments:

    (1.) I’m not sure I understand your point about there needing to be a “remainder of existence…after kenosis.” As I read Phi. 2:5-11, a kenotic existence is precisely the existence to which we are called. It is this kenotic existence in Christ by which the door to God’s coming reign is decisively thrown open in this world — insofar as the cross is the kingdom come in this world. And it is by following Christ in the way of such kenotic existence that we live in real anticipation of that coming new age in which God’s eternal life of radical, self-giving love will be all in all. To say that God’s life is kenotic as revealed in Christ is to say that God only lives by throwing Godself away in love (a favorite locution of Herbert McCabe). And that is the “fullness of existence.”

    (2.) I’d like to think that the framework of thought (whatever that is!) I’m advocating is one in which we think von Gott aus in a way that is not “untouched” by our pre-existing linguistic and cultural frameworks, but rather is always subversive of these frameworks, and this precisely because of the way in which it allows itself to be touched by the machinations of these frameworks. I’m thinking here of the way in which Jesus’ life is subversive of a whole network of (Jewish and Roman) linguistic and cultural power relations precisely at the point at which those powers most thoroughly touch him, with all their force — in the cross.

    (A professor of mine, Craig Keen, used to like to suggest that Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture” typology was lacking one fundamental type: Christ the Subverter of Culture.)

    (3.) As to the temptation to raze a metaphysical theological tradition only in order to erect from the ground up a whole new theological metaphysics, I can only concur that this is a real temptation indeed, and that the temptation is to nothing less than idolatry. This is especially the case when theology is taken to be a certain kind of metaphysically direct speech. This is not to say that we are not given to speak of “reality” as such, but it is to say that theology only gives us to speak of this reality by way of a particular mode of parabolic indirection. And this insofar as theology belongs in certain ways to those cultural and linguistic frameworks that are being subverted by the very reality of which we are called to to speak. To say this much is both absurd and necessary if one is to go on doing theology, it seems to me.

    Part of my own concern as a theological thinker is to discern the precise nature of this parabolic indirection, and to consider what it might mean to execute one’s theological work parabolically.

    (4.) I’m not sure that “parables” are conversation enders. I do think that Jesus’ parabolic speech in the gospels is a way of saying to those who hear that what is being spoken of here is an event which occurs in excess of the dialogical space which our presumed modes of cognition and understanding have marked off as the space of “conversation.” This is an event which requires a mode of speech that turns us aside from the given and settled spaces for such conversation and turns us to those for whom the kingdom of which Jesus speaks in parables is coming — the poor, the sick, those dying at the hands of the powers of society (those who are most expressly without the authority to join the “conversation”). Jesus doesn’t say, “talk about this,” but “follow me.” And as Jesus is saying “the kingdom is like this,” he is turning at one and the same time to eat and drink with these poor and sick and dying ones. All kinds of conversation happens along the way — “What does he mean by this?” — but such conversation happens as one is on the way to eat and drink with these ones. Parable doesn’t shortcircuit conversation as commit us to a particular mode of conversation-as-work — liturgical dia-logue, if you will.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  66. kim fabricius wrote:

    Other key texts here are John (the gospel of glory, the glorification of Christ in his crucifixion) and Revelation 4-5 (worship in heaven, the slaughtered Lamb on the throne). They make it absoutely clear that the doxological is the staurological (crux probat omnia). It also has an intrinsically ethical dimension – no sacrifice without mercy (Hosea), no hymns without justice (Amos, cf. Bonhoeffer on Gregorian chant and the Jews): doxology has a cruciform shape (the Sermon on the Mount).

    A further thought: Is God good?. parsed Chrsitologically, becomes was Jesus sinless? According to II Corinthians 5:21 and Hebrews 4:15 he was. But again, read not ontologically but kenotically-ethically in terms of obedience, which takes Christ to the cross (e.g. Mark 14:36).

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 12:22 am | Permalink
  67. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Thanks for this. This is very helpful.

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 1:31 am | Permalink
  68. Zac wrote:

    I like D.B. Hart’s understanding of this, although he would be much more willing to describe what you are describing as a “poverty of being” as the right way of being a creature of God, and on Augustine’s terms as well:

    “Every finite being is groundless, without any original or ultimate essence in itself, a moment of unoccasioned fortuity, always awakening from nothing and always enfolding within itself a nocturnal interval of nothingness, an interior oblivion that is at the same time the space of what Augustine called memoria, the place where our souls open out upon the prospect of that wise and loving light that illuminates them from without. Of course, to speak of memory is to speak only of the creature’s “recollection” of being without foundation, of being always placed at a distance from what gives being, in the place of one who has been called and who can now only answer. Memory, thus conceived, is at one with a forgetfulness; as opposed to the Platonic anamnesis, which is an escape from the forgetfulness imposed upon the soul by the flesh, it is before all else the memory of the flesh, the memory that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” p.250, The Beauty of the Infinite

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  69. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I’m sorry not to have responded to your comment sooner. I saw it a couple of days ago and thought it helpful for thinking privatio language otherwise. So if you don’t mind, I’ll use my response to your comment as an occasion to do so.

    I do of course think that Halden would readily admit that Augustine’s understanding of evil as privation is much more complex and nuanced throughout his oeuvre than presented in this brief post (I know that I certainly would!). Nevertheless, I find the distinction you draw between “moral evil” and “ontological evil” as such helpful here, particularly the reasons you articulate for drawing that distinction.

    I think that there are certainly ways in which Augustine’s concern with the “corruption of the will” is resonant with what I’m saying about kenosis and possession (and the way the question of the good as such is tied up within such language, as Kim has shown us below, with the issue of Jesus’ sinlessness and obedience), in a way that does not at all foreclose on me saying what I’m saying in terms accomodating of the language of privation. I will not speak directly for Halden here, but my concern is not to reject privation language tout court, and much less to involve myself in a wholesale rejection of Augustine’s nuanced account of evil. What I am wanting to question is a certain theological trajectory that interprets the privatio boni as a “privation of being,” where “being” is taken to signal some kind of cognitive ratio or analogue of beings to Being-itself, and so which priveleges the intellectual apprehension of being in a manner that Augustine at his best is working against (and this precisely in the book of the Confessions that Halden cited). If we think with Augustine in terms of the “corruption of the will” then the privatio boni constitutes a privation of love (and only as such a privation of “being” — as a failure to relate to God in love as that one who loves creation into being). And so the problem with the Platonist ontologization of knowledge is that it signals a certain kind of cognitive pride, and precisely as such is a failure of doxology (again, this is Book VII of the Confessions).

    All of that to say that I don’t necessarily take my understanding of evil as that which roots the sin of possession as at all wholly out of line with Augustine’s understanding of evil as that which roots the sin of pride. And thought over-against God’s kenotic love as life-giving, such “possession” is indeed a privation — a failure of self-giving love. Rather than reject privation language altogether, what I would rather seek to do (and here is where I find your distinction above helpful) is to relocate privation language in a way that unhinges it from the presumed ontological framework of Augustine’s metaphysic. What I am wanting to work against is the kind of “telescoping” of the language of evil as privation (of good, of being, etc.) that is wedded to that presumed metaphysic and that can only work from within that metaphysic. What I am rejecting, in other words, is the kind of thinking of evil as privation that only works within a metaphysic of being conceived primarily in terms of a given cognitive ratio of human to divine knowledge — or, conceived primarily in terms of the analogia entis, as it were.

    But as you have helpfully pointed out for us, Augustine’s understanding of the privatio boni is complex and nuanced enough to refuse such an ontological telescoping, even if he himself at times provides the very metaphysical bases and warrant for it.

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  70. Derek wrote:


    I normally don’t self-promote, but much of the dialogue on this post would be germane to a post i wrote last night. If you are up for it, have a look:

    Friday, March 12, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  71. Doug Johnson Hatlem wrote:

    Aquinas has a simple rebuff to Augustine on this from his Aristotelian framework, but in typical fashion he refuses to take Augustine on directly and buries his conviction subtly in other places …

    Evil is also excess.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  72. Please, take Hill up on this idea! I would love to read a series of posts on Dionysius. It really is disappointing to see such a casual dismissal of him, not only because he’s one of my personal favorites, but because he’s been of such massive importance to the tradition that he seems prima facie to merit more respect as a Christian thinker than this.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink
  73. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Does Kampen agree with me or with the other Adam who responded to me?

    Also, you need to do something about the threaded comments — it rendered a good chunk of this thread unreadable, at least on my laptop. Perhaps restricting the number of levels to three would be a good idea, because once it gets that deep it’s probably just going to be a back and forth anyway.

    Monday, March 15, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  74. david wrote:

    Evil and Christian Ethics by Gordon Graham might be helpful as well.

    Monday, March 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  75. Adam Dodds wrote:

    I think Daniel’s suggestion has merit and I am surprised no one has taken him up on it? In Boyd’s books God At War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict and Satan and the Problem of Evil he articulates what he and others call a ‘limited dualism’ – very much like C. S. Lewis advocates in Mere Chrisianity. So there is no Manichaenism here, but there is a duality nonetheless, even though (a) it is not ultimate; (b) the warfare is a rebellion against the Creator rather than dualism. So this approach Christocentrically modifies what it means for God to be omnipotent and is an expansion of the free will defence. It is striking how many approaches to the problem of evil omit the devil, despite his centrality in Genesis 3, in the entire New Testament, and in the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds in Matt. 13 where I think Jesus discusses this whole issue. But that of course does not mean that one cannot utilise other approaches as well, particular theodicies that centre on the atonement.

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

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