An important part of the doctrine of providence (how God relates to and acts in the world) concerns God’s relation to evil. Assuming ‘divine sovereignty’, the language of permission is often used to guard against the implication that God is the author of evil. The argument is that there are things which God positively decrees, which are inherently good (e.g. the creation of humans), and events which God permits (e.g. the Fall, a rape, the Holocaust or any other type of evil). A proponent of the so-called ‘free-will defence’ will say that God merely permits moral evil as the unintended consequence of endowing humans with freedom, the freedom which is necessary for genuinely personal relationships. Freedom is the explanation given also for so-called ‘natural evil’. Austin Farrer and John Polkighorne, among others, speak of a ‘free-process defence’ of natural evil. In their view, God has chosen to let the world develop itself in a continual interplay of chance and necessity. Built into creation are potentialities the realisation of which will inevitably cause what humans call ‘natural disasters’. Once asked what was God’s will in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed 50,000 in one day, Austin Farrer replied that “the elements of the earth’s crust behave in accordance with their nature… they have their due independence.” The ‘free-process defence’ is an extension of the free will defence. I’ll say something about Calvinist/Reformed uses of the language of permission a bit later. For now let me state my point.
My contention is that the concept of divine permission should only be used as a mere theological ‘shrug of the shoulders’, as a means of saying no more than that we are ignorant of the way a particular event x (usually of horrendous evil) correlates with God’s will and action. The notion of permission should be more a form of theological silence, than a positive statement concerning the exercise of divine will and divine action. Otherwise, as David Fergusson rightly shows, permission collapses into divine positive willing. The picture that people normally associate with the notion of permission is of someone who initially does not want to allow for some action or event x, but then is persuaded to agree to it. But is there really a difference between, for example, a father commanding his son to go outside and play football and a father who, when asked by his son, initially resists but then gives in, saying: “Alright, I allow you to go outside to play football.”? If the mother returns home and discovers that her son is playing football instead of doing his homework, she will hold the father responsible and little will it matter that the father only reluctantly agreed to the son playing football than positively telling the son to go an play. Now you can see how the problem is significant when transposed to the way God relates to evil. The picture we normally have of divine permission is something along the lines of: “Oh, alright, Mr. Rapist, go on, carry out your abominable intention for that innocent girl” or “Alright, fine, Nepalese Earthquake, shake those plates as hard as you can and snuff the lives of thousands of Nepalese”. The distinction between positive command and permission cannot stave off what logically appears to be God’s complicity in evil. The problem arises in both so-called ‘risk’ (free-will defence, middle-knowledge and open theism) and ‘no-risk’ (determinist/Calvinist) (cf. Paul Helm, The Providence of God) accounts of providence. In fact, for the ‘no-risk’ (Reformed/Calvinist) account the distinction between God permitting and God commanding is virtually non-existent. Calvinists speak of ‘efficacious permission’ and describe events which are permitted to occur as being ‘sovereignly ordained’, whose occurrence is necessary. On a strict Reformed account, God did not merely permit the Holocaust, but ensured that it take place for some ‘greater good’. Paul Helm speaks of God infallibly and efficaciously permitting evil for a greater good… “a good that could not have come, or could not have been as great, if there had not been that evil.” (Helm, Providence of God, 197).
Going back to my initial point, I conclude that the concept divine permission, if we must use it, should simply be an alternative way of saying “I have no idea how God’s will and action was involved in event X”. This can be the preface to other remarks about how we can trust God in light of the Cross and carry on with the hope of eschatological healing and restoration. The focus should be existential and pastoral rather than abstract and speculative.