“Whoever reflects on the origin of sin cannot engage himself in a merely theoretical dispute; rather, he is engaged, intimately and personally, in what can only be called the problem of sin’s guilt” (Sin, p. 14, emphasis original).
Berkouwer has made a significant contribution to the discussion of the problem of evil. He emphasizes that the problem of evil has not been dealt with adequately when an intellectual decision has been made concerning the relative intellectual merits of theism and atheism. He insists that the problem of evil is a thoroughly existential problem, which confronts every one of us at the very centre of our being. We are sinners. This is the problem of evil. When we see the existential character of the problem of evil, we become aware that we must deal with a problem which is far more serious and and comprehensive than the problem of evil, primarily conceived as an intellectual issue involved in the theism – atheism debate. Whatever we may think about the intellectual debate between theism and atheism, each of us must face the the problem of evil as our own personal problem. It is this personal problem which calls for a confession of our sin and a prayer for God’s forgiveness – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).Berkouwer offers to us a perceptive and penetrating distinction between a “particular guilt” and an “abstract theory.” He insists that “Any ‘causal’ explanation… can only be seen, in the practice of living, as an ‘indisputable’ excuse” (Sin, p.14).
We dare not concern ourselves with the question, “Where did evil come from? ” if we refuse to take seriously the call to confess our own sin and seek God’s forgiveness. As we think about the problem of evil, we must remember “The Biblical A Priori” (Sin, Chapter Two, pp. 27-66) – God is not the Author of our sin. We must affirm the goodness of God and confess our own sinfulness. When this dual emphasis on the goodness of God and our own sinfulness is regarded as a theodicy (John Hick speaks of “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy”, Evil and the God of Love, Part II – pp. 43-204), the word, “theodicy”, needs to be understood in a particular way. When we speak thus of theodicy, we must be careful not to make an overestimation of human reason – our own capacity to fully “justify the ways of God to men” (N. H. G. Robinson, “Theodicy”, in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by A. Richardson, p. 335). Wherever reason is given a central place in our thinking, there is always the danger of seeking to justify ourselves to God (From a strict Augustinian point of view, it is arguable that this is what Hick has done in Evil and the God of Love, Part IV, “A Theodicy for Today”). Berkouwer is cautious of bringing the idea of theodicy into his theology. He speaks of “The Problem of Theodicy” (The Providence of God, Chapter VIII, pp. 232-275). We need to look closely at both the method of natural theology and the 'God' of natural theology.
Theodicy and the Method of Natural Theology
Emphasizing that, apart from revelation, empirical reality is confusing, Berkouwer writes, “The basic problem of theodicy is defined by the manner in which one approaches reality ... One cannot mount from deduction of human reason ... reality can only be known through … revelation. The Light that illuminates the world is found only in faith … any attempt to approach God from the basis of empirical reality … (is), in spite of its apologetic intent, worthlesss and unacceptable. Instead of preparing the way for fruitful conversation … theodicy only suggests that we try again to reach God by way of natural understanding” (The Providence of God, pp. 249-250).
Theodicy and the “God” of Natural Theology
Berkouwer points out that the problem with theodicy’s close association with the method of natural theology is increased by its close association with the “God” of natural theology – “the fact, that one in theodicy usually concludes with an empty, abstract God concept is already a judgment against this method” (The Providence of God, p. 250. Note the word “usually”. There is here no hint of an absolute necessity.)Berkouwer emphasizes that we do not replace a man-centred theodicy with an abstract notion of divine sovereignty (A Half Century of Theology, pp. 90-92, 177). He calls us to affirm our faith in the God of revelation, the God who has revealed His goodness in the justification of sinners. (The Providence of God, 254, 233). God’s revelation of redemption is, for the believer, the foundation of a truly Biblical “theodicy”; “it is nowhere more obvious that the notion of God as auctor et causa peccati (author and cause of sin) is an utter blasphemy than in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” (Sin, p. 42, emphasis original, brackets mine). When we understand Christ’s statement, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, cited in The Providence of God, p. 256), we will have no difficulty understanding that God is good. As sinners, we look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ, our holy and loving Saviour. As we look to Him, we learn that the justification of God by man is found in the justification of man by God. The Gospel is God’s answer to the problem of evil. We come with our question: What are we to make of the problem of evil? God comes to us with His answer. It is His work of redemption. The Gospel is the Christian’s “theodicy.” The Gospel provides the proper context for affirming that God is good In His dealing with sinners.