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Testing Mill’s Maxim

Arminians often cite a claim from John Stuart Mill as a sort of test we can apply to see whether the God of Calvinism is “good”. I’ll call this claim, Mill’s Maxim (MM):

MM:”I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”

MM is popularly used in something like this fashion:

RAPE: The God of Calvinism determines that a rapist rape a woman. If any human were to do the same, we would not call them good. Hence, by MM, God is not good.

The general idea behind RAPE (and similar cases) seems to be this:

PRINCIPLE: if S does an action A that, if human H were to do A then we would not call H good, then S is not good.

I think the way PRINCIPLE is phrased goes wrong in all sorts of ways. It stands in need of many qualifications that, once made, in my judgement render its use in calling the God of Calvinism “not good” of dubious merit. However, I do not have the time to do that work at present.

I will, though, make one point about PRINCIPAL. As it stands, PRINCIPAL is about actions. It is common to distinguish between acts and omissions. But, it is clear that what we fail to do can be just as morally weighty for judging the quality of another’s will as what we do. Thus, I will divide PRINCIPLE into its action and omission forms:

PRINCIPLE-A: if S does an action A that, if human H were to do A then we would not call H good, then S is not good.

PRINCIPLE-O: if S fails to do an action A that, if human H were to fail to do A then we would not call H good, then S is not good.

I contend that anyone who accepts P-A should accept P-O as well.

Let’s now apply MM to a case that makes use of PRINCIPAL-O.

CANCER KID: Young Sally has cancer and is in tremendous pain. Sally’s parents wait by her bedside night after night, praying for her relief. Jones, as it happens, has developed the cure for cancer. He can save Sally quite easily. There is no monetary obstacle. No physical obstacle. No legal obstacle. Etc. Yet, he doesn’t. Jones is not good.

It’s clear that God stands in relation to Jones here. We would not call Jones good. By MM in its PRINCIPAL-O form, God is not good. That is, God fails to do an action that, were another human H to fail to do (but who could do it), we would not call H good, then we cannot call God good.

One response to this that is popular among Arminians is to appeal to God’s self-limitations. This view says that God could (because omnipotent) cure cancer, but he has chosen not to—for reasons often inscrutable to us. One struggles to find how this introduces some morally relevant distinction. But more importantly, we know such claims are, strictly speaking, false. God does cure cancer (or at least he does those healings of which we read in the Bible). So, what the claim must amount to is this: God limits himself with respect to Sally’s but not Franky’s cancer.

Here we just tell a story making use of one of our PRINCIPLEs again. Any human who could heal Sally, but, say, voluntarily broke his legs so he couldn’t make it to the hospital, but then engaged in vigorous rehab so he could make it to Franky’s bedside, doesn’t appear to be a good human. Hence, by MM, God isn’t.

David Bentley Hart has said, “Nobody should articulate a theology that cannot be spoken standing in front of burning children.” I shall not spend time pondering why Hart would want to speak a theology in front of burning children rather than save them. It is clear from the context that Hart has Calvinism in mind. Presumably, it would not be comforting to say to burning children, “An all-wise God determined this for your good.” Though I doubt it would be “comforting” to say anything to these children, e.g., “God couldn’t stop this! He’s watching you burn right now and crying about what you’re going through,” the idea is simple enough. But Hart can do no better. Hart can’t say, “God cannot save people who are burning, so he is just suffering with you (even though he does’t have a body!).” For example,

Daniel 3:20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics,[e] their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.

So, Hart knows that God has not universally limited himself from saving people from burning up. Thus, Hart’s comforting response must be, “Children! God will not save you. He has self-limited himself from saving you. He did save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were in a similar situation, but for some unknown reason, he has decided to self-limit his power in your case. he could, all things being equal, save you. But he cannot, all things considered, save you. He is good though, unlike Calvin’s God. Trust me!”

But applying MM in its PRINCIPAL-O form seems to scuttle Hart’s claims. Suppose a human could save anyone he wished from burning. In fact, suppose he had done so. But suppose further that, in some cases, this human limits himself from saving certain people (but not others). Would we call this human good? So why would we call God good, assuming MM, of course?

A response may be to admit that we would not call any human who did or didn’t do the above, “good,” but this doesn’t apply in God’s case. God may have some justifying reason for doing what he does. And indeed, any human who had a similar justifying reason, could still be good despite the prima facie bad actions or omissions. But then, of course, Calvinism can easily appeal to the same.

The upshot: If Calvin’s God fails MM, so does the Arminian God. If the Arminian God is off the hook, so is the Calvinist God.



  1. James A Gibson says:

    I wonder what David Bentley Hart thinks about any theology that includes this Isaiah passage: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”

  2. Paul says:

    He employs Wesley’s Weasel:

    WW = Whatever the verse means, it can’t mean that!

  3. Principle bro, principle. With an “le” at the end, not an “al”.

  4. Paul says:

    heh, so that’s why that word looked so odd to me when I was writing this. :)

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