The Problem Of Evil: An Historical Theological Approach -- By: Dale R. Stoffer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 24:0 (NA 1992)
Article: The Problem Of Evil: An Historical Theological Approach
Author: Dale R. Stoffer

The Problem Of Evil:
An Historical Theological Approach

Dale R. Stoffer

Dr. Stoffer is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at ATS.

If there be any topic of human investigation which is difficult for our nature to grasp, certainly the origin of evils may be considered to be such.


Overview of the Study

The purpose of this paper is to survey the approaches taken to the problem of evil during the course of church history. I will divide the material into five chronological sections: the early church (through the fourth century), Augustine, the medieval and scholastic period, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment and modern period. I must necessarily be selective in what writers I consider for each period, though throughout I will seek to use the foremost theologians. Because other papers will consider the modern period, I will give less detailed consideration there.

As will become clear, the questions raised about the problem of evil vary from period to period, based on the current theological and philosophical climate. Therefore, some attention will need to be given to the cultural background for each period. In the conclusion I will attempt to make some observations about the issue of evil and how it has been perceived during the history of the church.

The Early Church (through the Fourth Century)

One looks in vain for a discussion of the problem of evil per se in the Apostolic Fathers. This should not come as a surprise, since the writers of the late first and early second centuries reflect the New Testament perspective. Thus, the existence of evil is assumed in both a physical (pain, suffering, disaster) and moral sense. Physical evil is seen as a part of the present order of things; in fact, suffering will be the lot of the follower of Christ. Moral evil derives from the sinful inclinations of the human heart. Jesus Christ has dealt decisively with evil in all its forms, including the evil one, Satan. While Christians can even now experience victory over evil and Satan through faith, one day God will judge all evil and cast it from His presence.1

The church begins to discuss the issue of evil explicitly in the latter second century in response to the threat posed by Marcion and Gnosticism. This point needs to be remembered because the early church will tend to formulate its doctrine of evil in reaction to the position held by various heretical groups. Interestingly, Tertullian, in responding to Marcion, observed that “the question

of the origin of evil” was a favorite topic with the heretics.

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