Pathways in Theodicy

An Introduction to the Problem of Evil

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Mark S. M. Scott
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark S. M. Scott states that the purpose of his book, Pathways in Theodicy, is “to promote dialogue on the problem of evil through an analysis of the major models and motifs in Christian theodicy, and to recommend some ways forward” (xiii). However, Scott does not intend to offer any definitive solutions to the problem, since the “language of ‘solutions’ befits mathematics and the other hard sciences, not Christian theology” (4). In the preface, brief introduction, and first two chapters (“Rethinking Evil” and “Redefining Theodicy”), Scott sets out his agenda regarding how he believes we should think about evil and theodicy from a Christian perspective. The first chapter reviews biblical and theological portrayals of evil, with Scott urging us to not lose sight of the former in Christian discussions of the problem of evil. Scott also reviews different ways of classifying evil and the different ways in which the problem of evil might be conceived, again urging us to keep in mind a multiplicity of perspectives. This leads to an attempt at (re)defining theodicy: charting how it fits into Christian life, the questions it addresses and the criteria by which any theodicy should be judged. The discussion in these early chapters is sometimes puzzling, largely because Scott does not always argue or fully explain his claims or concerns. Scott might have been better off presenting much of the discussion in these early chapters after presenting traditional theodicies, which would clarify why he believes there is a need to rethink evil and redefine theodicy.

Everyone—philosopher and theologian, academic and layperson—will find something to appreciate in what is arguably the best part of the book: its three central chapters dealing with “traditional” Christian theodicies. Chapter 3 discusses the free will defense of suffering (focusing on the work of Alvin Plantinga) and free will theodicy (focusing on its Augustinian formulation). Noting the distinction made by Plantinga between a defense and a theodicy, Scott nonetheless argues the free will defense “is functionally equivalent to a theodicy, though rhetorically distinct” (81). He then proceeds to do a good job of presenting this Christian response to the problem of evil, including its strengths and weaknesses. Surprisingly, though, Scott does not mention two issues that bear on this theodicy: whether we in fact have free will, and the extent to which this theodicy fails to account for so-called natural evil.

The next chapter ably summarizes and analyzes the “soul-making” theodicy of John Hick as an alternative to the free will defense, showing how it may or may not fit into the Christian theological tradition. Again, though, Scott fails to note the sharpest criticism of this theodicy: that it misunderstands the value of the virtues that are developed through suffering. The fifth chapter then addresses the process “theodicy” of David Ray Griffin, giving brief but clear accounts of the philosophical and theological foundations of this “theodicy.” What is puzzling in Scott’s account, however, is that he says that process theodicy “neutralizes the logical problem of evil with the denial of one of its core propositions: divine omnipotence” (139; my emphasis). That is not quite right. Process theodicy is not so much a theodicy—a justification of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God in the face of the reality of evil—as it is an admission that no such justification is possible, and that we must think of God differently when accounting for evil. That, of course, is a solution that has always been available to philosophy, though it is debatable whether it is solution available to Christian theology.

The remaining chapters deal with issues that Scott thinks have not been addressed sufficiently in traditional theodicies (whereby we get some clarification of the concerns he raises in the first two chapters). Chapter 6 (“Cruciform Theodicies”) reviews the theology of Jürgen Moltmann regarding divine passability and Marilyn McCord Adams’s concept of redemptive suffering. These theologies are not theodicies, as the author eventually admits (169). However, they are apparently introduced here because Scott thinks that any adequate Christian theodicy should somehow incorporate the cross and Christ’s passion in its response to evil, something which has not been done in traditional theodicies.

Chapter 7 deals with what the author calls “antitheodicy”: that is, those arguments that have been made by both theists and atheists against theodicy. Here he briefly reviews J. L. Mackie’s famous 1955 article “Evil and Omnipotence” as an example of an atheist antitheodicy, which he dismisses as “a little hasty” (190) because it is only thirteen pages long. No other, more recent and more powerful atheist antitheodicies—particularly those that focus on gratuitous or horrific evil—are addressed. Scott seems more interested in the theist antitheodicies. Though he calls them ethical, contextual, and pastoral theodicies (182 ff), these again are not theodicies but viewpoints that are dissatisfied with the abstract, theoretical stance of traditional theodicy and focus on ways of responding to and overcoming evil at the particular and practical levels. Scott sympathizes with these views and the need for theodicy to be rebuilt along practical lines, but ultimately states that the antitheodicies are “guilty of oversimplification and overstatement” (189) because “practice cannot bypass theory anymore than theory can bypass practice without injury” (190).

The role of eschatology, the afterlife, and mystery in the construction of Christian theodicies is the focus of the last chapter, “Beyond Theodicy: The Afterlife and Mystery.” Scott again does a good job of pointing out how heaven, hell, and appeals to “mystery” need to be brought into any consideration of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective while acknowledging how problematic these ideas can be for both the believer and nonbeliever.    

Overall, given its approach—one in which no particular theodicy or theological perspective is promoted—and format (which includes subdivisions in each chapter regarding the “Strengths” and “Weaknesses” of various theodicies and “Questions for Discussion” at the end of each chapter), the book is a good general text for an upper division undergraduate class on the problem of evil at a Christian college or university.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert S. Gall is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at West Liberty University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark S. M. Scott is Assistant Professor of religious studies at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario. He earned his PhD and AM from Harvard University and his MAR from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil (2012).



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