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The privation theory of evil and the donum superadditum

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

As part of the current roaring controversy in the Reformed world surrounding Thomas Aquinas, Van Til was once again caught in the crossfire. Accusations came from those supporting Aquinas that Van Til "denied the convertibility of being and goodness".

St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine of Hippo

The following quote from his Defense of the Faith made the rounds:

The scholastic idea is that all being is, as being, good. Hence if there were to be an absolutely evil will in man, he would have no more being at all. This virtually constitutes a denial of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, pg. 291

The interpretation of the above at face value would seem to indicate that Van Til is arguing against the "convertability of being and goodness". To quote the charge directly from Twitter:

I think CVT departs from Reformed Orthodoxy in 3 ways here [in this quote]:
(1) denying the convertibility of being & goodness,
(2) arguing that “total depravity” is inconsistent with the doctrine of convertibility, and
(3) implicitly denying a RO theory of evil as privation.

James K. Derryberry

Now, was Van Til making this argument in the quoted text above, or is there something deeper going on?

The charge against Thomistic philosophy

In the quoted section, Van Til is arguing against a particular aspect of Thomistic (Roman catholic philosophy). Specifically, Van Til was writing against the idea of the donum superadditum and the Roman catholic nature-grace distinction.

What is the Thomist nature-grace distinction?

According to official Romanist theology (post the council of Trent), nature is "base" reality, and in a general sense what is "base" is often treated with contempt. But to be at the basic level, or worse to sink even lower, is (at best) heading away from what is "above" and gracious toward sin. What is in nature is not necessarily and inherently sinful (e.g. lust as an animal desire that is "natural"), but also not necessarily good.

When Adam was first created, he was blessed with the donum superadditum, that is, a super-added grace to his nature. This enabled him to have fellowship with God.

At the fall, this quality (the donum superadditum) was lost although his nature remained untainted (or at the very most, wounded). In this sense, Adam was made "lower". His natural desires, therefore, pulled him and his descendants down into sin. The fall did not enslave the human nature to sin, but rather, made Adam like he was before the donum superadditum.

Bavinck writes,

The world, the state, natural life, marriage and culture are not sinful in themselves; only they are of a lower order, of a secular nature, and unless consecrated by the Church, easily become an occasion for sinning.

Bavinck, Calvin and Common Grace

Now, men are in a constant struggle to attain more grace so as to lift themselves out of their sinful states. At their baptism, the Roman Catholic is "justified", in the sense that they enter a blessed state. As they commit sins (venial or mortal), they might knock themselves out of their blessed state and enter a mortal state (this might be when they act on lower desires (e.g. lust)). When they are in a mortal state, they require grace to lift them back into a blessed state. Grace is dispensed by the Church in the sacraments. The Romanist mass, where Christ is (literally) sacrificed repeatedly, forms one of the components where the Roman Catholics can elevate themselves back to a state of grace.

This nature-grace dualism is what necessitates the Romanist church's sacramental system. It is also what makes the idea of a "once-off for all time" sacrifice by Jesus Christ impossible. The Romanist nature-grace dualism makes it impossible for Christ to have died for your sins once and for all. This is why, shockingly, Romanist priests are called: “another Christ” (alter Christus).

In this way, in the Roman Catholic system, it is said that “nature is incomplete” and “grace perfects nature”. In the Roman Catholic scheme of things, the Roman Catholic Church itself is the channel of “grace” (through itself, first of all, and then through the sacraments) and the only way to obtain this “grace” in the world.

Because of this, Bavinck writes,

... [Every] man becomes, for his knowledge of supernatural truth and for his reception of supernatural grace, that is, for his heavenly salvation, absolutely dependent on the Church, the priest and the sacrament.

Bavinck, Calvin and Common Grace

Salvation in the Romanist scheme becomes a metaphysical elevation in the scale of being toward full participation in the being of God. Sin, by contrast, is participation in nothingness as man lowers himself on the scale of being.

It is of interest to the present reader to see how Edward Feser (a popular Thomist) discusses "how someone goes to hell" in the following article. Once this nature-grace distinction in Romanist theology has been grapsed, it makes sense why Roman Catholics priests don't marry, and why something like a nun exists. Sex, according to Romanists, is a lower desire that might trap someone into sin - hence, it is best to completely avoid it and to rather focus on higher desires.

Reformed vs Thomism

According to Lane Tipton, it is of utmost importance to realise that there are different and incompatible conceptions of nature when it comes to Calvin and the Reformation, and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation (with Aquinas's philosophical theology behind it). There exists a complete antithesis. Both have completely different conceptions of nature and completely different conceptions of sin.

The Reformed (in opposition to Rome) maintained that when Adam was created, original righteousness and fellowship with God were natural, and not supernaturally added grace on top of the natural [1]. Everything in nature was very good.

The Reformers accepted without question the narrative of Genesis as historical when it says that Adam was created perfect and that evil came into the world because of his disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge. Adam, by nature, was created as good and perfect [2].

The Reformers accepted this view of man in direct opposition to the Thomistic idea of man as a being that participates with God in a common being but which, in distinction from God, hovers near non-being, and as such is inherently and unavoidably evil. You see, even as finite, apart from the fall, Adam was, according to this Thomistic view, in need of grace. Accordingly, grace fills a primarily metaphysical rather than an ethical need. Evil is something for which man is not fully responsible. He cannot help being finite and therefore cannot help being sinful [3]. Scholastic thinking (and this is important for the Van Til quote this article is about), for all its effort to Christianize Greek thought, retains this notion of the identity of finitude with evil [4].

For the Reformed, grace isn't a metaphysical quality that elevates man in the scale of being. Rather, it is an act of God that restores the relationship between Creator and creature that was destroyed. After the fall, creation (human nature) was corrupted. It had the potential to be glorified but it had first to be redeemed, justified, saved, and glorified - by grace. Gracious salvation begins the process of restoring the image that was damaged in the fall and that will be fully restored in the resurrection, glorification, and consummation [5].

For the Reformed, there is a "once-off for all time" sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf simply because sin is not metaphysical. It is purely ethical, the enslavement to sin, and the loss of original concreated righteousness, and the corruption of our entire nature (i.e. total depravity). The sacrifice of Christ on our behalf pays for our transgressions in a once-off fashion, satisfying the wrath of God. The Spirit frees us from our enslavement through the supernatural regeneration of our wills. Once we have been freed and our sins have been paid for, any further transgressions against God will likewise be covered by the blood of Christ. There is no metaphysical reapportionment happening in real-time that needs to be maintained by the believer.

As we will see, for the Thomistic view to clearly be in the wrong and for Van Til's quote to be vindicated, we need to establish that it is indeed the case that Roman Catholic theology "retains the notion of the identity of finitude with evil [sin]".

The charge against Van Til

Given this background, let's look at Van Til's quotation, placed more a greater context:

The synthesis of Aristotle and Christ is as monstrous as is the synthesis of Kant and Christ. The main thrust of Kuyper’s theology, and of that of Bavinck and Warfield as well, is against this scholastic synthesis. In Reformed theology the ideas of Scripture, of the self-contained God of Scripture, of temporal creation, of man’s being made in the image of God, of the fall of man as involving the setting of the creature in the place of the creator, together form as well as express an idea of analogy that is opposed to the idea of analogy advocated by scholasticism...
The scholastic idea is that all being is, as being, good. Hence if there were to be an absolutely evil will in man he would have no more being at all. This virtually constitutes a denial of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.
...According to this doctrine a creature, given existence or being by God, does not lose any of its being, does not “tend to non-being” when it sets itself in ethical opposition to God. Satan has as much being now as he had when he was an angel. But he has an absolutely evil will. And the sinner has as much being as has the saint. But in principle, so the Reformed Confessions repeat as it were in unison, the natural man hates God and his neighbor. And this is a perfect hatred in principle even though it never expresses itself fully in the course of human history.

Van Til, Defense of the Faith, pg. 291

From this context, we can see that the problem of evil is not the immediate topic Van Til is addressing. He is addressing the synthesis between Aristotle and Christ that was the project of Thomas Aquinas. The idea behind this is in part the nature-grace distinction we addressed above and with it the idea that man's finitude (as participating in being and non-being) is partly to blame for his evil.

For the Thomist, the doctrine of total depravity (i.e. the entirety of human nature being enslaved to sin) would not only result in the loss of the donum superadditum, but also in the destruction of nature, because the further away you slip from God on the scale of being, the more you descend into non-being and total destruction. Total depravity would, therefore, equate to total destruction!

Many people rightly fault Aquinas for not believing in total depravity (for example, this blog) without really dealing with why he did not believe it. Scripture is plain enough on the topic that he ought to have seen it, but he was blinded by his own philosophy that didn't fit the clear teaching of Scripture on the matter.

Other Reformed blogs seem to argue that Aquinas did hold to total depravity (like this one), but these Christians also don't seem to grasp the deeper aspect of Thomstic philosophy. For example, the following texts were provided as prooftexts that Aquinas believed in total depravity by the aforementioned blog:

…man cannot abstain from all venial sin on account of the corruption of his lower appetite of sensuality. For man can, indeed, repress each of its movements (and hence they are sinful and voluntary), but not all, because while he is resisting one, another may arise, and also because the reason cannot always be alert to avoid these movements...

Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 71-114

But what Aquinas means by this is not the Reformed doctrine of total depravity if you know the background. What he means is that the natural man, drawn down by his lower desires is bound to fail and sin without the donum superadditum simply because of his finitude. Earlier, in the same part of the Summa he writes:

Nevertheless he could not have done it [abstained from sinning] without God's help to uphold him in good, since if this had been withdrawn, even his nature would have fallen back into nothingness.

Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 71-114

Here we can clearly see Aquinas' teaching that Adam, when he was first created, required the donum superadditum in order to elevate himself above his created nature, and that once the donum superadditum has been removed, man's nature will then fall back into nothingness (becoming more finite), where he can no longer abstain from sin simply because of his finite nature.

Contrary to Aquinas' conception of the fall and human nature, Van Til continues (following his quote once more) to explicate the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. Given our creation and preservation (even post-fall), we did not lose being or slip downward into non-being when we set ourselves in a complete ethical rebellion against God. We have as much "being" now as we had prior to the fall. In the same way, Satan has as much being now as he had when he was considered as part of the angels.

Given the above, it would seem like the charge against Van Til was completely misdirected due to a lack of appreciation for the deeper aspects of the debate that raged in Van Til's time, and the debate that rages today with the resurgence of Thomism. Van Til was quite right when he argued that the concept of total depravity is completely destroyed on the basis of Roman catholic theology. They cannot believe in total depravity, as it would necessitate that they also believe in the complete annihilation of human nature.

What then about the privation theory of evil?

In order to see if what Van Til wrote simplicity denies the privation theory of evil, we first need to see what the theory is.

What is privation theory of evil? The privation theory of evil has been without a doubt a popular view among the Reformed. The idea finds its roots in the works of Augustine. Evil, the theory goes, is simply the absence of good.

For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health... Just in the same way, what are called vices [immoral or wicked behaviour] in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

Augustine. "What Is Called Evil in the Universe Is But the Absence of Good".

The privation theory of evil is attractive because it seems to find a way of explaining evil without saying that evil finds its "source" in God. Evil, as an absence of good (i.e., not having any being) is not something that is created by God as other substances are created.

Now, evil isn't merely an "absence" of good, but particularly an absence where good is due. Hence, the non-being that is evil, is not just any and every non-being or absence of good. It is the absence of a due good, the privation of a good that should be there. For example, blindness in a man is evil insofar as the ability of sight was supposed to be there. In the same way, blindness in an earthworm is not evil as earthworms are not supposed the be able to see by God's intended design. Aquinas writes:

Not every absence of good is evil. For absence of good can be taken in a privative and in a negative sense. Absence of good, taken negatively, is not evil; otherwise, it would follow that what does not exist is evil, and also that everything would be evil, through not having the good belonging to something else; for instance, a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion. But the absence of good, taken in a privative sense, is an evil; as, for instance, the privation of sight is called blindness.

Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 1-49

So, does Van Til deny the privation theory of evil? The answer is no. Van Til is denying the nature-grace distinction inherent in Roman catholic theology that rallies against the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. The only way that you can conclude that Van Til is denying the theory is if the theory can only be substantiated by a Roman Catholic view of nature and grace.

Van Til himself seems to have a high regard for the privation theory of evil when he (seemingly approvingly) renders Augustine's position in contrast with the Romanist position:

God, according to Augustine, had created man good and in his image, endowed with intellect and will and in a measure self-determining. Now man willfully chose evil as Satan had done before him; man is therefore responsible because evil originates in his will. How this is possible, how a finite will can originate anything for which it is strictly responsible is impossible for man fully to determine. The nearest we can come to an explanation is to say that evil is a negation, that nothing positive is created. Evil is no substance but the marring of substance.

Cornelius Van Til, Evil and Theodicy

Further, we would argue that you can deny the Romanist nature-grace dualism whilst maintaining the privation theory of evil (yet, you won't mean the same thing that the Romanist means when he talks about it). In 1 John 3:4 sin is described as lawlessness (without law, a privation of law). You see, we ought to love according to God's standards and laws because we are His creatures, and everything that is good and right comes from His hands. To live otherwise is to live apart from God's law. Hence where sin reigns, lawlessness prevails where God's laws ought to have been kept. In the same way, an unrighteous person is a person who lacks righteousness.

With this being said, the privation theory of evil is not the alpha and omega when it comes to providing a theodicy. If the apologist wants to claim that all evil can be explained as merely a privation of the good (i.e. non-being), the apologist would still be hard-pressed to explain natural evil (for example, tsunamis). A tsunami in and of itself is just a really big wave (that has "being"), that subsequently causes unspeakable destruction.

So, we can talk about evil as a privation, but it certainly does not mean that the more sin we commit or the eviler we become the more we cease to exist or slip into non-being. Hitler had as much being as Winston Churchill. Yet, where Hitler reigned there was a complete disregard for the Word of God - lawlessness. You could say, a privation of law.

Van Til provides his ultimate theodicy in a paper titled, "Evil and theodicy" - which is a useful close to this article.

God, then, is His own theodicy. He is all sufficient to Himself. He seeks the manifestation of His own glory. He has seen fit to enhance His glory by the creation of man and the universe. How the creation of the universe could add to the glory of an all-sufficient God we cannot explain. In his inscrutable will he has also planned the reality of sin for the revelation of his glory. To say that God only permitted evil and has not planned it is only a fruitless attempt to justify Him by our own logic, because further thought cannot rest in the idea of a permission of evil by one who could prevent it. God does not need our little fences for his protection; nor do they do us much subjective good, rather harm. We need not be afraid to take the consequences of scripture statement. We find then that creation, sin, redemption, election, and rejection are all willed by God for the glorification of His name...
Anything short of referring the justification of the existence of evil to the character of God and His purpose to glorify Himself, and to His sovereign will to accomplish this by means of creation and sin, is unsatisfactory. Anything short of this is illogical and unbiblical.

Cornelius Van Til, Evil and Theodicy


[1] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, The Pamphlets, Tracts, and Offprints of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, The Pamphlets, Tracts, and Offprints of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[5] The Heidelblog. 2022. Defining Nature-Grace Dualism | The Heidelblog. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 21 September 2022].


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