Good and Evil – Protestant vs. Catholic Definitions

“It is not an uncommon experience for people to talk and argue a great deal about something without anybody bothering to define precisely what it is.” ~Ross J.S. Hoffman

When talking things over with Protestants, I often find that at the root of a disagreement is a difference of definition. Catholics and Protestants alike believe “saved by faith through grace”, yet we have different definitions not only of “faith” but also of “grace”. Turns out, these un-noticed and assumed definitions have a huge impact on the whole of theology, how we practice our religion, and what is acceptable to us. So the key to understanding, maybe even the key to agreement, depends on defining what we say. Yet, as Hillaire Belloc notes, “We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.”

With respect to good and evil, Catholics define “good” as God, or nearly so. All good things have their source in God, because His essence is perfect goodness, the very definition of good comes from Him. Goodness then, in created things, is seen as an adherence to God’s good purpose for them. All created things have good in them, because as created by and sourced from God Himself, from which no evil can be found, we find a good purpose for all things. Evil is then a “privation of perfect goodness”. Evil is only found in creatures as a departure from God’s good purpose and rejection of His Will, existing as a result of corruption of free will, not sourced from God nor an alternative demi-god, nor does it have any substance itself. Much like darkness is a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness.

Although Saint Thomas Aquinas defined and explained these concepts in detail, he can hardly be said to have merely invented them philosophically. Anyone who reads his works will find them absolutely saturated with references mainly of Bible verses, but also of the Early Church Fathers. Drawing from his photographic memory, he doesn’t just juxtapose sound bites and create a meandering and flawed proof from them. He instead clarifies non-negotiable main concepts (such as “God is good”), using that to better understand more obscure passages, and brings it all together in a coherent philosophical system. This system is not of his own invention, nor does it depart from Biblical or Church teaching, but uses reason to better understand the necessary consequences of truths of the Faith. Because of this use of reason, Luther banned Aquinas, saying he imposed human understanding on divine revelation. This rejection of the philosophy that underlies Catholicism is where the faiths begin their divergence and is what must be overcome in most cases for Protestants and Catholics to understand each other.

When asked what evil is, Protestants may answer similarly to Catholics, that it is going against God’s will. However, here is a critical point, Protestants believe that evil has substance. When pressed as to where evil comes from, however, you may not get a coherent answer. Protestants who believe that Divine Providence acts directly in everything (not merely permissively) might say that God uses evil to achieve a good end, but that He is not the source of evil in order to adhere to the Biblical concept that God is perfectly good. Consequently, if God is not the source of evil, yet evil has substance, then it must come from an alternative source. Considering a created thing from a source other than God, out of necessity we have introduced another creator. This cannot be true, since Christians do not believe in multiple gods. If however, evil has its origins in our one true God, then He would be lacking in perfect goodness, a thing we already know He cannot do. The only rational conclusion is that evil is a lack of goodness, without substance. But those who reject rationalism may just accept this quandary of the nature of evil as a mystery of the faith, albeit one that has not been divinely revealed, but conjured up as a rejection of Catholic reasoning.

As a result of believing that evil has substance, many Protestants believe that some things are inherently evil and others inherently good, as opposed to the Catholic belief that everything is inherently good, but may become evil if abused or misused. This misconception as to the nature of things invariably leads to wrong attitudes and actions regarding them. For example, although the Bible clearly encourages a time for feasting throughout and holds as holy the union between a man and a woman, puritanical sects believe that our flesh is strictly sinful by nature and so they destroy the good pleasures that God has given us. Often Catholics are criticized for this Biblical delight in material pleasures, as if it is less holy to take joy in God’s creation than to make yourself miserable with self-righteousness. Ironically, monks and nuns are also criticized for their acetic life set apart for worship and work offered to the Lord, but that’s a different story. In her novel, Villette, Charlotte Bronte writes in criticism of Catholic enjoyment of life:

Each mind was being reared in slavery; but, to prevent reflection from dwelling on this fact, every pretext for physical recreation was seized and made the most of. There, as elsewhere, the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. ‘Eat, drink and live!’ she says. ‘Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.’ A bargain, in which every true Catholic deems himself a gainer. Lucifer just offers the same terms; ‘All this power will I give thee, and the glory of it; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine!'”

Charlotte Bronte’s character, Lucy Snowe, bases this criticism on a common false conception of what it means to be holy as well as an assumed disconnect between the physical and spiritual world, believing that the only thing of value is spiritual good, all pivoting on the definition that evil is a thing in itself and things in this world are either good or evil. You can see then, how different definitions leads to different understanding, different understanding to different actions, and different actions to deep divides. Even if we disagree in these essentials, it is imperitive to be aware of them, to define the real difference between Catholics and Protestants, in order to understand what these faiths are really about and therefore what we are really about.

5 Responses to Good and Evil – Protestant vs. Catholic Definitions

  1. stirenaeus says:


    Can you give reference in Luther and Calvin — or others — where Evil is a “substance” of some sort? If they’re nominalists, at heart, then nothing has substance. Of course, that’s the same problem: both evil and god are the same, just non-substance instead of substance.

  2. Stacey says:

    Between my kids conspiring against me and unfortunate mouse clicks, I’m having a hard time getting this comment to you, Irenaeus!

    I think I should go back and change my blanket statements in this post, since we know that there’s very few things that all Protestants believe, and this is probably not one of them.

    I may be misunderstanding it, but privatio actuosa is a Reformation concept defining sin as not merely a lack of good, but an actual or real lack of goodness, such that however dependent evil is on good for its existence, it exists substantively nonetheless. It was brought about to counter any tendencies that the simple “privatio” definition of evil might lead people to believe that sin isn’t a reality. I don’t know the particular origins of this concept, and I’m completely ignorant as to Calvin and Luther’s beliefs of evil. I do know that there was a Lutheran theologian, Mathias Flacius Illyricus, who clearly taught the substantiation of evil particularly in original sin, saying that original sin turns men into a substantially evil thing. Of course, this is basically Manichean dualism, which is also echoed in Puritan views of things as sinful, though I don’t know their specific teachings on the subject.

    R.C. Sproul, in his Reason to Believe (Ch. 8), discusses privatio actuosa, the substantive existence of evil, and that he can’t explain its origins. Also, in his blog’s book review of Evil and the Justice of God, he repeats more concisely:

    “Reformers of the 16th century did not deny the elements of negation and privation in evil but added a term to it to make sure that we didn’t get lost in a sea of abstraction. Their preferred term for the nature of evil was privatio actuosa. Here they stressed that evil was not a mere empty hole in the road. It was more than the privation of pavement on the highway. It would be not enough to explain evil simply as a pothole that represents a threat to the well-being of our car’s suspension. Rather evil is active. It is a force that cannot be seen as a mere lack of the good or negation of the good. It is an active negation, an active privation, and it has a supernatural and personal dimension to it.”

    I also found websites that said the Westminster Confession professes this view of evil, but having read it, I don’t see that it does.

    I doubt that many Protestants, then and now, seriously consider the philosophy of evil and its implications. Less still do I think they propose dualism by it. Those who do believe in substantial evil, may like Sproul, admit they don’t know how to resolve the apparent consequences of either God causing evil or dualism. But in my conversations with Protestants, I find this to be a prevailing belief. Maybe it’s a contamination of thought, much like modern “spiritualism” has contaminated the belief in the resurrection so people focus only on going to heaven.

  3. stirenaeus says:

    Wow. I see. That’s helpful. I had no idea. Sad, I have the doctorate, and you don’t (of course it’s not in historical theology so I don’t feel *too* bad).

  4. Stacey says:

    LOL… I’m sure we can never finish exploring the ins and outs of what was changed at the Reformation, and how things have veered off course now. I always had to laugh at doctorates in the sciences, how very specific everyone’s specialty is, because there’s so much knowledge out there that nobody can have a broad spectrum specialty. Looks like the same is true in nearly every subject, huh?

  5. stirenaeus says:

    Yeah, that’s how it goes…

    I know a lot about the history of the Reformation, and Lutheran vs Calvinist distinctives, but what I think I’m weak on is the *philosophy*. I’ve recently been learning about nominalism vs. Augustine/Thomas, and how nominalism runs riot in Protestantism, and I can see what you mean about evil as a *thing* in Protestantism, and it makes perfect sense…

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