The Third Peacock and Theodicy


In The Third Peacock, Robert Farrar Capon presents the reader with an interesting exploration of the problem of evil in the face of a good God (theodicy).

Capon writes with an easy prose that sounds more like the conversation one would have while sitting and enjoying a beer together (or whatever your drink of choice might be). He dispenses with theological jargon, offering instead a plain spoken, no holds barred assessment of the rough and tumble world we live in. How can this world possibly align with a good God? The reader may not agree with everything that is written, I didn’t, but this book does offer some insights for anyone that asks questions – either silently or aloud – about why there is so much suffering, both moral and natural, in creation.

I should warn you that this post is part book review and part blogging through a book. It summarizes many of the main points made in the book and thus contains spoilers.

The book opens with the sentence – “Let me tell you why God made the world.” By the middle of the next page we find the Trinity drinking wine, telling jokes and throwing olives at each other. With this analogy, which even Capon admits is crass, the author seeks to present the reader with the theology of delight. This attempts to overturn ideas of God as a cosmic kill-joy or stern judge. Perhaps it could serve as a rebuttal to the servant in Matthew 25 who sees God as overly harsh. The theology of delight offers up creation as one big party in which God took, and continues to take, great delight in what He has created.

the Trinitarian bash doesn’t really come before creation; what actually happens is that all of creation, from start to finish, occurs within the bash— that the raucousness of the divine party is simultaneous with the being of everything that ever was or will be.

… [we] are stuck with a theology of delight which says that all beings, bar none, exist because he thinks they’re just dandy.

The theology of delight is the inverse of the Westminster Catechism’s first answer that suggests that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Instead of focusing on man, Capon focuses on God and suggests that His chief end in creation was to create people, and everything else, to enjoy them forever.

With this as the starting point, Capon quickly moves us to the main point of this work as “any talk about creation brings you very quickly to what is called the problem of evil.” I should warn you that coming to the book as a philosopher seeking a solution will leave you quite disappointed. In the first chapter a careful reader would have picked that up as Capon tells us that “there is ultimately no way of getting God off the hook for evil.” By the end of the book you discover that he meant it. This should not be too surprising. Even the book of Job doesn’t really explain why there is suffering, only that there is suffering and God is fully aware of it while both permitting and limiting it.

Capon leans on the free will defense, attributing moral evil to the “deliberate perversion of free choice”. He does not take the time to define freedom but it would seem that some form of libertarian free will is in view. Later in the book Capon rejects divine determinism stating it is only slightly better than the proposal that God is merely a passive and complacent spectator. Pulling no punches, he uses the following descriptions of an all-determining God: “eternal Puppeteer”, “omnipotent Tyrant” and “infinite Predestinarian Monster”.

Capon gives a cursory view of the free will defense. C.S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain and Alan Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil both offer a better explanation.

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely.

…  The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has a good reason for creating a world containing evil.

GOD, FREEDOM AND EVIL (P 30-31)

Part of the free will defense rests on the premise that giving people the ability to make moral choices is more desirable and delightful than a “safe universe” in which there is no evil but also no freedom.

Freedom, Capon notes, may help shift the blame for moral evil “on other persons than God” but this defense “does not exculpate God from the responsibility for making free beings in the first place.”

Capon doesn’t spend much time dealing with the nuances of permission, he just asserts that creation shows us how much freedom matters to God.

The last gasp on this line of defense is to say that the fact that he keeps backing such a bad show proves how highly he regards freedom.

When one adds natural evil, which includes earthquakes, hurricanes and the like, things get even more interesting. These evils are called badness in the book to help differentiate them from evil resulting from the choices of moral agents. Capon finds badness and death as inherent in creation from the start, noting that “everything eats everything else”. Capon embraces evolution and rejects the idea that badness is the result of moral evil. That the Fall is not the cause of the badness found in creation would be an area of dispute for many readers. Capon doesn’t go to great lengths to defend the point presuming science and creation are enough evidence.

[there is] no possibility, in this kind of world, of getting badness out of the act of creation. If both chicken hawks and chickens proceed from the delight of the Trinity, then God is the author of badness as well as goodness.

God’s delight in creation and freedom is so strong that “things go wrong only because of his stubborn insistence on keeping the party going no matter what.”

Now if we are facing facts, that means that God has dangerously odd tastes: He is inordinately fond of risk and roughhouse.

While Capon accepts the premises in the free will defense and finds it philosophically sound, he concludes that freedom isn’t worth the risk.

In short, while it is just barely possible, by fabricating an ersatz divinity for yourself, to tolerate the divine complicity in badness metaphysically, it remains unacceptable aesthetically. You may philosophize your way into thinking that goodness is worth the risk; but in a world where half of creation is always on the rack, the only thing you can feel is that no risk could ever be worth this badness.

Part 2: The Third Peacock and Providence


The Third Peacock was first published in 1971 and can be difficult to track down. It is available at the Internet Archive and can be read for free (link).

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5 thoughts on “The Third Peacock and Theodicy

  1. Wow, what a conclusion! “No risk could ever be worth this badness.” I don’t think of creatures eating creatures, but of the uncontrolled lust of men in the form of sex trafficking and slavery. It makes me understand the writer’s conclusion. I agree there are questions that have no satisfying answer except that the whole universe is an accident … but Jesus. Jesus is real, and he and his Father answer prayer. We may not be able to prove it, but to me it is impossible to doubt.

    • Thanks Paul.

      The “creatures eating creatures” was his way of going all the way back to creation to show that “badness” was built in from the start. But, your example of slavery and sex trafficking are illustrative of his overall point that there is so many terrible things going on in the world.

      The problem of evil is definitely tough.

      I do think Plantinga addresses the challenge adequately from a philosophical view point. Capon’s book was published before “God, Freedom and Evil” so not sure how familiar he would have been with that. But the thrust of that solution has been around much longer. Either way, Capon seems to say essentially – all well and good. Now lets really consider the vast amount of suffering. It’s just too much. The rest of the book attempts to move forward from there.

      Capon writes and words things in a way that seems intended to shock the reader. That may be intended as a way to get the reader’s attention so that they will consider what he is saying. I imagine more conservative readers may be put off both by what he says and how he says it.

      From your other comment, it is definitely worth noting that these posts are my attempt to explain the main thesis of Capon’s book. I did my best and tried to back that up with lots of quotes.

      Appreciate your comment(s).

  2. I ran across this verse a couple minutes ago: “The Lord has made everything for its own end–yes, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4, WEB).

    Poignant after reading this series this morning.

    • Excellent verse. Thanks for sharing.
      I do rest in the overall idea that God values freedom in his creation despite the risk. And that He also has a plan to rescue us from the misuse of freedom. That plan also includes dealing with those who refuse rescue.

      What did you think about the question – would the Incarnation have occurred even if no one ever sinned?
      I added “Incarnation Anyway” by Edwin Chr Van Driel to my very long to-be-read pile.

      • I definitely rejected that comment, but I didn’t read the book, so maybe he set that up. I can guess that Capon spent some time to prepare such a statement. My further guess is that because he feels that the purpose of the atonement was reconciliation and fellowship, then the death of Jesus, even without human sin, has purpose as joining man to God in fellowship. I don’t think I could get there even with an introduction from Capon, but it doesn’t matter much because man did sin, so “what if we didn’t” will always be speculation.

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