The Author-Story Model

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on how to talk about God's sovereignty over sin.

* * *

The following is from The Doctrine of God, Chapter 9, “The Problem of Evil,” by John Frame. The headings are added; the paragraphs are Dr. Frame’s.

The Author-Story Model

I should ... say something more about the nature of God’s agency in regard to evil. Recall from [chapter 8 in The Doctrine of God] the model of the author and his story: God’s relationship to free agents is like the relationship of an author to his characters. Let us consider to what extent God’s relationship to human sin is like that of Shakespeare to Macbeth, the murderer of Duncan.

Did Shakespeare Kill Duncan?

I borrowed the Shakespeare/Macbeth illustration from Wayne Grudem’s excellent Systematic Theology.1 But I do disagree with Grudem on one point. He says that we could say that either Macbeth or Shakespeare “killed King Duncan.” I agree, of course, that both Macbeth and Shakespeare are responsible, at different levels of reality, for the death of Duncan. But as I analyze the language we typically use in such contexts, it seems clear to me that we would not normally say that Shakespeare killed Duncan. Shakespeare wrote the murder into his play. But the murder took place in the world of the play, not the real world of the author. Macbeth did it, not Shakespeare. We sense the rightness of the poetic justice brought against Macbeth for his crime. But we would certainly consider it very unjust if Shakespeare were tried and put to death for killing Duncan.2 And no one suggests that there is any problem in reconciling Shakespeare’s benevolence with his omnipotence over the world of the drama. Indeed, there is reason for us to praise Shakespeare for raising up this character, Macbeth, to show us the consequences of sin.3

God Brings About Sin Without Himself Sinning

The difference between levels, then, may have moral significance as well as metaphysical.4 It may illumine why the biblical writers, who do not hesitate to say that God brings about sin and evil, are not tempted to accuse him of wrongdoing. The relation between God and ourselves, of course, is different in some respects from that between an author and his characters. Most significantly: we are real; Macbeth is not. But between God and ourselves there is a vast difference in the kind of reality and in relative status. God is the absolute controller and authority, the most present fact of nature and history. He is the lawgiver, we the law receivers. He is the head of the covenant; we are the servants. He has devised the creation for his own glory; we seek his glory, rather than our own. He makes us as the potter makes pots, for his own purposes. Do these differences not put God in a different moral category as well?

God Is Not Required to Defend Himself

The very transcendence of God plays a significant role in biblical responses to the problem of evil. Because God is who he is, the covenant Lord, he is not required to defend himself against charges of injustice. He is the judge, not we. Very often in Scripture, when something happens that calls God’s goodness in question, God pointedly refrains from explaining. Indeed, he often rebukes those human beings who question him. Job demanded an interview with God, so that he could ask God the reasons for his sufferings (23:1-7, 31:35-37). But when he met God, God asked the questions: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (38:3). The questions mostly revealed Job’s ignorance about God’s creation: if Job doesn’t understand the ways of the animals, how can he presume to call God’s motives in question? He doesn’t even understand earthly things; how can he presume to debate heavenly things? God is not subject to the ignorant evaluations of his creatures.5

The Potter and the Clay

It is significant that the potter/clay image appears in the one place in Scripture where the problem of evil is explicitly addressed.6 In Rom. 9:19-21, Paul appeals specifically to the difference in metaphysical level and status between the creator and the creature:

One of you will say to me, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will? But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Rom. 9:19-21)

This answer to the problem of evil turns entirely on God’s sovereignty. It is as far as could be imagined from a free will defense. It brings to our attention the fact that his prerogatives are far greater than ours, as does the author/character model.

A Sense in Which God “Authors” Evil

One might object to this model that it makes God the “author” of evil. But that objection, I think, confuses two senses of “author.” As we have seen, the phrase “author of evil” connotes not only causality of evil, but also blame for it. To “author” evil is to do it. But in saying that God is related to the world as an author to a story, we actually provide a way of seeing that God is not to be blamed for the sin of his creatures.

Three Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil

This is, of course, not the only biblical response to the problem of evil. Sometimes God does not respond by silencing us, as above, but by showing us in some measure what evil contributes to his plan, what I have called the “greater good defense.” The greater good defense refers particularly to God’s Lordship attribute of control, that he is sovereign over evil and uses it for good. The Rom. 9 response refers particularly to God’s Lordship attribute of authority. And his attribute of covenant presence addresses the emotional problem of evil, comforting us with the promises of God and the love of Jesus from which no evil can separate us (Rom. 8:35-39).


1 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, 321-22.

2 Think how many writers of TV programs would be taken from us if such a legal basis were valid. No further comment.

3 As my friend Steve Hays points out in correspondence, the dark aspects of Shakespeare’s dramas also add to his stature as an artist. Our admiration of Shakespeare is partly based on his understanding of the sin of the human soul and his ability to expose and deal with that sin, not trivially, but in ways that surprise us and deepen our understanding.

4 The metaphysical difference between the creator God and the world of which evil is a part may indicate the true connection between the ethical and metaphysical, as opposed to the false connection of the “chain of being” thinkers mentioned earlier in this chapter. It may also indicate a grain of truth in the privation theory: there is a metaphysical difference between good and evil, but it is not the difference between being and nonbeing, but rather the difference between uncreated being and created being.

5 To say this is not to adopt the view of Gordon H. Clark that God is ex lex, or outside of, not subject to, the moral law. See Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), where he argues that because God is above the moral law he is not subject to it. Certainly God has some prerogatives that he forbids to us, such as the freedom to take human life. But for the most part, the moral laws God imposes upon us are grounded in his own character. See Ex. 20:11, Lev. 11:44-45,Matt. 5:45, 1 Pet. 1:15-16. God will not violate his own character. What Scripture denies is that man has sufficient understanding of God’s character and his eternal plan (not to mention sufficient authority) to bring accusations against him.

6 The problem is raised, of course, in the Book of Job and many other places in Scripture. But to my knowledge, Rom. 9 is the only passage in which a biblical writer gives an explicit answer to it. Job, of course, never learns why he has suffered.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.