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Over the years I’ve read much of Eleonore Stump’s writing and have a tremendous amount of admiration for her work. She is one of the premier philosophers and theologians of the Thomistic tradition and is highly acclaimed across the academic world of philosophical theology. Wandering in Darkness was not only significantly illuminating for me but profoundly moving (see a brief remark here). Her contribution to atonement studies continues to shape that rigorous discussion in important ways and I learned so very much from it (see her Atonement and a brief YouTube presentation). When I learned of The Image of God: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Mourning I was excited to get started reading. Building on her previous work, this newest release carefully and brilliantly cashes out a defense of God’s sustaining and redeeming love in the wake of human suffering and evil. She accomplishes this by defining and defending the felix culpa view.

Before some highlights of my own, I offer the publisher’s description and table of contents.

The problem of evil has generated varying attempts at theodicy. To show that suffering is defeated for a sufferer, a theodicy argues that there is an outweighing benefit which could not have been gotten without the suffering. Typically, this condition has the tacit presupposition given that this is a post-Fall world. Consequently, there is a sense in which human suffering would not be shown to be defeated even if there were a successful theodicy because a theodicy typically implies that the benefit in question could have been gotten without the suffering if there had not been a Fall. There is a part of the problem of evil that would remain, then, even if there were a successful theodicy. This is the problem of mourning: even defeated suffering in the post-Fall world merits mourning. How is this warranted mourning compatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God? The traditional response to this problem is the felix culpa view, which maintains that the original sin was fortunate because there is an outweighing benefit to sufferers that could not be gotten in a world without suffering. The felix culpa view presupposes an object of evaluation, namely, the true self of a human being, and a standard of evaluation for human lives. This book explores these and a variety of other topics in philosophical theology in order to explain and evaluate the role of suffering in human lives. 

Table of Contents

  1. A Largely Unremarked Part of the Problem of Evil: The Problem of Mourning and the Felix Culpa View
  2. Life After Death: The Notion of the True Self
  3. Worship: The True Self and Thriving
  4. Union with God: The True Self and the Desires of the Heart
  5. The Image of God: The Perfection of the True Self
  6. An Excursus: Knowledge and Narrative
  7. The Love of God: The Narrative
  8. The Nature of a Defense
  9. The Defense of the Felix Culpa View

Some Highlights and Remarks

As contents above show, Stump rolls out her thesis carefully and provides an in-depth, systematic defense of her position that is characteristic of her writing. My scope here is narrower than a full-on review. I strive only to highlight the crux of the felix culpa view. Should my explication and comments prove helpful in piquing interests and promoting a reading of her text, then all the better.

Put simply felix culpa is Latin for ‘fortunate [or happy] fault’. Aquinas referenced the expression in relation to the necessity of the incarnation of God in Christ (Summa Theologica, III, Q1, Reply to Objection 3). Alvin Plantinga used it regarding the problem of evil.

As I understand Stump’s use, the felix culpa view is multi-layered so any attempt at capturing the gist of it will be complex. Essentially, it is a view where any shame, guilt, angst, sorrow, or pain associated with suffering and evil is outweighed by some resulting good that emerges from the affliction. Sufferers become increasingly glorious not only from their suffering but particularly because of it. Moreover, given that the resulting good only emerges from the affliction, the afflicted will not wish their circumstances to be otherwise. Suffering and evil, therefore, are instrumental to the end that the sufferer is gradually becoming their true self by being drawn closer into union with God through surrender. Not only is the sufferer’s own glory increased because of the suffering, but this degree of glory would not obtain by any other means. Finally, the paradigmatic expression of the felix culpa view is displayed in the passion of Christ and similarly mirrored in his closest disciples’ experience of the resurrected Christ.

To illustrate, Stump compares the wounds that remain on Christ’s resurrected body with the psychological scars of Mary Magdalene and Peter that turn up from their distress after Christ’s arrest, crucifixion, and burial. Here is how she puts it.

The wounds of Christ’s crucifixion remain in his resurrected body because they do not disfigure his body; they add to its glory. In the story, something similar is true of Mary Magdalene and Peter. The wounds and scars of their lives do remain. And yet, for Mary Magdalene and for Peter, their lives in the post-Fall world do not constitute a sad or depressing version of what their lives might have been in a world without a Fall. Instead, there is something glorious in the life of each of them that each of them would prefer if offered a choice in full understanding of the alternatives, something that in their story each of them does prefer. The image of the love of God most manifested in Christ’s worst suffering on the cross is intensified in each of them because of the wounds and scars in their lives when they accept their suffering for Christ’s sake and join him in suffering for the sake of the love of God. That is why, in their story, they do not rebuke Christ for failing to keep them from suffering. They do not wish that Christ had done otherwise with respect to them (p 295).

It is especially noteworthy that, upon seeing the risen Christ and being united with him, “neither Peter nor Mary Magdalene taxes Christ for having allowed them to suffer needlessly” (p 295). Similarly Stump observes that, once healed of his infirmity, the man born blind does not express resentment for being blind (John 9) nor does Thomas call out Christ for not having appeared a week earlier to him. In fact, just the sight of Christ turns Thomas’s cynicism into worship and he seemingly forgets his weeklong disappointment (p 296).1

Early on Stump argues that “even an omnipotent God cannot alter the past” (p 6). This is crucial to the felix culpa view. The lives of Harriet Tubman and St. Patrick, for example, suggests that “the wounds and scars of their suffering remain in their psyches for as long as they live, and in fact everlastingly in the stories of their lives. Because the past is permanent, their past injuries are permanent also; the narratives of their lives include the wounds and scars of those injuries forever” (p 7). We do not celebrate their afflictions. We do, however, honor and even cherish the increased glory of their lives that results from them having been afflicted.

On this calculus and reading, something similar is true for the wounds and scars of our lives. While our afflictions become enduring facets of our stories, we have a moral intuition that evil has no intrinsic value. This makes mourning the effects from evil not only morally appropriate but epistemically warranted. And so, by increasingly perceiving the instrumental value of suffering in serving up God’s loving purposes, we are drawn closer into union with God. The felix culpa view seemingly requires this vantage point on our past, in our present, and certainly for our future. It also inspires a foundation on which emotional and spiritual healing can be constructed and sustained.

A central claim of the felix culpa view is that ”the post-Fall world and the lives of those in grace in this world are somehow better, more glorious, more of a triumph for the creator, than the world and those lives would have been had there been no Fall” (p 11). In effect, since suffering and evil yield some greater good than otherwise would not have been, God is justified in allowing suffering and evil. Redemption comes through suffering, but also because of it. In no way does this entail that evil and suffering is intrinsically good. It does entail that we see suffering as necessary to bring about the optimal state of our human condition, just as the passion of Christ was necessary for making glorious the human condition. Embracing this understanding is necessary for adopting the felix culpa view as outlined by Stump.

Finally, the felix culpa view shows this post-Fall world is actually a gift that provides the best opportunity — indeed the only opportunity — to mirror God’s love more fully in ways we otherwise would not. In doing so, we gradually become our true selves as God’s love is intensified by our sufferings (cf., pp 240ff).

This post has only scratched the surface of Stump’s thesis showing the depth of the felix culpa view. Certainly more could be said, but I want to close by drawing attention to chapter 7, “The Love of God: The Narrative”. It offers a “composite meta-narrative” using texts from the Gospels on Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension, along with her commentary to “unearth a story of the love of God” (p 173). It is exemplary in atonement theology, deep in the Christology of Chalcedon and Trinitarian theology, and wonderfully insightful on the human psyche in the wake of pain and suffering. Chapter 7 alone warrants the cost of the book and is key to enlivening the felix culpa view!

If there were a higher commendation for The Image of God: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Mourning I cannot conceive of one. It is convincingly argued, vigorously researched, pastorally composed, biblically responsible, theologically rich, and emotionally rewarding.

  1. Despite insisting on touching Christ when he appears to Thomas (see John 20:25), the text does not say Thomas actually touched Christ (John 20:26-29). Instead, it indicates seeing Christ was wholly sufficient to convince Thomas that Christ is risen (cf., p 296). ↩︎

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