Robert Jenson on Revisionary Metaphysics

Recently, I wrote a book review of a collection of Robert Jenson essays entitled Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics for The International Journal of Systematic Theology.1 Unfortunately, IJST considered the first version of the review to be too long; they wanted a short review, not a review essay. The following contains the bulk of what I omitted, focusing on Jenson’s understanding of “revisionary metaphysics,” and, particularly, on questions of divine immutability and impassibility. I affirm the traditional position, and some might find helpful my interaction with Jenson’s challenge.

TrinityThere is a dominant sub-theme that pervades Robert Jenson’s book, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics and provides its title: revisionary metaphysics.2 What does Jenson mean by “revisionary metaphysics”? In the preface, Jenson affirms that insofar as the question “What is it to be?” continues to be asked, Christian theology necessarily has to do with metaphysics; classical Christian theology necessarily interacted with and revised pagan Greek metaphysics to “fit the gospel.” The resulting Christian metaphysics is above all trinitarian and Christological. Jenson’s acknowledged conversation partners include the Cappadocian fathers, Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, “certain Lutherans,” Karl Barth, and Jonathan Edwards (pp. vii-viii).

However, Jenson is also convinced that traditional Christian metaphysics has been influenced too much by Greek metaphysics; in particular, he rejects notions that God is impassible and timeless, doctrines of God that he considers implicitly unitarian or binitarian rather than trinitarian, and Christologies that are adoptionist or Nestorian.3 Several of the essays in this book emphasize these themes. In “Ipse pater non est impassibilis (The Father Himself Is Not Impassible),” Jenson points to the Hellenistic roots of impassibility: Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics did not know about the incarnation or the biblical distinction between Creator and creature; for them, the fundamental distinction was between the temporal world and a timeless divine realm (p. 94); Jenson insists that if the christological notion that one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh is true, “then the God here referred to by ‘the Trinity’ is not impassible . . . in any sense of impassibility perceptible in the face of the world, it will not do as an attribute of the God of Scripture and dogma.” (pp. 95, 96).

In an essay entitled “Creator and Creature,” Jenson claims that traditional mappings of the distinction between Creator and creature in terms of oppositions such as infinite/finite, timeless/temporal, transcendent/immanent are “radically mistaken.” Rather, “the difference between Creator and creature is displayed precisely by the christology against which the pair-matchings are most frequently deployed.” (p. 155). Jenson states that “the notion of an infinite will undoes itself.” To will something is to will one thing and not another, and thus to set limits for oneself – not to be infinite. Moreover, an act of will demands a “before and after” that is analogous to time rather than its opposite. To transcend means to transcend something. God does not transcend creation, since he does not start from creation (pp. 156-158).

Jenson proposes establishing the distinction between God and creatures “narratively.” It is God who distinguishes himself from everything else – which is creature – and sets up the Creator/creature difference by taking action. Everything that is not God has being by participation in God who is Being, and necessarily has God as its final and formal cause. Jenson insists that “some form of the Platonic great chain of being is a required moment in the doctrine of creation,” and that “some modification of the Platonic notion of ‘participation’ is indispensable in Christian theology.” The problem with emanation schemes is that anything that emanates from God is drawn back into God, and Jenson suggests that the act of creation is a preventative action on God’s part to prevent such a merging of divine and created identity: “God establishes himself as Creator and everything else as a creature by activity stopping this sort of return from happening.” (pp. 158-159).

Drawing on Cyril of Alexandria’s christological doctrine that, in the incarnation, Jesus Christ is a single agent, Jenson points to Christology as the solution to the emanationist problem: “To keep his creating from becoming an emanating and absorbing, God does the incarnation.” Insofar as the incarnate Christ is both Creator and creature, and yet a single agent, Jenson finds the theological clue he needs to establish the difference between Creator and creature: “God acts to block the possibility of emanation/return by being in his second identity an actor who acts always as Creator and creature, and by just so seeing to it that there is only that one.” (p. 161).

In “Once More on the Logos asarkos,” Jenson posits two maxims that could be read as unproblematic rejections of Nestorianism: (1) “Jesus is the Son/Logos of God by his relation to the Father, not by a relation to a coordinated reality, “the Son/Logos.’” (2) “In whatever way the Son may antecede his conception to Mary, we must not posit the Son’s antecedent subsistence in such fashion as to make the incarnation the addition of the human Jesus to a Son who was himself without him.” (p. 119-120).

It is Jenson’s third statement that will provoke controversy: (3) Considering the question, “How would the Trinity have been the Trinity if God had not created a world, and there had therefore been no creature Jesus to be the Son, or had let the fallen creation go, with the same result?,” Jenson concedes that he previously pondered this question, but “It has now dawned on me that the putative question is nonsense, and so therefore is my previous attempt to respond to it.” (p. 120).

At the conclusion of the essay, Jenson endorses Thomas Aquinas’s position that “a divine hypostasis is ‘a subsisting relation,’” concluding that “it is Jesus’ relation to the Father – and not Jesus as a specimen of humanity – which is the second hypostasis of Trinity.” Jenson states: “The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God” (Jenson’s emphasis), and “In the divine life there is therefore no line on which the relation describable as God’s sending and Jesus’ obedience could occupy a position ‘after’ anything.” (p. 122).

What to make of Jenson’s “revisionary metaphysics”? Although some theologians have thought it possible to dispense with metaphysics, Jenson’s claim that Christian metaphysics is indispensable is surely correct. Theological affirmations concerning the triune persons, God’s activity in creation, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, whether human beings have a capacity for grace, how and whether grace transforms human nature, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, how God operates in the sacraments, the union between the risen Christ and the church, and eschatology as both re-creation and transformation, all presume a uniquely Christian ontology. Jenson is also correct that a properly Christian metaphysics must be revisionary. Certainly patristic discussions of the incarnation and the Trinity, Medieval discussions of topics such as grace and nature, and Reformation discussions of justification and the sacraments, simultaneously used and transformed philosophical concepts and tools ultimately derived from pagan metaphysics. The real issue of disagreement concerns Jenson’s claim that Christian metaphysics has been insufficiently revisionary. Are notions of divine impassibility and immutability, contrasts between Creator and creature in terms of infinite/finite, eternal/temporal, and affirmations of a Logos asarkos, uncritical holdovers of pagan (Hellenistic) metaphysics?

Jenson’s claim that they are so indicates a division that (broadly speaking) cuts through contemporary theology, with theologians such as Jenson and “revisionst” Barthians such as Bruce McCormack on the one side, and more traditional Barthians (George Hunsinger, Thomas F. Torrance), traditional Thomists, “Barthian” Thomists (Hans urs von Balthasar, D. Stephen Long), and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, on the other.4

The complaint concerning Hellenism is debatable. Another possible reading is that the big threat from Hellenism came with emanationism, and the crucial break concerned necessary creation.5 Unlike the One of Plotinus, the triune God does not need to create a world because God is eternally complete in se in that God’s love is fully actualized in the triune relations. But it is precisely this affirmation that the school of Jenson and McCormack rejects in their denial of the Logos asarkos.6

A second concern is whether Jenson has accurately characterized the position with which he disagrees. No theologian likes to be accused of rejecting a position based on a misunderstanding. Jenson himself complains of having been misunderstood and offers a position that may help to “avoid stalemate” between passibilists and impassibilists, traditionalists and revisionists (p. 93). Nonetheless, as critics of divine “impassibility” and “timelessness” too often do, Jenson characterizes “impassibility” and “timelessness” as if they were meant to be positive descriptions, what might be called “attributes” of God. He complains, for example, that it will not do to evoke the “analogous character of predicates applied to God” when discussing divine timelessness. “God is good” says something about God as the formal cause of goodness in creatures, but if time and eternity are contradictories, then “we define the difference between Creator and creature in such a fashion as to make the posit of a cause in God . . . simply inconceivable” (p. 157).

Talk of analogy is a venture into Thomist territory, and Jenson acknowledges his appreciation for Aquinas’s distinction between essence and existence, which he calls a “brilliant move” (p. vii-viii, 158). In creatures, essence (what something is) and existence (that something is) are distinct; in God, they are not. What Jenson does not acknowledge is the significance that this distinction has for Aquinas’s understanding of divine “timelessness” and “immutability.” For Aquinas, that essence and existence are not distinct in God means that God is the pure act of existing (purus actus essendi), and cannot have potency toward more or less existing. According to Aquinas, “to be” (esse) is an act (actus essendi), not a property, and God fully exists because he fully actualizes his own existence.

Aquinas’s task in Summa Theologiae 1.3-26 has often been misunderstood as that of providing a description of divine attributes: infinity, immutability, goodness, justice, providence, and so on, but this is a misreading. Aquinas distinguishes the following ways in which human beings can speak of God: (1) negation: the denial of God to any limitations unique to creatures; (2) positive relational terms: (2a) both metaphor (“Our God is a consuming fire”) and (2b) strictly relational terms (“Creator,” “Savior”); (3) positive analogical perfections terms that speak literally of the Triune divine nature in itself (God is both “good” and “goodness,” “just” and “justice”).

It is only (3) perfection terms (like “goodness” and “justice”) that are predicated analogously of God. “Timelessness” and “immutability” are neither attributes nor positive descriptions of God at all, so certainly not analogous predications; they belong to Aquinas’s “negative” theology, denying of God limitations that strictly belong to creatures as a way of formulating the distinction between God and creation.7 David Burrell has suggested that such terms should be understood as “formal features” of divine simplicity.8 ST 1.3.1-8 provides descriptions of the ways in which “God is not”9; the One in whom existence and essence are identical will be absolutely simple, not composed in any way – without extended parts, lacking a distinction between form and matter, essence and existence, genus and difference, substance and accidents. Infinity (or “limit-less-ness”) and immutability (or “change-less-ness”) are not positive descriptions of God at all, but denials to God of limitations distinctive to creatures.10 God is infinite because he is not finite: since God is his own subsistent existence, he is not limited by matter or form, and omnipresence means that God exists wherever he causes creatures to be. Because God is the pure actuality of existing, God’s nature is unchangeable, not subject to deterioration or further actualization: unlike creatures, God is not susceptible to substantial change (coming to be or ceasing from existence), accidental change (as simple, God has no accidents), or change of place (God is not in a place and so cannot move to where he was not before), or acquisition or loss of perfections.

Moreover, there is no need to posit an additional explanation apart from God’s necessary existence itself in order to distinguish between God and creatures. That God is simple (without parts or composition) and exists necessarily is sufficient to distinguish God from all composite and contingently existing creatures. (Simplicity does not compromise Trinitarianism because the divine persons are not parts, but rather relations of origin).

At the same time, Jenson is at least partially correct; advocates of impassibility and passibility tend to talk past one another. Advocates of impassibility are concerned with God’s nature in itself, which they rightly deny can be enhanced or debased by creatures; critics are concerned with God’s relation to and interactions with creatures in a contingent and changing world. Jenson (and similar theologians) seem to have three concerns: (1) Is there any sense in which God responds to creatures? (2) Is there any sense of “before” and “after” in God’s actions? (3) Does eternity have any positive relation to time or rather (in the concern expressed by Jenson), are time and eternity simple contradictories?

Many advocates of impassibility have simply denied that God responds to creatures in any sense. This has been a consistent affirmation of the Bañezian interpretation of Aquinas.11 A distinction between God’s nature and divine intentionality may be more helpful here. Interpreters of Aquinas point to a key passage in which Aquinas removes intentional activity from what he means by “movement” or “change” (ST 1.9.1.1). Aquinas speaks of actions of understanding, willing and loving as “operations,” not change in the strict sense of movement from potentiality to act. Accordingly, it does not follow from the full perfection (and thus immutability) of God’s pure act of existing that God cannot respond to or interact with creatures.12 In a “creative retrieval and completion” of Aquinas’s metaphysics of personhood, Norris Clarke has argued that receptivity must be included as a positive perfection of being, and particularly of personhood. Without corresponding receptivity, authentic mutual love would be incomplete, and there could be no self-communication. In the doctrine of the Trinity, receptivity is “present in the Son and the Spirit . . . as a pure perfection of existence at its highest . . .”13

Jenson writes of “narrative time” as “the ordering of events by their mutual reference,” and the “narratively-temporal extension of an event [as] its relation to other events in a set,” which he compares to “musical time” as a way of discussing God’s economic actions in redemptive history, as God’s “total history with us” (pp. 97-98). Some rapprochement might be possible here to the extent that advocates of immutability would be able to speak of a logical order in God’s beings and actions: “before” and “after” in God does not have to mean temporal priority. In the generation of the Son, the Father is eternally the origin of the Son’s being, and the Son eternally receives his being from the Father; yet there is no temporal order between them. In the order of redemption, both creation and sin are logically prior to redemption. One of Aquinas’s fundamental assertions is that God is not the cause of sin (ST 1.49.2). Sin is unnecessary, and so, logically, might not have happened at all. At the same time, it is well known that Aquinas answers the historic conundrum of whether the Word would have become incarnate if there had been no sin by affirming (against what would later be called the Scotist position) that the Word would not have become incarnate if there had been no sin (ST 3.1.3). Without having to decide between the Thomist and Scotist positions, it is clear that Aquinas held that a fundamental affirmation of Christian faith – that the Son of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ – was contingent on the outcome of a contingent human event. If sin had never occurred – again, according to Aquinas, a distinct possibility – there would have been no economic history of redemption. So whatever Aquinas’s affirmations concerning divine immutability (unchangeableness), he did not understand this to mean that God does not respond to human activity, nor that it is not meaningful to speak of a divine “before and after” in terms of God’s economic activity. Thus there are Christian truths affirmed by those who affirm divine impassibility that presume that some of God’s actions are responses to human actions and that there is in God some kind of logical order (at least) that corresponds to the created temporal order of redemption: redemption presupposes the existence of sin, which God does not create; prayer is the exercise of a genuine created causality, which, if we take seriously, presumes divine response to human activity.

Finally, given that immutability and timelessness are negative descriptions and not positive affirmations at all, it should not follow that eternity and time are simple contraries; Brian Davies points out, for example, that, for Aquinas, eternity is a “measure of duration,” which measures “abiding existence,” and that eternity means that, God “embraces (includit) all times,” that eternity is present to all times (ST 1.10.1; 1.10.2 ad 4; 1.57.3). Davies interprets Aquinas to understand eternity to mean that “God has duration and that he exists at all times.”14

What about Christology and Jenson’s concerns about Nestorianism? Following Cyril of Alexandria, the historic Chaleconian position is that the subject of identity in the incarnation is the single divine person of the Word/Logos/Son who has assumed a human nature; the personal identity of the Word incarnate is neither the human nature, nor a human person. Thus, the distinction between person and nature is a real advancement of Chalcedon christology. Since there is no second human person, Jenson’s anti-Nestorian affirmations follow from the traditional doctrines of enhypostasia and anhypostasia. As human, the incarnate Word is named Jesus, but there is no separate human person in distinction from the divine person of the Word/Son. The point of the communicatio idiomatum is that the subject of predication is the person, not the nature. Accordingly, because Jesus’ personal identity simply is that of the second person of the Trinity, any predications apply to the divine person. God does indeed suffer in Christ because the subject of the incarnation is the second person of the Trinity, but the Son suffers as human, in his human, not his divine nature.15

Another helpful distinction is that between what Aquinas calls “real relations” and “rational [or notional] relations” (ST 1.13.7). Against what he considers an inaccurate criticism, Jenson denies that he believes that God “actualizes himself . . . through his actions within history”: “I have not said any such pseudo-Hegelian thing.” (p. 93). But he is ambiguous. At times, Jenson seems to collapse the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity. As noted above, Jenson follows Aquinas in affirming that a divine hypostasis is “a subsisting relation,” and that Jesus’ relation to the Father is the second person of the Trinity. Jenson’s conclusion, however, that “The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God” (p. 122), is one which Aquinas would certainly not have drawn in that it seems to erase the distinction between the Trinity as eternal subsisting relations of origin (ST 1.28), and the temporal economic missions of the Son and the Spirit (ST 1.43). For Aquinas, the eternal subsisting relation of origin which distinguishes the Father from the Son is a different kind of relation from the Son’s temporal mission. The former is eternal, necessary, and what Aquinas calls a “real relation”; the latter is contingent, free, and would not have taken place if humanity had never sinned. It is what Aquinas calls a “rational relation,” since it involves the relation between a non-necessary created temporal reality – the created human nature assumed by the Son – and the eternal divine person who assumes it. If Jenson is conflating the Son’s eternal relation of origin (“subsisting relation”) with the Son’s temporal mission (“The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God”), there would be a problem. This, combined with Jenson’s assertion that the incarnation is necessary in order to distinguish between God and the world would seem to imply not only a necessary creation – perhaps even a supralapsarian creation since the purpose of the incarnation is redemption – but that the existence of the world is in some sense necessary in order for God to be Trinity. If (1) it is necessary for God to become incarnate in order to preserve the distinction between God and creation, and (2) the temporal mission of the Son (“The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience”) simply is the second hypostasis in God, then, at the least, it would seem to follow that creation is a necessary presupposition to God’s trinitarian identity – in which case it might be understandable that a reader would conclude that Jenson understands God to constitute himself (or at least to determine himself in some manner) through historical action. Far from being “nonsense,” it is of crucial importance to affirm that God does not need to create a world, and God would still be Trinity even if he had not.

In conclusion, this collection of essays is classic Robert Jenson. What he writes about the Christian story, post-modern culture, liturgy, the creedal center of the Christian message as located in the Trinity, creation, covenant, incarnation, resurrection, church and eschatology is always worth listening to. At the same time, traditional Barthians and Thomists will not be convinced, or at least not completely convinced, by Jenson’s “revisions” of classical Christian metaphysics.

1 International Journal of Systematic Theology, 18 no 4 Oct 2016, p 465-467

2 Robert W. Jenson, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation, ed Stephen John Wright. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).

3 These have long been themes in Jenson’s theology. See, for example, Robert W. Jenson, Unbaptized God: The Basic Flaw in Ecumenical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

4 This is to paint with broad strokes, of course. Barth accepted “predicates of classical theism . . . in modified form”; both Barth and Torrance tended to interpret immutability in terms of “divine constancy.” George Hunsinger, Reading Barth With Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), p. 131; Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), p. 239.

5 David B. Burrell, C.S.C., Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), pp. 5-18; Giles Emery, O.P. ‘The Immutability of the God of Love and the Problem of Language Concerning the “Suffering of God”’, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, ed. James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), pp. 33-34.

6 For a traditional Barthian defense of the Logos asarkos, see Hunsinger, pp. 16-32, 157-158.

7 “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not. . . Now it can be shown how God is not, by denying Him whatever is opposed to the idea of Him, as, composition, motion, and the like.” ST 1.3 Prol.

8 See David B. Burrell, C.S.C, Aquinas: God and Action (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979); Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986); Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

9 It is not until ST 1.13 that Aquinas addresses positive predication concerning God, whether metaphorical terms (“rock”) (art. 3), relational terms (such as “Creator” or “Lord”) (art. 7), or analogously predicated “perfection” terms (“good” and “goodness.” “wise” and “wisdom”) (art. 5).

10 “[W]hen Aquinas tells us that God is eternal, he is primarily telling us what God is not, namely not changing. And in holding to the view that God is immutable, he is chiefly denying that certain creaturely limitations are found in God.” Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 111.

11 David Bentley Hart is particularly critical of the Bañezian approach in “Impassibility as Transcendence: On the Infinite Innocence of God.” Divine Impassibility, pp. 299-323.

12 Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action, p. 37; Emery, p. 62; Burrell writes: “[If] divine eternity be understood for what it is – a formal feature of divinity as such – then the creator who bestows esse and is hence present to each moment of time as it exists in its respective now will be one intimately engaged with each individual. And when such individuals are intentional beings, capable of knowing and loving, such a God will be responsive to them as they are responsive to divine promptings. Nor does such a picture in any way clash with another formal feature of divinity – unchangeableness – since intentional interaction is not change but involves the responsiveness of knowing and loving.” Knowing the Unknowable God, pp. 105-106. William Hill writes: “[God] willing to enter into relationships with human beings, who as persons determine themselves to be the kind of persons they are vis-a-vis God, is on his part a willingness to be determined on this ontological level of freedom and personhood, without any corresponding mutation or determination on the level of nature.” “Does the World Make a Difference to God?,” Search for the Absent God: Tradition and Modernity in Religious Understanding, ed. Mary Catherine Hikert. (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 118.

13 W. Norris Clarke, S.J., Person and Being (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993,1998), pp. 20-21, 82-87.

14 Davies, p. 109.

15 Bruce D.Marshall, “The Dereliction of Christ and the Impassibility of God,” Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, pp. 246-298; Thomas G. Weinandy, “Cyril and the Mystery of the Incarnation,” The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, ed. Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating (London, New York: T & T Clark, 2003), pp. 23-54.




Notes on Predestination

TrinityWe begin with the Scholastic Distinction Between Ordo Cognoscendi (Order of Knowing) and the Ordo Essendi (Order of Being): The order in which we come to know things is the opposite of the order in which they exist.

Applied to theology: The basic principle of theology is that God is in se who he is in his revelation. In ordo essendi, God exists necessarily and freely as eternal Triune identity. In ordo cognoscendi, we come to know God through his economic acts in history, recorded and witnessed by prophets and apostolic eyewitnesses. Knowledge of God as Triune follows knowledge of God as incarnate in Christ, which follows the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We know God is and has always been Triune because God the Father raised his Son Jesus from the dead.

Scripture is the inspired prophetic and apostolic witness to the Triune God’s economic revelation in history. In the ordo cognoscendi, we come to know who God is first through this prophetic and apostolic witness. Scripture is referential in two directions: history (the economy of redemption – the economic Trinity); ontology (God in se – the immanent Trinity).

The primary language of Scripture is not the language of ontology, but the language of symbol, metaphor, and narrative. The proper object of Christian faith is the subject matter of revelation (the Triune God in se), but this knowledge is mediated to us through the biblical language of symbol, metaphor, and narrative. Our subsequent knowledge of the Triune God as the subject matter of revelation enables us to re-read Scripture in light of its economic conclusion. We know how the story begins (with the Trinity) because we know how it ends (God the Father raised Jesus from the dead).

The language of Scripture is the language of “common sense” realism (symbol, metaphor, and narrative), of realities in relation to us (pro nobis). The language of ontology is the language of “critical realism,” of things in themselves (in se). In the ordo cognoscendi, the move from the economic to the immanent Trinity is the move from common sense to critical realism, from narrative, symbol, and metaphor, to history, and then to ontology. Phil. 2:5-11 and Nicea are not saying different things, but one speaks in the language of common sense realism (narrative and symbol); the other speaks in the language of critical realism (ontology).

What does this have to do with predestination?

The language of Scripture about election and predestination is not the language of ontology, but the language of narrative, symbol, and metaphor (economy). Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ saves; Scripture does not provide a metaphysics or ontology of salvation.

The basic biblical teaching about election and predestination: 1) Jesus Christ is the Elect One; 2) Election is in Christ – there is no election outside of Christ; 3) Some are saved (because of God’s redemption in Christ); There is an elect Community (Israel and the Church) and they are chosen in Christ; 4) God has an eschatological goal for his people, chosen in Christ, that they be conformed to the image of his Son (salvation); from all eternity, God predestined his chosen people to attain this goal; 5) Some are lost (through their own fault) and thus do not attain the predestined goal.

In the history of the church, the discussion of election and predestination has been primarily concerned not so much with the question of God’s election of a people in Christ, but with the question of the ontology of the salvation of the individual Christian. How is it that human beings come to have faith? Why do some believe and not others? What is the relationship between grace and human freedom?

In terms of ontology, this is simply one instance of the general problem of the relation between the Creator (eternal, necessary) and creation (dependent, contingent). Other examples in the history of theology: 1) the incarnation (Nicea, Chalcedon); 2) the sacraments; 3) sanctifying grace.

Some basic metaphysical principles:

1) The distinction between God and the world. God is not an item “in the world” and must not be conceived as such. God and the world do not “add up.” God is not a competitive “other” in the world. God does not become “greater” because of creation, but neither does creation mean that God needs to “limit himself” for created being to exist.

2) The eternal Triune God is complete in himself and has no unsatisfied needs. God creates freely out of love in order to share with creatures the goodness of the inner Trinitarian life. God is entirely gracious and always acts in accord with his character as good. God does not need us. God does not create because he has an unfulfilled need to demonstrate attributes of “justice” and “mercy.”

3) God is the supreme Good (summum bonum), in whom there can be no evil—not because whatever is, is good, or because something becomes good merely because God wills it, but because God’s nature is inherently good, and God cannot will or create evil.

4) That God is in se who he is in his revelation means that God’s actions toward his creatures are always for their good. There is no “hidden God” behind God’s revelation in Christ where he is not gracious (Barth).

5) In discussing the relation between Creator and creature, not only divine aseity and sovereignty, but also created contingency and genuine created reality, must be preserved. God creates and works through created contingencies in such a manner that they retain their integrity as created contingencies.

6) God is sovereign over his creation. God is present to each creature and each created event in that he gives existence to whatever is. If God were to cease creating and sustaining the universe for even a moment, it would collapse back into nothingness.

7) Sin exists, but God is in no way the cause of it. Sin is completely contrary to God’s will. God is in no way the cause of the sinful actions of creatures. God permitted, but did not cause, the fall into sin. God does not decree or “efficaciously permit” the fall to happen in such a way that the existence of evil in the world is inevitable. The existence of sin is an entirely contingent event, and truly might not have happened.

8) Although God is not the cause of evil, God is capable of bringing good out of evil, and does so. (This is the doctrine of providence).

9) Eternity and immutability do not mean that God does not “respond” to human actions in the sense that God’s actions never vary as a consequence of human actions. (Among other things, this would be an implication of the personalism of Trinitarian theology. The relation between God and creatures is not that of an irresistible force to a passive object, but of the Trinitarian persons who share their love with created persons who respond to grace with gratitude.) As mentioned above, the fall into sin was an entirely contingent event, and might not have happened at all. Redemption is a response to this human contingency. Any supralapsarian doctrine of redemption that would imply the necessary existence of sin is contrary to 7) above. (Is this a danger for some Barthian formulations of election?)

10) If God is in himself who he is in his revelation, then God’s promise of salvation in Christ and his command to all to repent necessarily imply unlimited atonement. That the incarnate Word assumed human nature means that Christ suffered in and redeemed the humanity that is common to all human beings. (If “what is not assumed is not redeemed” is true, its corollary is that “what is assumed, is redeemed.”) God commands all to repent because God wills the salvation of all, and Christ assumed the human nature of, and died for all human beings. The gospel can be preached as good news for all because it is. Every human being is someone who has been created in the image of God, is fallen into sin, is redeemed by Christ, and is summoned to the promise of eternal life in Christ.

11) God’s gracious initiative is always prior to human response. Faith is enabled by divine grace and is thus a gift. The analogy of “double agency” (Farrer, Hunsinger) is more adequate here than models of determinism, monergism, or semi-Pelagianism, because it is more consonant with the personalism of Trinitarian theology. In grace, God moves the human will in such a manner that wherever God acts, there is more human freedom, not less. In the words of the scholastic dictum, “Grace does not destroy, but perfects nature.” We speak, then, not of grace and free will, but of grace and “freed will.” Thus, faith is both a divinely enabled gift, but also a vigorous human response—personalism again. Faith is not merely passive. (“Double agency” corresponds to traditional language of “sufficient” and “efficacious” grace; “operative grace,” “prevenient” and “concursive” grace, etc.)

12) Because God moves the created will according to its nature as will (double agency, not determinism), it is possible for grace to be refused. Although God does not create evil, hell is a genuine possibility. The paradox here is that the sinner’s grasp at autonomy is vain, since refusal of grace leads not to freedom, but to the slavery of sin.

13) Election and reprobation are not parallel phenomena, and must not be characterized as such. Scripture speaks of a positive election of redeemed sinners to salvation in Christ. but nowhere speaks of a positive choice of particular sinners from all eternity to damnation. No “double predestination”! Redemption is entirely the work of Christ, and grace enables the elect freely to exercise faith. Damnation is a tragedy because contrary to God’s will, and is entirely the fault of those who refuse the divine gift.

Bibliography

Historical

Arminius, Jacobus. The Works of James Arminius: The London Edition. Translated by James Nichols and William Nichols. 3 vols; vols. 1 & 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Browne, & Green, 1825-1828; vol. 3, London: Thomas Baker, 1875; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Augustine. The Confessions, The City of God, The Enchiridion (numerous translations).

Calvin, John. Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. Translated with an introduction by J. K. S. Reid. London: James Clarke & Co., 1961.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vols. 20, 21 in The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

Hooker, Richard. “Of Predestination” in Appendix to Book V, “Fragments of an Answer to the Letter of certain English Protestants,” Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1907, 1954, vol. 2: 490-543.

Mozley, J. B. A Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination. London: John Murray, 1855.

Canons of the Second Council of Orange. http://www.creeds.net/ancient/orange.htm

Rupp, E. Gordon and Watson, Philip S., edd. and trans. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Edited by Thomas Gilby. New York & Eyre & Spottiswoode, London: Blackfriars in conjunction with McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969.

Modern

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics Volume 2, The Doctrine of God. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T Clark, 1957.

Boer, Harry R. The Doctrine of Reprobation in the Christian Reformed Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Burrell, David B., C.S.C. Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Clarke, W. Norris. Person and Being. Marquette University Press, 1993.

Clarke, W. Norris, S. J. Explorations In Metaphysics: Being – God – Person. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Daane, James. The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit. Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1973.

Farrelly, John Dom M., O.S.B. Predestination, Grace, and Free Will. Westminster Press, MD: The Newman Press, 1964.

Farrer, Austin. Faith and Speculation: An Essay in Philosophical Theology. NY: New York University Press, 1967.

Hunsinger, George. How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of his Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Darton, Longman & Todd; NY: Herder & Herder, 1971.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. The Triune God: Doctrines: The Collected Works 11. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Sokolowski, Robert. The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Torrance, Torrance F. Divine and Contingent Order. NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Witt, William G. Creation, Redemption and Grace in the Theology of Jacob Arminius. (Ph.D Dissertation) Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1993.




Answers to New Atheist Questions: Part 1 — Epistemology

A reader named “Dale” left the following comment in response to my sermon: “CallerID From the Source of the Universe”:

There are two main forces in the universe. Order and chaos. Religion perceives order as good and chaos as evil. These forces have always existed in matter. It is religion that has labeled them as such. Some texts of the Bible have been in existence since 1500 BC. There have been billions of creatures that have been borne, lived, and died before the Bible came along to interpret meaning. It is the nature of matter to be the way it is. It is what it is. Being matter I must die. I go out of existence. That is difficult to accept. I had no existence before I was borne. Faith tells me that there is a transcendence existence beyond matter. Hope comes into play here to treat the anxiety of death. Call it a psychological prop that keeps us sane. Here I can assent to faith or decline to do so. If faith, the promise of glory. Decline, hell or nothing. What is my choice. Glory sounds attractive. Organized religion plays on this dilemma. This is what atheists object to when they challenge believers in this psychological game of meaning.

I thought Dale’s comment was worth responding to at some length.

medallionThank you for writing, Dale. Your points are worth addressing, and I will do so at some length.

First, I want to point out that, in my sermon, I deliberately avoided addressing questions of the origins of evil or suffering, and instead focused on the question of what Christian faith asserts about what it is that God does about the existence of evil and suffering. I also avoided distinguishing between what philosophers call “natural evil” (earthquakes, birth defects) and moral evil (violence, murder, betrayal, theft). I did this for several reasons. First, as a preacher in a church that uses a lectionary, I had to preach from the lectionary texts for the day, and, second, unlike a lecture, a sermon is restricted to what the speaker can say in twenty minutes or so. A more adequate attempt to address the problem would necessarily deal with the origin of evil as well the distinction between natural occurrences (like earthquakes) that threaten human well-being (and are therefore discerned as “evil”), and events that have human causes and are designated as “evil” for moral reasons. The former are more properly “tragedy” than “evil,” while the latter are more properly designated as “evil.” If you lost your wallet, there would be a genuine loss to which you might respond with “tough luck” (minor tragedy), but you would not generally consider the loss “evil.” On the other hand, if I attempted to steal your wallet, then you would likely consider my actions “evil” even if I failed, and you would justifiably be angry with me, even if I actually had done you no harm.

More important than these distinctions, I think, is the question of response to evil, and, as I pointed out, it is one that I have yet to see any of the New Atheists address (or rather even acknowledge) with any sophistication. To the extent that the New Atheists ignore the fundamental Christian claim that God deals with evil in a particular manner, their criticism simply fails to hit its target. I note that your own comment did not address this central point either, but rather focuses on questions about the nature of the universe (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), specifically questions having to do with “natural evil,” and how we might know whether a given natural event is an evil. So I will address those questions.. Your comment covers a lot of territory and addresses several issues, so it needs to be broken down piece by piece.

There are two main forces in the universe. Order and chaos. Religion perceives order as good and chaos as evil. These forces have always existed in matter. It is religion that has labeled them as such.

You begin by making two assertions, the first, having to do with ontology or being, the second with epistemology or theory of knowledge. Claims about what we know and how we know, and claims about being (what is the case) are different kinds of claims and need to be assessed separately.

In order to address your first claim about ontology, it is necessary to begin with the second, about epistemology. I summarize your epistemological claims as follows:

1) Order and chaos are inherent to the structure of the universe. In themselves, they are neither good, nor evil, but simply are what they are (in itself a claim about ontology – I will address this later).
2) “Religion” has designated order as “good,” and “chaos” as evil, but these designates correspond to nothing real in the structure of the universe. They are [psychological] projections, based upon fear and unfounded hope, and are thus illusory (more on this later, as well).
3) Unlike, “religion,” atheism recognizes the universe as it is. It does not project illusory categories (“good,” “evil”) on the universe (implied but not asserted).

In response: I would not say that it is “religion” that has labeled “order” and “chaos” as “good” and “evil.” Rather, it is human beings who have done so. Both Plato and Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder, and, although the various historical religions all in different ways do indeed attempt to address questions about the meaning of life, the problems of suffering and evil, the purpose and destiny of human beings, it seems to be a fundamental characteristic of human beings as such to want to know answers to questions like “Why are we here?,” “Where did we come from?,” “Why is there evil and suffering?,” “What is the fundamental problem?,” “What is the solution to the fundamental problem?,” “How should we live?” These are the fundamental questions addressed by both religion and philosophy, and atheists engage in this activity as much as do the “religious,” and the New Atheism is simply one of numerous examples in the history of thought to attempt to address these fundamental questions.

Human beings are thus fundamentally metaphysical in orientation, and metaphysics is an unavoidable human activity in the sense that human beings, whether religious or not, whether atheists or not, whether philosophers are not, will attempt to answer these questions. It may be true that some religious people have identified order with “goodness” and chaos with “evil,” but this is not fundamentally (or necessarily) a “religious” affirmation. Plato’s philosophy makes something like the same affirmation, and Plato was not “religious,” but a philosopher. There are religions (like Christianity) that would make the formulation differently. (I hope to address this later). At the same time, the heated rhetoric of atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens makes clear that they do not merely believe that there is “chaos” in the universe, but that the suffering that results from such chaos is a genuine evil, and this evil is a primary argument against the existence of God.

Human beings address these fundamental questions of the meaning and purpose of life and the world through symbols, narratives, and intellectual constructs that provide attempts to answer the fundamental questions. Contemporary philosophy and theology tends to refer to these epistemological constructs as “world-views” or “paradigms.”

One of the reasons that contemporary philosophers and theologians tend to speak in terms of “paradigms” or “world-views” has been the collapse of epistemological “foundationalism,” the epistemological position of which Descartes is the prime example. Foundationalism is the position that any claim to knowledge of truth that is not self-evident must itself be based on knowledge of basic foundational truths that are self-evident, such as one’s own existence or the law of non-contradiction. Any “truths” not justified by self-evident foundations are to be doubted. Foundationalism has collapsed because of its internal incoherence. Philosophers have come to realize that there are insufficient self-evident principles on which to build a coherent system, and there is lack of agreement on what the self-evident principles are. The conclusions that supposedly follow from self-evident principles are themselves subject to doubt, and, again, there is no agreement on what those conclusions are. Consequently, foundationalism’s principle of methodological doubt leads inevitably to skepticism. Finally, the consequences that follow from self-evident principles lead to trivial results. Any belief that actually makes a difference in one’s life and is worth committing oneself to is a belief that is inherently subject to being challenged. Finally, before one can reach the point of recognition of self-evident principles and the conclusions that necessarily follow from them, one always has first committed oneself to non-self-evident beliefs that in themselves can be doubted. The “working-knowledge” that ordinary human beings need to navigate the world is based on “trust” to commitments that can necessarily be doubted, and such trust is socially located in communities that exist prior to the point at which we are able to doubt. Thus, St. Augustine’s dictum: “believe in order to understand” is true not only as a prescription for Christian theology, but as necessary advice for anyone to operate in the world. There is no knowledge without prior faith and commitment to things that we cannot prove. Everyone “walks by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Foundationalism thus collapses of its own weight. It is the epistemological equivalent of attempting to lift oneself by one’s boot straps.

Given the collapse of foundationalism, it follows that atheism, just like “religion,” necessarily depends on certain prior faith commitments. Just like “religion,” if atheism is going to make a reasonable case for its positions, it must do so by embracing the plausibility of an epistemological “paradigm.” And it does so. Just like “religion,” the New Atheists “tell a story”; they use symbols and intellectual constructs to make a case that “there is no god” in the exact same way that adherents of various religions or philosophies have used stories and symbols to argue for the plausibility of their own religious or philosophical commitments for thousands of years. It’s just that the New Atheism tells a different story, and appeals to different symbols and stories to reach different conclusions. The most popular story told by the New Atheists is that of the progress of rational science and autonomous individualism over against the intolerant restrictions of irrational religion. Scientific atheism is good because it leads to more progress, more freedom, and more tolerance, while religion is evil because it is founded on irrational superstition, and results in tyranny, intolerance, obscurantism, and violence.

Such paradigms fail or succeed to the extent that they are both internally non-contradictory (consistency), and also can adequately account for and explain observed phenomena of the world around us (comprehensiveness). But they also have to have a certain aesthetic elegance, a “fittingness” that we find attractive, and “just makes sense.” Paradigms that are internally inconsistent or clearly contrary to observed reality tend to collapse of their own weight, but particular paradigms can survive a great deal of both internal and external tension. For example, some Eastern religions claim that the observed physical phenomena of the world in which we live are maya or illusion, and that the fundamental goal of life is to escape from individual identity, which is, by implication, an illusion as well. Such a claim is, to say the least, in tension with what most Westerners would consider to be the self-evident reality of both one’s own existence and the external world. (There have been Western exceptions, like the English philosopher George Berkeley, who argued for a philosophy in which matter did not exist.) However, Hinduism and Buddhism have survived for centuries in spite of fundamental affirmations that fly in the face of what most Westerners consider to be the self-evident nature of reality. At the same time, internal consistency and comprehensiveness are not alone able to preserve a paradigm. Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is the source of the contemporary use of the term “paradigm,” and Kuhn’s fundamental argument was that the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric scientific paradigm was not the result of either better internal consistency or comprehensiveness. Ptolemy’s paradigm was as capable of accounting for the data as was Copernicus’s. What led to the eventual overthrow of geocentrism in favor of heliocentrism was a kind of “aesthetic” elegance that was more simple, and thus more appealing. Similarly, a case can be made that numerous philosophical or religious systems have enough internal consistency and external comprehensiveness not to be self-evidently incoherent. Religious or philosophical systems can survive for quite awhile despite lack of consistency or coherence, and some philosophies and religions disappear not because they are self-evidently false, but because they become old-fashioned or are simply overtaken by other paradigms.. One thinks of nineteenth century Absolute Idealism or twentieth century logical positivism as two such philosophies that were once in vogue, but now have simply fallen by the way side.

Epistemological paradigms can be as simple as the accounts of primitive mythologies (although most mythologies are not actually simple) or as sophisticated as philosophical and metaphysical constructs like those of Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel or Martin Heidegger. Epistemological paradigms are also associated with the higher religions: not only the so-called Western religions of Judaism and Christianity, but also Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. Insofar as these intellectual constructs or paradigms are attempts to think within and out of particular religious traditions, they are theologies.

These paradigms can also be atheistic. For example, one thinks of Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Neitzche in the nineteenth century, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, in the twentieth, and, more recently, post-modern atheists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, or Peter Singer. As such,the atheistic constructs are neither less nor more theoretical than the mythological, religious, or philosophical ones, and attempt to use exactly the same kinds of intellectual tools to address the same kinds of questions. They have no intrinsic superiority to the paradigms offered by theistic philosophical systems, religions, or even primitive mythologies. They simply offer one intellectual construct among others in an attempt to answer basic worldview questions.

And, as paradigms, none of them are straightforward readings of what is “simply there.” The atheistic assumption that nothing exists except matter is as much an intellectual construct (a paradigm) that attempts to make sense of reality as is the Buddhist claim that individual existence is an illusion and that the non-existing self is subject to rebirth until it escapes this illusion, or as the Christian claim that human beings have been created in the image of God, and are destined for eternal life.

So much for the epistemological claim. (“It is religion that has labeled them as such.”) It is not “religion” that has “labeled them as such,” but simply human beings with a desire to know, who engage in the process that Plato and Aristotle say begins in wonder. Some who engage in this process have commitments to some particular religion. Some do not. But the process is the same, whether engaged in by advocates of particular religions or advocates of none.

This does not imply that one “paradigm” is as valid as another, nor that there is no way to decide between paradigms, but it does eliminate the atheist presumption that “religion” is an implausible “interpretation” of reality – “It is religion that has labeled them as such” – while atheism is simply a recognition of what is self-evidently the case. Both offer competing paradigms, and there is no such thing as a straightforward reading of the way things just are. It may be the case that, as you write, “matter [simply] is what it is.” But that is not simply and self-evidently true.

This leads to your metaphysical claims, which I hope to address later.




Determinism? It’s a heresy, why?

I think I must be in a cranky mood today. At any rate, the following is also something I originally put on a certain (NeoCalvinist) Anglican(?) blog in response to the following:

The man born blind in John 9 was not an accident of biology. He was born blind so that the Lord Jesus could give him sight. Joseph was not sold into slavery by accident. He was sold into slavery by the express intended purpose of God to redeem many. The Assyrians did not destroy Israel on their own accord. They came as the arm of God to punish. The Lord Jesus was not crucified by fortunate happenstance. The men who delivered Him up and killed him did so by divine decree. There are no random molecules in the universe. Everything is governed by the decretive will of God. Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning. No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will. That is why we can say that everything has purpose in this life, and that everything will eventually reveal the glory of God. We do not have to understand. It is sufficient that God understands.

Providence means that God is capable of bringing good out of evil. But God does not decree or create evil. Evil is entirely the result of the rebellion of creatures, which God permits, but does not cause. Certainly “No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will.” It does not at all follow that “Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning.”

God does not decree sin. God hates sin, and his Son died to redeem us from that sin which God hates. To state that God decrees sin is to place on God the responsibility for that which he hates, and condemns, and the effects of which his Son died to alleviate.

The relation between God and creatures is absolutely unique, and not one that any creature can even imagine because all of our knowledge takes place within the finite contingent structures of created reality. But God is not part of that reality at all. We literally cannot imagine the relation between God and creatures, and determinism is as much a case of such an idolatrous attempt to imagine the connection, as are attempts that imply that (as my interlocutor put it), God “struggles with a creation in which random suffering is exactly that – random, devoid of purpose.” Both positions are equally “nonsense.”

The vast majority of Christians throughout history have not found it necessary to posit determinism in order to assert God’s providence and control of his creatures. Indeed, God’s sovereignty is more honored if we recognize that God creates creatures in such a manner as to give them a genuine but contingent created integrity. God is quite capable of working through genuine created causality to bring about his intentions. He does not have to be a determinist to do so. God does not create evil, and he does not decree sin. God does not create or cause that which he hates.

Of course, God is quite capable of using the evil that he does not cause, and which he hates, to accomplish his purposes. Of course, God is capable of working through the sins of Joseph’s brothers or Pharaoh or Pilate to accomplish his purposes. But God did not determine that Joseph’s brothers betray him or that Pharaoh would enslave the Hebrews, or that Pilate would crucify Jesus. To suggest such is close to blasphemy.

I realize such discussions are interminable, and generally raise more heat than light. Rather than enter into endless discussion, I point readers to my philosophical and theological betters. One might read Augustine. But certainly Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker have thought through these things as carefully as have Calvin and his successors.

The language of Scripture is phenomenal when it comes to describing God’s relation to creatures, as it is phenomenal when it describes things like the rising of the sun, scientific realities, or God’s body parts (“The arm of the Lord is not shortened . . .”). Scripture nowhere provides detailed metaphysical discussion of such questions as the relation between primary and secondary causality, or, how God works through created contingent events in such a manner as to provide not only for his sovereignty but their integrity as creatures. To assume that it does is to make a category mistake, like those Vatican officials who chided Galileo for contradicting the clear teaching of Scripture about the rising of the sun.

There has been in the history of the church reams of paper and gallons of ink spent on discussing questions relating to how divine sovereignty relates to created contingencies. Every metaphysical issue—incarnation, Trinity, creation, grace, sacraments, etc.—is a variation. If it were simply a matter of quoting a few passages of scripture, the issue would have been settled long ago.

Most Calvinists have no idea of just how rich and complex the discussion has been. Needless to say, most Christians have not been determinists. The ecumenically orthodox consensus of the church is that:

1) God is the supreme Good, in whom there can be no evil—not because whatever is, is good, or because something becomes good merely because God wills it, but because God’s nature is inherently good, and God cannot will or create evil.
2) In discussing the relation between Creator and creature, not only divine aseity and sovereignty, but also created contingency and genuine created reality, must be preserved. God creates and works through created contingencies in such a manner that they retain their integrity as created contingencies.
3) Sin exists, but God is in no way the cause of it. Sin is completely contrary to God’s will. God is in no way the cause of the sinful actions of creatures. God permitted, but did not cause, the fall into sin.
4) God is sovereign over his creation. God is present to each creature and each created event in that he gives existence to whatever is. If God were to cease creating and sustaining the universe for even a moment, it would collapse back into nothingness.
5) Although God is not the cause of evil, God is capable of bringing good out of evil, and does so. If God could not bring good out of evil, he would not be sovereign.

The above would be agreed to by Orthodox, by Catholics, including Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Dominicans, Molinists, Suarezians, by the vast majority of Protestants, including orthodox Lutherans, the vast majority of Anglicans (e.g., Richard Hooker, John Donne, Joseph Butler), Methodists, and, I think, even most Reformed today, for example, the late Thomas F. Torrance, who wrote a huge amount of material on how the patristic doctrine of creation made a radical change in how Christians viewed the world as compared to paganism, and how this has significant implications for the relation between theology and modern science.

The one exception in the entire tradition would be traditionalist Calvinists. Luther himself was a determinist, but othodox Lutheranism did not follow him in this. There is debate as to whether Calvin was a determinist, or rather, whether determinism was introduced by Beza. In my opinion, a careful reading of the texts indicates that Beza’s supralapsarianism was simply a logical drawing out of the implications of Calvin’s own understanding of providence.

At the same time,there is no inherent connection between a doctrine of Augustinian predestination and determinism. Augustine was the first advocate of unconditional predestination, but he rejected determinism until his dying day. Thomas Aquinas embraced Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, as have many of his followers, but he emphatically rejected determinism because it would make God responsible for sin.

My own thinking on such matters has been greatly influenced by thinkers like Torrance, but also Thomists like Robert Sokolowski, Norris Clarke, Thomas Weinandy, and numerous others. I would also recommend the writings of Anglicans Austin Farrer and Eric Mascall. And, of course, there is the huger discussion in the entire tradition of the church, beginning with the church fathers. Calvinist determinism is just a tributary, and rather a small creek, in the huge river of Christian metaphysics.

I would add to the above that I grant to Calvinist determinism about the same amount of credibility I give to the Orthodox Essence/Energies distinction, to the Non-Chalcedonian Christologies of Copts or Armenians, to Lutheran ubiquity, Roman Catholic transubstantiation, Scotist possible worlds metaphysics, Molinist middle knowledge, or Openness of God theism. Like the above, it is a metaphysical theory that has been embraced by a sizable group of Christians in an attempt to address certain theological problems raised by Scripture, and, in particular, the way in which particular divine and created realities relate. At the same time, each one of these views is a bit of metaphysical speculation that has been embraced by no other Christian body outside the particular body of advocates. As such, while the theories might be right, one tends to think that their continued adherence within the particular group in which they have arisen has more to do with inertia, and preservation of group identity than with well thought out solutions to the problems raised.

Finally, I am aware that Calvinists not only insist that God decrees everything, but that God is not thereby the author of evil, and I am aware of the various ways in which they try to reconcile these two claims. To explain why they can’t be reconciled would require a rather lengthy syllogistic argument outlining various distinctions between necessity, possibility, impossibility, contingency, and various kinds of necessity. However, in short, if God brings things about necessarily, then they are necessary, and cannot not have been. If God brings things about contingently, then they are not necessary, and might not have been. If God decrees all events in such a manner that the fall or sin cannot not have been, then the fall and sin are necessary, and God is the author of evil. This is true even if the necessity of the fall or sin are contingent on human actions, which, in themselves, are voluntary, but nonetheless determined in their outcome by the divine decree. If those human choices are determined by the divine decree in such a manner that they cannot not have been, then God is the author of evil.

However, that God is the author of evil is a heresy not only contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, but also condemned universally by the Christian tradition–with the single exception of Calvinist determinism.




Does God Change His Mind?

The following appeared in the comments section on a blog in answer to the question of whether prayer “changes God’s mind.”

If God could change His mind, then He would be learning from and therefore be dependent upon His own creation.  He would be growing from good to better, from wise to wiser.  He would in short be deprived of some of the essential characteristics of Deity – His Omniscience and Timelessness.

The writer was a Calvinist, but I have heard Thomists (of which I am one) make similar kinds of statements. While I do not believe that creatures can make God “change his mind,” I have always been troubled by the more sophisticated metaphysical assertion that really lies behind the claim — that God in no way responds to creatures, and that contingent actions of creatures do not make any difference to God’s knowledge. If they did, God would depend on creatures for that knowledge, and God’s would change, either for the better or the worst, etc. While this position is common among Calvinists and Banezian Thomists, I do not believe it is Thomas’s own position, and I find it problematic because it inevitably leads to determinism–a position Thomas rejects.

I replied as follows:

There are some metaphysical assertions here, some of which I would agree with, some of which I think need clarification, and some of which I would deny.

1) I agree that God does not “change his mind.”
2) I agree that God cannot grow or change either from good to better or from better to worse.
3) God is, in the words of St. Thomas, purus actus essendi—the pure act of fullness of self-existence. This means that God exists necessarily, that he is infinite, that his being is fully actualized, and cannot be improved, added to or diminished.
4) At the same time, God is absolutely free. God can choose to create or not create. God might not have created any universe at all, and, if so, there would be no less being or less goodness than if God had created.
5) Any universe that God creates will be contingent, but contingency has more than one meaning. So first, any universe that God can create will be a contingent universe in the sense that it might or might not exist.
6) But God can also create a contingent universe in the sense that he can create an infinity of different kinds of universes. So, contrary to Leibniz, there is no best of all possible world. Of any universe that God creates, he could also create a better one. Since everything except God is by definition finite, any universe can contain more or less perfection and more or less being. Thus any finite universe can also be improved on or made better.
7) However, if God is omnipotent, then God can also create a universe that is contingent in the sense that it contains genuinely contingent events, events that might or might not happen. If God is free to act or not to act, to create or not to create, to create one universe rather than another, then God is also free to create a universe in which creatures are free to act or not to act, to do one thing rather than another. If God is the chief actor or agent in the universe, then God is also free to create genuine finite agents, contingent beings that can act in such a manner that their actions are not determined. To deny that God can do this is itself to restrict God’s freedom. Theologians refer to this freedom as natural freedom. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, states that even after the fall, human beings are free to do things like build houses. My natural freedom includes the freedom to write a response in which I express my disagreement with carl. carl has the natural freedom to respond by saying that I have no such natural freedom.
8) It is important not to confuse natural freedom with voluntariness. Some advocates of determinism state that created events can be considered contingent in the sense that their agents act voluntarily, but not in the sense that the agent could act otherwise. But this is simply to deny that created agents are genuine agents.
9) One of the key examples of such contingency of created agents, of events that might be other, is sin. Scripture is clear that God does not will sin, deplores it, and forbids sin. If there is no such thing as natural freedom, then God forbids that which will necessarily happen anyway, and God’s command not to sin is in contradiction to the universe he has created.
10) If God creates a universe in which there are events that can be other, then God’s own freedom includes his ability to act differently in consequence of those events. Again, if sin is a contingent event, then it might not have happened. It was genuinely possible that the first human beings might not have disobeyed the divine command, and we would now live in an unfallen world. However, given that sin has occurred, God is free to act in more than one way in consequence. In his freedom, God could have left humanity in its sinful state. God also could choose to redeem humanity, and scripture tells us that God has chosen to redeem humanity from sin by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ. So the incarnation is an event that itself is a consequence of a contingent created event that might or might not have happened. In short, the incarnation means that in God’s freedom, God can respond to human actions.
11) Thus, if God is genuinely free, then there are a number of possible created scenarios. God might not have created any world at all. God might have created a different world than the world God has created. God might have created a world in which there was no sin. God might have created a world in which sin existed, but God does not redeem. God might have created a world in which sin existed, but God does redeem.
12) Given these various possibilities of divine freedom, it is clear that both God’s will and knowledge have numerous (indeed infinite) possibilities, and whichever scenario God wills to bring into being, God’s knowledge will be other than if he had chosen to create a different reality. So God knows whether he will create or will not create a universe, and whichever choice God makes, God’s knowledge will be have a different content than if God had chosen otherwise. Such knowledge cannot mean that God changes in the sense that he attains more fullness or perfection of being, nor can it mean that he becomes better or worse. God is infinite and no created scenario can increase God’s infinite being. The infinite plus the finite is not greater than the infinite alone. God without a world is infinite perfection. God with a world is infinite perfection. Whatever finite world God creates or does not create, there will be differences in terms of finite perfection or being, however, there will be no difference in terms of God’s fullness of existence. Created contingencies do not add to or take away from God’s perfection.
13) I would conclude then that the objection is a red herring, and is itself a restriction of God’s freedom. Since any created possibility whatsoever entails a different content to God’s omniscient knowledge, and none entails more fullness of perfection of the Divine Being itself, a created universe in which genuinely contingent events exist (that could be otherwise, that might or might not happen) does not mean that God changes or becomes dependent on creation. That God genuinely answers prayer is no more problematic than that God is free to create or not to create, to create a world in which sin might or might not happen, to become incarnate or not to become incarnate.
14) The question of timelessness is another question, which would involve further detailed discussion. In short, I agree with Thomas that God is “timeless.” However, I also agree with Thomas that God’s “timelessnessness,” omniscience, and omnipotence, are compatible with created contingencies. Thomas summarizes the question correctly not by asking whether, given God’s immutability, timelessness, etc., there can be created contingencies, but, rather to the contrary, “whether God knows future contingents?” He argues that God does. At the same time, it is crucial to recognize that “time-less-ness” is not a positive attribute of God, but a negative one. “Time-less-ness” does not provide a positive description, but rather denies of God the temporal limitations entailed in moving from potency to act characteristic of physical creatures. However, to say that God is eternal does not give us a positive conception of God’s relation to time, nor does it deny that God’s knowledge will be other depending on various created scenarios. How could this not be the case if God knows future contingents? Time-less-ness does say in effect that God is “super-temporal,” but we do not know what that means.