Friday, April 01, 2011

God and the Limits of Explanation

The mainstream Christian view is that God is exists eternally, that he is not subject to time, and that he is free. Free to create or not, or at least free to create some alternative world to the actual world. Free to elect John or not, free to send more than twelve legions of angels to support the Mediator in his sufferings, free to save us ‘by a word’ or through the self-offering of the God-man and our union with him, and so on.

Such a view has been widely challenged by modern panentheists, who have been scared out of their wits by the spectre of a ‘God in general’ raised by Karl Barth. So for them the immanent trinity, the triune God in himself, is the economic Trinity, the triune God who plans and executes a plan of salvation. The one is nothing other than the other. Obviously such a God is not free, or not as free, as in classical theism; not free not to redeem, not free to redeem in some other way. There may be varied strengths of such a position, I suppose, the strongest being that what God does economically is what he could not but do, down to the last detail. The modern panentheists, who in another lobe of their brains usually commit themselves to some form of libertarian freedom, do not seem fazed by the thought that such theology, close to a form of ontological determinism, might be at odds with libertarian anthropology. (Of course Jonathan Edwards – if I might dare to mention him again – is decidedly not fazed by such a prospect, believing that there is no such prospect, since any other account of action, divine or human, than a deterministic account is logically incoherent. For the display of God’s glory, this is how it had to be, and God cannot but create this universe as the theatre of that glory).

Readers may be relieved to know that what they have just read is only the preamble, a warm-up, and I am not here at least going to rehearse such issues further. Instead, I wish to consider, in connection with this issue of divine freedom, a general question about the nature and limits of explanation.

Expressing divine freedom

How might we express such divine freedom, the freedom that (the mainstream tradition claims) God possesses to create, or not, to elect, or not, and so forth. I shall consider two ways of doing this, which may not be the only ways, but they are ways that are historically significant ways.

Logical contingency

One way is to distinguish between the logical necessity or essentiality of God’s being, wand the contingency of his actions. God is good, necessary, essentially good. He is love, he is light, necessarily in him there is no darkness at all. All the long list of what we call the attributes of God, sometimes dividing them into the incommunicable and the communicable attributes, a division which becomes inoperable if God in his wisdom chose not to create at all, are possessed essentially by God. For what he does, or at least what he does ad extra, that is, in connection with the existence and history or whatever is other than himself in his triune glory, is not part of his essence. Though, of course, whatever God thus creates must, one may assume, be in accordance with his essence, since one of his essential features or characteristics is immutability, nevertheless that he creates is up to him. He would still be God in all his glory and self-sufficiency had there been no universe ad extra. God is necessarily good but only contingently the creator of the universe.

So suppose we uphold this idea, that God’s freedom may be expressed in terms of logical contingency. This is a widespread idea in medievalism. For example William Ockham, in arguing about the eternity of the world, and of creation, writes of God’s power in terms of what he can contingently be thought. Expressions such as ‘It does not involve a contradiction; therefore, it could be brought about by God’, and ‘I maintain probabiliter that God could have made the world from eternity in virtue of the fact that no manifest contradiction appears [in that claim]’ are typical. (These expressions are taken from Norman Kretzmann’s article ‘Ockham and the creation of the Beginningless World’ (Franciscan Studies, 1985)) So, if p is a possibility, then God could have brought p about, have caused what is expressed by p to be true. All things are possible with God.

But such logical contingency can only be a necessary condition of God’s freedom. It delineates a logical feature of God’s freedom, or at least Ockham and many others think that it does. Neither Ockham nor any one else who makes this point believes that this amounts to an explanation of divine freedom. But what else is required?

Synchronic contingency

A currently-favoured alternative is an idea that appears to have been derived mainly from Duns Scotus, that of synchronic contingency (SC). This addresses the issue of God’s freedom explicitly; his power, his freedom, consists in his possession not merely of logical contingency, but of synchronic contingency. This means that for one moment of time, there is a true alternative for the state of affairs that actually occurs. Given a choice at a moment, there could have been an alternative choice at that very moment.

An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being. How is this to be understood, I wonder? How can a timelessly eternal God possess the power of acting synchronously otherwise that what he in fact decides? One answer offered by those who favour SC is to encourage us to think in terms of logical or structural ‘moments’ where a moment is understood as a distinction drawn by our reason, a structural rather than a temporal moment. Reformed types are familiar with this idea from debates about the ordering of the decrees, where that order is understood in terms of an eternal logical or rational ordering of the decrees in the eternal divine mind. This point about the nature of these ‘moments’ should never be forgotten, though sometimes it is. If we forget it, then we begin to anthropomorphise God, to ‘psychologise’ the eternal mind of God along the pattern of those of us who make up minds over time. (This is not a problem for open theism, or perhaps for……., for whom God does or may make up his mind over time, but it is a problem for classical theists). Distinctions of reason, applied to God, offer a logical partition, but nothing temporal.

Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do. When you think about it, SC does not seem to differ materially from our first candidate, logical contingency. For what an eternalist who stresses that God’s creation is contingent means is that God might have chosen otherwise that he has, which )as far as I can see) precisely what Scotus is saying.

Neither suggestion, then, gets us very far in understanding what God’s freedom is, though each of them seems to be a coherent thing to say, at least if you are not an Edwardsean.


I’m not sure that I ought to write what now follows. Scholastic philosophy and its influences upon Christian theology offers very great benefits. It provides analytical skill and analytical techniques which help us to negotiate a large number of misunderstandings about the Christian faith and to lay out its pattern. I would not wish to put up objections or obstacles to anyone who wishes to benefit from reading scholastic theology, whether pre-Reformation or post-Reformation, including of course the notable work of the Reformed Orthodox. The Christian community badly needs the vitamins that scholastic theology, or analytic theology as it nowadays coming to be known, can provide.

But such an approach can, if we are not careful, generate an illusion. Let’s call this ‘scill’, the scholastic illusion. A love for such theology leaves one open to infection by scill. I don’t myself believe that the scholastics themselves suffered greatly from this affliction, but to be honest I have not attempted an induction that proves this. The illusion is the belief that because a robust and worthwhile intellectual distinction can be drawn, to suppose that the distinction can be defined or at least established pretty clearly, then this distinction in and of itself amounts to an explanation of some feature or features of that regarding which the distinction is made. So that if, following the tradition, we say that the Trinitarian persons in God are distinctions in the godhead, but not divisions, we certainly make a cogent point. But I do not believe that by deploying this distinction we have an explanation, or even the beginnings of an explanation, of the three-in-oneness of the Trinity. To believe otherwise is to show that one is somewhat afflicted by scill.

The illusion gets a grip on us when we forget that in order to achieve an explanation is not sufficient to come up with a formalism. Explanation is an epistemic notion: a successful explanation conveys understanding, and its success depends on what the one offered the explanation already knows or believes. It is an instance of scill, I believe, to suppose either that the notions of logical contingency, or of synchronic contingency, explain us to the nature of the divine freedom that is central to the classical Christian theism, or even begin to.

More on this next month.