On God’s Freedom

“The idea of that which God “could have” done involves a too anthropomorphic conception of God’s freedom. Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.” CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

There are a host of problems that attend thinking of God’s relationship to the created world that come from, what seems to me, incorrectly imagining God’s power and freedom. To put it shortly, many people think of God as being either “able” to do other than he does or “having” to do what he does. Thinking this way leads people to ask things like “couldn’t God have stopped such and such tragedy” and “couldn’t God have made a universe in which such and such wasn’t possible.”

Imagining God this way is problematic, for this reason. It presupposes that God is, at one point in time, faced with a plurality of options “out there” in front of him which he must choose between. God can perhaps put earth here in this bit of space and put just this many humans on this patch of land and so on. He can make this many stars, this many animals, this many primary colors. He can choose to have Jesus come at this time or that time, die this way or that way, offer salvation in these means or those means. You see the point.

The reason this is problematic is because it really reduces God not to the absolute source and creator of all that exists, but to something that is itself conditioned by outside “possibilities.” But where would such possibilities come from? For God, there can be no such independent possible worlds, existing as brute facts on their own. He is not “confronted” with outer “possible worlds.” Neither does he have “options” (even an infinite number of them) which,  as it were, confine him or hem him in. For again, just who, if not God himself, would be setting up these options; who would be creating them?

The truth is that it is God’s creative and omnipotent will which itself gives possibilities to things. Hugh McCann put it like this: “de re modalities” do not apply to God. That is, the words “possible” and “necessary” describe, not God’s true being and action, but rather the created things which God makes. God himself transcends the categories of Possible and Necessary in the same way he transcends the categories of everything else he has made. God himself created kangaroos, peach cobbler, dandelions, and the color red. Yet he himself is not a kangaroo, a peach cobbler, a dandelion, or the color red. In the same way it seems to me we should think about possibilities and necessities as applying to the created order; not to God’s very essence and action. For it is his very action which imparts possibility and necessity to the world. He alone is what causes the Possible and Necessary to exist.

With this in mind we can simply side step a whole host of theological problems. In particular any one that begins with “could not God have…” we can say is meaningless. God is not and has never been a temporal being who at one point of time faced options. Thus to speak of him as deliberating or weighing choices is meaningless. He simply Is what He Is and does what He does. So also, when we conceive of God’s freedom, we are to think not in terms of him “considering” what he “will” do; but rather in the fact that he alone is the source – the sole generator of – his own action, which he is always timelessly doing. His action is not imparted to him by some other thing; nor is he moved by anything outside himself to do as he does. He simply Is his Action, eternally.

Therefore there are two errors we must avoid in talking about God’s creative will and his causal relationship to the world. The first is in supposing that God “necessarily” created – as if the logic of possibilities compelled him to do as he did. And the second error to avoid is in supposing that God “could have” not created – as if there is some conceivable state of affairs other than God acting as he always is acting eternally. Both of these options reduce God to a temporal being faced with options and then picking something. But God, in his eternal essence, is not like that. He never “was” faced with anything other than what he has been doing timelessly and always. Again, to end with McCann, “If de re necessity does not apply to God then neither does de re possibility apply to God… The foundational reality is simply this: God is.”


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