On God’s Immutability and the Vessels of Wrath

“It is misleading to think of souls being ,as it were, “cast” for evil roles. If the Iago-element in Shakespere did not choose, there would be no Iago in the play.” CSL – De Bono et Malo, the Great War Letters

Since the start of this blog I’ve been arguing for the following facts:

1) That God in his essence has all his life and action at once, timelessly and changelessly.

From whence it follows:

2) All things that change do so because of Gods eternal, changeless, creative will. God creates everything precisely in the mode it exists.

From whence it follows:

3) God, being actus purus, is not in himself conditioned by or dependent on anything outside himself. Rather his action is what causes things to be conditioned by him and to depend on him.

From whence it follows:

4) God’s knowledge and will are not themselves changed by the creation. Rather, God’s knowledge and will are the cause of the particular changes and modes of existence of the things in creation themselves.

I have thus been defending the “classic” conception of God propounded by the traditional doctors of the church. The facts above are simply the necessary deductions of the fact that God is the eternal “I AM” and that God alone is absolutely unconditioned and timeless.

Yet from this classic conception seems to follow the consequence that God is the cause of sin and that he creates certain beings intentionally to damn them – to make them, in fact, objects of his wrath. This seems so because on the model presented above where God is actus purus, every fact about creatures gets its facticity from God’s predetermining and all creative will. That is, since God is immutable and pure actuality, it is impossible that his will and knowledge are themselves conditioned by a contingent creation. It is not the case that he must “wait and see” what creatures will freely do “before” he decides what to do with them. The classic picture of God entails that he is not up against the insurmountable obstacle of creaturely freedom, as if such an obstacle could exist independently of his own creative will. Rather, creaturely freedom itself is a creative production of the intellect and will of God; for if it did not come from these, it would not exist. As Aquinas says somewhere, it is God’s will itself which “prepares contingent causes” in order to fulfill that will; not vice versa. Gods will is not fulfilled just in case contingent causes happen to go a certain way.

Now again, this classic conception would seem to imply that God is not perfectly loving insofar as he creates beings specifically to destroy them or cause them misery. For to love is to will the good of the one loved. Yet in what sense would God, by predeterminately creating vessels of wrath fitted only for destruction, be willing their good? Why would an all perfect God need to display anger and hatred; why wold he desire or enjoy making a creation, which of its own need not even exist and which only does so by God’s creative act – why would a God whose essence is love purposefully make a universe filled with sentient beings who will suffer misery forever?

This is a good objection, and is really the ultimate critique behind the Calvinist picture of God. A God who arbitrarily creates certain beings as objects of love and others as objects of hatred is a God who is not essentially loving. He is divided in the sense that his attributes are really not all aspects of His love. One cannot say that Calvin’s God’s nature “is love and only love.” Where God wants to love but instead hates, he is divided against himself. On the other hand, where he does not even want to love but desires to hate, he lacks love towards what he is hating, and therefore is not infinitely loving. There would be an object in the universe which God created not out of a desire for its good – not out of the love in his own heart for it – but out of a desire to see it destroyed. Either way – through either an intentional lack of love replaced by hatred, or an unintentional absence that is desired to be filled – either way, God still somehow is less than perfectly loving.

Now, in fact I think this whole problem can be corrected by adjusting our notion of God’s creative activity. It is not the case that God first makes a bunch of beings, and then goes on to either damn or save some. Rather, in God’s intellect he creatively knows divine ideas of, as it were, the “particular characters” of his creative story. Each character is only itself – in fact can only be itself – and has a particular set of properties that are essential to it and make it what it is. If it lacked such properties, it would cease to be this particular character and would instead be some other character, just like a shape which lacks three sides is no longer a triangle but something else, say a square. So to imagine God as forcing a character to be what it is is simply wrong. That is to imagine that there is some other, deeper character that God is violating in creating the initial character to begin with; as if “before” Iago was made there was some pre-Iago that would be violated if it were turned into Iago instead of, say, Hamlet. But again this is wrong: Iago is Iago. Insofar as he is not Iago, he would not be some other character (for that character is that character). He simply would not exist at all. The truth is that we simply are God’s divine idea of us: his creation of us is simply his bringing to be our true self. Thus insofar as he wishes to create US then it is WE who must be created. That is a tautology.

And when viewed at this way I see no issue regarding God’s love. For one could say that God made every character in order to bestow his love and goodness on it insofar as it is capable of receiving it. He does not create those who are damned simply to vent wrath. Rather, he creates them because in doing so even they receive the most good that they are able to, given what they are. In that sense God loves the saved and the damned the same: he creates both for maximal happiness. It’s just one set of beings do not react to God’s gift of existence the same way.

You could, of course, ask why God creates such beings at all. But it seems you could also answer by saying that he did so because it is better for those beings to exist and enjoy the goods of existence than not to exist at all. (Even Hell may have a sort of twisted pleasure for the damned. As Lewis said, everyone gets their desires in the end.)

What you could not ask, however, is why God made such and such a character to be this character, rather than another. For this question is really meaningless, equivalent to asking why God made triangles with three sides or why he made marriage consist in a husband and a wife. For the truth is these things just are what they are; and insofar as they exist, they must be what they are, or they wouldn’t be at all. It makes no since to ask why God made triangles not squares or vice versa. He has simply made both kinds of beings, and that’s because he is the Creator of all.

With this authorial model of Gods creative actus purus in mind one can see too how God, in creating beings who sin, does not himself sin in doing so. For it is the creatures who sin, not the creator. He simply creates them in a state of sinning. There is, as it were, an integrity – a completeness – to each rational being in the story of creation that God has made. As its author, God stands outside of and gives life to every point of the story. Yet he makes it for all good, all loving, all beautiful reasons: to bestow infinite love on all that he makes, AND also glorify himself. The love for each particular character is only fully evident at the end of all things, in the eschaton, when God becomes fully all in all. Yet such a claim, as bold and unreasonable as it may appear given all the suffering in this life, is nevertheless the Christians belief: that God loves all his creation infinitely and will give to all justice and mercy and recompense. Therefore we cannot say that God “does” evil, even in creating evil characters – or characters who themselves do evil – for God’s act of creating does not have an evil motive or evil as an end. It is not evil to create finite beings who themselves do wickedness if your goal is to bestow as much good on each finite being as its nature, given what it is, is capable of receiving.

I can’t help but end this post with a point back to my last one on modality. It should always be remembered that since God simply IS his eternal action, and since he is eternally the fullness of being and infinite perfection, it is meaningless to talk about what he “could have” done. There are no possible worlds that exist outside of God’s eternal act of creation with which to compare his actions. His creative action, which is Himself, just is what it is. There is no cause further back than his intellect and will that could explain the way things are. He alone is the first cause, the source of all being, the self-generating creator, the eternal I AM, the limitless source of all limits themselves.


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