Monthly Archives: November 2016

On the Problem with a Temporal God

“Further, why should there always be becoming, and what is the cause of becoming?-this no one tells us.” Aristotle Metaphysics Book 12

It seems to me the ultimate objection to a temporal God is that it reduces God himself to a process – one more species of becoming. But becoming as such is conditioned. The process is a particular process that does this rather than that. As such it demands an explanation for why it goes the way it does. If God’s being is essentially becoming it cannot be such an explanation. Thus the process as a whole – just like Aquinas’ argument for an infinite series of contingent causes – exists inexplicably. Therefore there is no reason why it should exist rather than not. But it does exist. Therefore there must needs be some further back reality that itself is not one more species of becoming, but rather grounds it – an ultimate conditioner that gives rise to all conditioned processes. Thus we come to actus purus, etc.

I suppose one could ask if God’s “relation”to the world, or his conscious states, or his experiences, could themselves be species of becoming which he has determined so to be. Like saying “God is naturally actus purus, but wills to subject himself to a process of becoming.” But this to me is impossible. For what a thing essentially is, it must be, or else it is not itself but something else. Thus if we are led by argument to say that there must be a being who is itself Being and not just a process of becoming, it could not become other than Being, or else it would cease being itself. What one could say I think is that the particular relations in the created things come to be and pass away in a process of becoming. This is what led Aquinas to say things like the change (i.e. becoming) is not in God but only in the creature, and therefore God is “logically” related to the creature rather than “really” related to it as if the two existed in some common medium.

God cannot “become” a process because he is essentially not a process. Were he to undergo such becoming he would cease to be God – in fact he never would have been God, since in order to become anything one must first be able to be moved in some sense. And this implies some lack of being somewhere. It is not that movement or change are necessarily good or bad. This is the error of Process theology, which thinks that Classical theology believes that God is actus purus because it holds that all change must be either for the better or the worse. No. The insight of Classical theology is not that all change must be for the better or worse, but that all change implies a state of incompletion or lack of fullness. A thing takes on some new reality which it did not in the past have. But then the thing must have been in some way incomplete and able to be more and other than it was. It must have had some limitation such that it could not “be” unless it were subject to some process of sequential becoming. But who or what imposed such a metaphysical law? As Aristotle asked, “what is the cause of such becoming?” In short, change implies not necessarily good or bad (though it may). Rather, it implies a limit, which in the change is either now assumed, or now done away with, which the changing thing conforms to and is conditioned by. But then God would have some existing metaphysical limit or law imposed on him from outside himself, and where would that come from? So in either case we come up against some purely unmoved mover, some unconditioned conditioner, itself changeless which gives rise to changing things.

I will end by mentioning briefly in passing the straw man – or rather the misunderstanding – that often attends the idea that God is outside of time and becoming. I mean the idea that if he is so he is “frozen” or “inert.” Such words are merely abstractions from our sensual experience of what a “still” or “motionless” thing is like. But if God is actus purus, then in fact nothing can be further from the truth. Far from being lifeless or stagnant, God is literally pure act, supremely active and dynamic. He literally could not be more intimately involved, more connected, more careful about the world he has made. So let us not be misled by a mere metaphor when we are wondering about if God is outside of time.


On Kenosis, with notes on Balthsar

“The self-surrender which he practiced before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now.”

The idea of God emptying himself in order to become man is at once both promising and puzzling. If God “became” man and in so doing emptied himself of his very divine attributes themselves, then in what sense could it really be true that it is God who is man? On the other hand, if the man Christ possessed the divine attributes – omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, impassibility, etc. – how could he really be a man with a human body and soul?

This post will not be an exploration of the doctrine of the Two Natures. I’m saving that for a future one. Rather, this post is designed to focus on one particular occurrence – namely the act of self-emptying or kenosis – as it pertains to God.

How can God, as God, empty himself? More modern thinkers will say that he can do this as God because there is an analogue for this act it in the very Trinity itself. This is because God’s nature is just to be in Triune relations. Therefore he must necessarily always be in Triune relations, for this is what makes him God. If, per impossible, he were to cease being in Triune relations, he would cease to be God. Thus what defines God as God, and what makes his acts consistent as the acts of God, is the fact that he does them – is eternally doing them – in his Triune relations.

This idea is really just an expansion of the earlier one regarding the Incarnation. The problem centers around the identification of properties and how a thing can remain itself. Simply put, if to be God means having the divine properties of a, b, and c, then insofar as God exists and does such and such, he has these properties as he does such and such. If any of them are lacking it is not God we are talking about – for God must necessarily have these properties – but something else, say a very powerful or wise angel, etc.

Thus, to restart the train of thought, since God as God empties and humbles himself in becoming man, one of his essential properties in his divine Triune life must involve an emptying and humbling of himself also. For again, if God’s triune relations did not involve these sort of acts, and if God’s essence is identical to his triune relations, God as God necessarily could not have such properties.

Modern theologians – Balthasar comes to mind – therefore want to say that, in light of this, since God as God does in fact empty and humble himself, this means that God as God also must experience in doing so the suffering and pain of self-sacrifice that attends such emptying. Thus Balthasar holds that in the very Triune relations themselves there is a “supra-kenosis,” a supra-emptying. The Father in creating the Son makes himself “destitute” of all that he is, and in so doing takes on the modality of suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other. As he puts it “The unfolding of the Trinity is an eternal self-destitution of the persons toward each other. God as absolute love contains all modalities of love even the modality of suffering-separation and self-destitution motivated and anchored in the love exchange of the Trinitarian persons in the one God.” (Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. viii. – ix.)

Now, at first this is promising. In fact in my last post on the Dying God I was myself somewhat infatuated with this view. A God who suffers in his very being – essentially – as part of his love! How romantic! But after a little closer thought I see the devastating consequences – both logical and romantic – of such a belief.

The main problem is summed up in the quote at the beginning of this post. It can be put like this: why assume that a self-emptying and a humbling on the divine level necessarily entails suffering, pain, privation, or evil? You will often read Kenoticists and those who believe in a God who suffers in his very nature say something like this: “Kenosis captures the state of a thing that should be full (plerosis) but has been emptied. Suffering is the result of being emptied (of kenosis).*” But what I want to say is, why suppose that second sentence follows from the first? Why suppose that kenosis necessarily entails suffering?

If we suppose that it does, what results is basically a Dualist conception of God. For think, if God in his very essence and nature necessarily contains or “is” or “experiences” suffering and pain, he necessarily contains within himself evil. Therefore he needs evil to be what he is, and would not be what he is were that evil to be absent. But this is nothing else than to say that the Good as such needs Evil. All of theology rejects this notion. Good as such is independent, self-existent, fully real. It can be entirely on its own. It does not need Evil. It is the Evil as such which is needy. It is parasitic on the Good and could not exist except for it. Yet suffering and pain are real evils. Therefore, although they may need the Good for themselves to exist – say the good of a finite rational being in whom they can reside – nevertheless the Good as such does not need them and can exist without them.

To deny suffering and pain and “self-destitution” are evils would be to deny that they are themselves, and would be the same as saying that it is not better to be free from them than to experience them. Heaven therefore may be filled with an eternity of suffering and pain and be, since these things are good, the better for that.

I think we should say, rather, that although self-emptying is a necessary act of the persons of the Trinity in their own ad intra relations, this kenosis is not itself an act attended by pain and suffering. Rather, it is one done with indescribable joy. It was for the “joy set before him” that Christ endured the cross (Heb 12:2). For in the Trinity there is a perfect communion, a perfect penetration and knowledge of intellect and will, an uninterrupted experience of absolute love that cannot possibly be further increased. In God there is as it were no place or “foothold” for evil to make its dwelling and affect God. In fact that just is what it means to be God: to be absolutely and maximally good, “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is incapable of being better than he is, not because he is unable to do something, but because his goodness is so complete, so fully real, that there is no room for it to grow. There is not even the slightest spot of evil in himself that could be wiped away that would make him say “now I am better, now I am more fully experiencing Love and Goodness!”

In fallen man self-sacrifice and emptying involve pain and suffering. But that is because he is fallen and imperfect. In God, it seems to me much better to say that if kenosis is an act of the Trinity itself among the persons, then this very act itself, like all their acts of love, is one of ecstasy and unspeakable joy. Perfect Love need not have evil to be most lovely. Otherwise we must suppose that a perfect marriage must have death and separation to be perfect itself. Yet then Death would be a principle on par with Life. Life would not reign supreme. It would be conditioned in its goodness by an equal and opposite force which it needed in order to be fully itself. Although Dualism is certainly a manly religion, it is not the same as Christianity, which, as the medievalists said, holds that God or the Good is that which “has no opposite.”

In the end I think the matter can be put like this. Although it is true that evil cannot exist without good, it is false that good cannot exist without evil. As such the kenosis of God as God need not mean that God as God is subject to or suffers from evil.

*(Does God Suffer? Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Holy Saturday Matthew Lewis Sutton)

On Divine Providence

“Did Ophelia die because Shakespeare for poetic reasons wanted her to die at that moment—or because the branch broke?’ I think one would have to say, ‘For both reasons’. Every event in the play happens as a result of other events in the play, but also every event happens because the poet wants it to happen.” CS Lewis, Miracles

How to reconcile free will and predestination? Scripture verses can be stacked quite high supporting both sides. But the two things seem to be mutually exclusive: if humans are free, their actions seem to be up to them. Whether or not they do a or b is something not in God’s control. Yet if this is true it is possible that God not get the outcome he wants in certain circumstances. Consider the case of the crucifixion. If Jesus’ death depended on the evil free willed acts of humans, and if those acts were ultimately decided by the agents themselves making the choices, then it was not ultimately up to God whether or not Jesus would be crucified. The only way God could guarantee a particular outcome – and this need not be only the crucifixion, any species of divine providence will do – the only way God could ensure that a particular outcome came about would be if he overrode free will. But if he is prepared to override our freedom, we’re left wondering a) why he gave it at all; and b) how those who did such actions could be morally responsible for what they did, seeing as God “overrode” their “normal” freedom.

On the other hand, if we are all indeed free, how does God’s providence work? If God wants the crucifixion to occur, but he also wants free beings, how does he get both?

At first it seems a possible solution is to say that God can foreknow what any free being would do in any circumstance, and, thus knowing this, he can providentially arrange things such that he places free beings in various circumstances the outcomes of which are certain to occur. This is the idea that God has “middle knowledge.” But the problem here is that prior to the creature’s existence, there is no truth to speak of regarding it. Before a free person exists, how could God know what it “would” do, unless he determined that action himself beforehand?

Another popular solution is to say that God can know what beings will do simply by “observing” them outside of time. But this solution has a crippling catch. If God only passively observes by seeing all things at once, then he cannot also be orchestrating the circumstances of history in any providential sense. What God sees is an already existing thing – an already determinate reality. Time and all of history that fill it are already out there, existing over and against God. As such what goes on in time and history determine God’s knowledge itself. Therefore his knowledge, even if it is timeless, would come to him too late to be useful, for reality is already how it is. His knowing is simply his act of understanding what has already occurred without his providential guidance. (Anyone interested in more on this can see my past posts about problems in the purely observatory account of timeless knowledge.)

I believe the solution to the problem of free will and providence certainly involves God being outside of time. But it is not only this idea that is needed. As the last paragraph states a timeless being could be one that is timelessly impotent in doing anything with the knowledge that it has. (Ironically, this is also the case if God is in time learning what we do from moment to moment. Once he knows what free acts we will do it is already too late for him to do anything about those choices. He can only “guess” or “risk” with the possibility of failure.)

What must be coupled with the notion of a timeless God is also the idea that he is, from within, the determining source of all finite and created being whatsoever. Augustine, Aquinas, and most all classic theologians held that God’s knowledge is not caused by the existence of things themselves. For this would make him a contingent and dependent being. Contingent because his particular state of being was what it was because of other things (free choices of creatures.) And dependent because for God to be this – that is, a being who knows such and such – he needs the existence of free beings first. What the tradition has always said, rather, is that it is God’s knowledge which cause the things.

Now this at first immediately raises the problem of predestination and absolute determinism. If God’s knowing causes my actions, how are my actions not ultimately determined by God himself? And if this is the case, how can I be free?

They key is in understanding the fact that God’s power and creative motion themselves give to the will their very freedom itself. God and creatures are not on the same level of being. They do not face each other like two people do in a conversation, nor do they work together when an action takes place in the world, as if each one contributed some share to the project. Two people can both build a house. One person may lay the foundation and the other may do the roof. But the relations between man and God – that is the cooperating between the two – is not like this. God is at all times actively upholding every atom of the universe. Any action we do, even free ones, are ultimately possible only because of the movement and causal influence of God.

God therefore when he moves the will – when he creates it in a particular state – does so in a manner consistent with the wills nature. In fact his creating and moving the will just is what a natural human free will is. In short, what God creates is a will that is freely inclined and moved towards such and such. It is just that God’s action, since it is responsible for the very conditions of all reality – which themselves include the parameters of free will – itself causes both the inclination and movement of the will as free.

To put it in more metaphysical terms, we say that certain things are “necessary” or “contingent.” Most people normally assume that mathematical truths are necessary. 1 + 1 has to equal 2. On the other hand most people normally assume that free acts are normally consider contingent. Although I chose pizza for dinner, it was possible for me to have chosen a cheeseburger. Now, both the necessary and contingent as such are different modes of existence and reality. They are, if you like, different “species of being,” different metaphysical pieces of furniture that reality is populated with. Therefore they must get their particular realness and distinction from somewhere – God. But God in creating them in their particular modes does not destroy their individual metaphysical realness, but rather perfects and completes it.

Aquinas, in his question on providence and necessity, puts it like this. “We must remember that properly speaking “necessary” and “contingent” are consequent upon being, as such. Hence the mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being.” Thus he goes on to say in his questions on the will that “As Dionysius says “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently.”

Hence the idea is that God is able to move things – that is, he is able to determine and cause things – such that their freedom and contingency is not destroyed, but rather established. God causes then not only the particular things that occur but also the *manner* in which they occur themselves. The only reason this seems problematic is because we imagine that there is first an “us” or a “free will” and then God goes about moving that will to either this or that thing. Hence all the talk before about God having to “override” our freedom to get what he wants. But to think this way is to fail to grasp the all comprehensive creative power of God. Apart from God’s creative activity there is no “us” to speak of. We have no being independent of or “before” his power and motion. Rather, his creative action as making us as we are just is our very existence itself. There is no gap between God creating us as we are and the subsequent movement of our free will to something. For any movement of the will would also have God as the source of its very existence too. God, as the absolute creator of all that is, does not need a medium by which to create us free. God, all at once, creates us in our very state of free willing itself, and this action does not violate our freedom but rather establishes it.

The best way I think to conceive of the situation is like that of an author to the characters and story in his novel. No one would say that the author in creating a character violates the free will of that character. Rather, the character just is the creation of the author. Nor would it make sense to ask why the author made one character to be this character – say an evil one – rather than that character – say a good one. For insofar as the author creates this particular character it and not another must exist. He could of course refrain from making it, or make some other in its place. But it is absurd to suppose he could make “it” into a different character entirely. For then the first particular character would never have existed.

With the idea of “particular characters” in mind we can perhaps get a better understanding of divine providence and predestination. Each character plays the precise role that God has made it to play. And it does this freely. For the character itself was made for its circumstance and the circumstance made precisely to accent or bring out the personality of the character. Thus, since God is the author he can get what he wants in the story while also ensuring that each character gets what they want in it.

Of course we can ask why God allows this particular character to do such a particular act. And we can also ask how it is consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he creates just this type of novel. But to answer the objection fully we would have to know the entire novel – for instance the destination of each character and how small each affliction was in light of the ending. We would also have to know the exact effects of each choice of every character as they effect every other character and element in the story. This may no doubt raise a moral concern. But notice we are no longer talking about a metaphysical or logical one – i.e. how to reconcile providence and free will. For though the two are closely related they are nevertheless distinct.

(How then does God know our free acts – how do you resolve free will with foreknowledge? He does not know them by being determined by them and “seeing” them over and against himself. Rather, he knows them by knowing his own free creative action of them in themselves.)

I end with a quote from Lewis.

“…we are not to think of God arguing, as we do, from an end (co-existence of free spirits) to the conditions involved in it, but rather of a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutual necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under the single concept of Plurality, whereof “separation” and “togetherness” are only two aspects. With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.”

On the Dying God

“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He “did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness”. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.” CSL, The Problem of Pain

I have been at pains to understand in what sense God can be “impassible” and also therefore assume flesh, suffer, and die on the cross. The dilemma seems to be precisely this. If God created time, he must therefore transcend it (otherwise he himself would be one more species of becoming that is itself subject to it.) And if he transcends time, there can be no before and after with him. Thus God must be unchangeable. Now, this is the classical understanding of God and I find nothing problematic with it so far. Yet what also follows from this idea is that God has a nature “of his own” which he does not gain or actualize from the creation itself. God is not “more God” in light of the fact that he created. He does not accrue some good that he would otherwise lack because of finite, contingent beings. Otherwise, how could he be self-existent? How would he not necessarily “need” creation? And so how would he himself not be just one more conditioned and contingent being among many? But if God were this, we would have to look for something outside of God to explain this particular imposition of limitation and contingency in him. Therefore, the classic theologians conclude, God must be in himself all that he is: a perfectly full existence that cannot be added to or taken away from. He thus cannot be “moved” and cannot suffer “passion.” He is then “impassible.”

Yet – and I am now finally getting to the real puzzle – if God is fully God with or without a creation, and if he cannot suffer “passion,” in what sense can the crucifixion of Christ tell us anything about the essence of God himself? The difficulty lies in the fact that if we conceive of God as existing in pure and unsullied bliss in his inner being, then even Christ’s crucifixion cannot as it were change or interrupt such a state. For nothing in the creation can supervene on or determine God’s own experience of existence. Yet if that is the case then Christ’s very passion itself – his agony, his self-sacrifice, his groaning and sorrow – cannot really tell us anything about God.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” These words are from Christ’s lips, but they point to a truth we already know from experience: to sacrifice one’s own self for the sake of another is the height of what it means to love. Insofar as the difficulty of such a sacrifice is greater, thus far is the act of love more intense. In fact to the degree that doing something is pleasureable that very thing can hardly be called a self-sacrificial act at all.

Imagine, then, that all acts of self-sacrifice – all acts of crucifixion, in their various forms – were simply deleted from the world and from our memory. Would our idea of Love be lessened? I think it would be. That idea of love which does not involve voluntary suffering seems to me a pale shadow of the deeper, pulsing fabric of reality we sometimes connect with when we actually experience Love. To think that Love cannot take on even pain and suffering and endure them if it would so choose would seem itself to be a defeat of Love. Is it not strong enough to endure pain – indeed even death – for the sake of what it loves? To deny this would be to equate love with simply “joy” or “bliss.” No doubt such things are lovely, and express a particular dimension of Love itself. But they are not exhaustive of the reality of Love as such.

But notice the curious thing that happens here if we really agree that self-sacrifice is a lovely thing. Since God is Love itself, and since his being and his goodness cannot be actualized by creation, it must therefore be the case that something like self-sacrifice exists in God’s very nature. Scripture says that the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” Could it not be the case – indeed is it not quite ignorant to deny – that in God himself, along with our human experiences of Joy and Bliss, there exists an analogue to our human experience of voluntary self-death or Kenosis for the sake of the other?

I take it, then, that apart from creation God in himself knows – because he thus is – such a process, such an experience. In the same way as he knows the begetting of the Son, and the giving to him of all things, so he experiences in some way a denial of his own self for the Son, for the Other. The father in begetting the Son thus by the same act voluntarily dies to himself: he is no longer the only existing person. And the Son, having been begotten by the Father, straightway lays down his own life, surrendering all that is his, and thus in his own way perfectly imitates the Father.

We must remember that the various words we use to describe acts of God – begetting, creating, loving, dying, self-sacrificing – are all abstractions from our interaction with the material world. Thus the realities that the words expressed are always in our experience coupled with change. But in God there is no change. The words we use are only an imperfect grasp or conception of what is in itself impossible to be grasped by us in its totality.

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I take it that Jesus came to show us what God is like. Therefore the acts of Jesus must somehow have some analogue to the very life of God as he is in himself. There must then be in the Trinity some sense in which voluntary submission, emptying, and self-sacrifice are experienced realities. Otherwise, the death of Jesus could tell us nothing about God. His Passion would be a meaningless revelation, since in God there would be nothing akin to suffering. The human nature which the Word assumed then, would not be a true reflection of the Word itself. It would have as it were useless facades. Christ’s pain, ignorance, fear, anxiety, sorrow – all these things would show us only a human being, but not God himself. What, therefore, would be their point? How then could Christ be God incarnate? How therefore could he have assumed our humanity? What would Christ hanging on the cross mean if God himself does not know what it is to suffer and die for another?

To all those who have come to believe in the beauty and power of a God who freely endures suffering for the sake of the other – to all those who believe that the crucifixion of Jesus shows us the nature of God – their faith would literally be false. For on such a view God himself never suffers, indeed cannot even know what it feels like to suffer or die, since in him these realities have no place in his life. So if we are comforted by fact that of the Incarnation, what occurred must have been a real incarnation. Otherwise, as far as I can tell the whole point of the Incarnation disappears. Why would God tell us Jesus is like him when his most defining act – laying down his life for others – is something that God cannot do at all?

With all this said, the doctrines of the Impassibility and Immutability of God are not therefore ones we have to give up. God’s existence as first cause and his complete possession of perfection entails that nothing ,so to speak, ever “happens to him.” That is, nothing affects God from the outside. I take it that is what the true import of passibility implies: i.e. that nothing moves God. Yet this does not mean that from the inside God does not know anything like what we call a passion or emotion. Certainly God experiences joy, love, happiness, etc. These emotions happen to us – they “move” us, and as such are passions. Yet in God they simply are his active reality that he is. And since these human emotions are in God (in a transcendent, changeless way of course), it seems to me necessary to say that, the whole process of self-death which gives way to life for the other is present in God’s being as well. That is, the idea of voluntarily taking on “suffering” (abstracted from the material things which are the means by which such a reality is experienced by us through sensation) must, it seems to me, be an essential aspect of God’s being, not itself actualized by creation but there necessarily in his Triune relations from all eternity.

With this idea in mind we can also remove another difficulty, which is in conceiving how God as eternal and immutable did not change by becoming man and being crucified. For the truth is that the Incarnation in a revelation of what is changelessly and eternally already in God’s very essence. God in becoming man does not take on some new, unexperienced reality. He knows self-emptying, humbling, submission and crucifixion from “before all worlds.” Not in light of creation – for that would make these realities of his dependent on something other than himself – but in light of his Triune relations. What happens is that in the Incarnation God reveals to us changing beings what in him is his unchanging divine life.

We must remember that this view of a suffering God does not of course lead to a “helpless” God, a God who is impotent or bites his nails anxiously. For the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection and subsequent glorification. In the life of Christ we are connected to a divine pattern that seems to us to be many separate things. But in God, in whom there is no becoming, such a movement of one reality to the next cannot really be what is taking place. Rather in God the whole process is somehow his very Divine Life – the Divine Love – itself.


On the Trinity, Impassibility and Creation, with Reflections on Aquinas’ Conception of Jesus’ Human Mind

The “traditional” doctrine has always been that the three persons share the same divine nature. Thus all three are omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc. But I feel a real difficulty when we get to certain other divine attributes, such as aseity and impassibility. If to be divine is to be impassible, then how can the Son, who is eternally begotten (i.e. eternally receiving his existence), be impassible? To be impassible seems to be equivalent to being purely active and not in any way passive. But would not the Son, since he is derivative, be purely receptive in his being, and therefore passible? A similar point can be made as regards aseity. If to be divine is to be a-se, then how can the Son, who derives his being from the Father, be divine? To be a-se means to be self-existent and not get one’s being from another. It means, in a word, to be unconditioned. But how then can the Son be a-se, since he is only the Son by being begotten of the Father?

Further difficulties emerge when we consider the things we can say of the Son, over against the Father. The Son, for instance, assumed a human nature. Yet the Father did not assume. How therefore can the Father and the Son be equal when you can predicate the property of “assuming a human nature” to one and not the other? Traditionally, theologians have wanted to say that the three persons are identical as regards the divine nature and that they only differ in their relations to each other. But I am having a difficult (impossible?) time in seeing how a relation can be a particular relation without simultaneously implying differences as regards to the nature of the person who possesses that relation. That is, if the Son is related to the Father by way of generation, how then is the Son in his own nature not passible and dependent? I suppose one could say that God considered as a Trinity possesses the full range of the divine attributes, but that each person considered in itself does not, necessarily. But if that is the case, in what sense can “all” persons be divine and equal? That is, just what are the properties that each share that make them all divine?**

Another problem I have is in considering how the Son, considered as impassible, could truly be united to a passible human being. In particular, how could the divine nature in Christ really “know” and be related to his passible human nature? If the divine nature is changelessly, perfectly happy, knowing all things timelessly and fully, how could he unite himself to a changing, suffering, ignorant human body and soul? The traditional doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Son was united to both a human body and soul, and thus that he was united to that which is natural to each. It is natural for man to be limited in knowledge and confined in body. How, therefore, could the Infinite and All-knowing unite itself, remaining what it is, to the finite and unknowing?

Aquinas and others have said two things about this, which are worth looking at. The first is that although the human nature really is related to the divine, the divine is not really related to the human. In other words, the divine stays unchangeable, omniscient, etc, and it is only the human nature that changes. But in this case, is there really a union of God and man? If so, where? If it is only the human nature which is becoming divine, and not the divine that is also becoming human, then in what sense can the divine in itself really relate to the human? Second of all, in explaining the human ignorance and suffering of the human nature, Aquinas is driven to say things like Christ, from the moment of his conception, saw the beatific vision of God in the womb. Likewise, when he hung on the cross, he experienced “in the higher part of his soul” inexpressible joy, though in his “lower soul” he experienced torment and pain unspeakable. Aquinas also holds that when Christ expressed ignorance of certain things he was not really ignorant but rather choosing not to reveal things that he already knew. (Doesn’t this just make him a liar? Why not say, as he in fact did say in other places, that such things were not necessary for his hearers to know?) Further, Aquinas holds that Christ had neither faith nor hope, since these virtues only come about because one does not yet have the beatific vision nor perfect knowledge of God. Since he held that Christ from the moment of conception onward held an absolutely perfect knowledge of God (and all things in God), he was driven to hold that Christ neither had faith nor hope.

But how could Christ, who fully assumed human nature, not even be able in principle to have faith or hope? If Christ did not assume some measure of ignorance, some measure of intellectual distance from God, how could he have assumed true humanity? Furthermore, what is one to make of the distinction in Aquinas of Christ’s human soul as regards its “higher” and “lower” parts? (Did he not hold that the soul was immaterial and therefore not composed of parts?) I cannot find this distinction intelligible. It seems to me that a human mind can only contain one conscious experience at a time. They may come and go with great rapidity and evolve and morph in all sorts of ways, but to say that one is simultaneously experiencing inexpressible joy in his higher soul while also experiencing horrible anguish in his lower is a concept I cannot make sense of. This is typical of Aquinas though. He gives us seemingly contradictory statements – without any meaningful analogues in our own inner experience – and just lets them sit there clashing against one another. I have a love-hate relationship with his writings. On the one hand, a man so thoughtful, who put so many questions to himself, must have seen the inconsistency in what he said, or at least the possible ways in which what he said could be interpreted to be inconsistent. Yet there is never a hint of recognition from himself regarding this. He speaks as if he sees things perfectly clearly. It’s like a person who has drawn a picture of a face, but disfigured the proportions, and yet does not admit that the picture itself is imperfect, or even bad in places. At least admit that what you’ve drawn looks horribly mangled. You do see it, right? Surely?

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about creation. I have argued in the past that God did not “need” to create, and that even without creation he could have been God and been perfectly fulfilled. Yet he freely chose to create, not for his own good, but for the good of the creature. Now the classic idea of a changeless and immutable God here brings up problems for me. For God, since he is independent of creation and does not need it to exist, must in a sense never acquire some new experience from creation. He cannot be “more God” in virtue of creation. Nor can he, as it were, “learn” new principles of being, some deeper metaphysical truths about reality. An open theist could argue that he can learn contingencies as they come to be in time, but I doubt even an open theist would conclude that God could learn some new present existential experience simply in virtue of the creation. All experiences must already exist in God, before he creates. For they only exist because they have first of all existed in his own creative mind. To give an analogy, everything in the book must somehow exist beforehand in the author’s mind.

Yet what about pain and evil? These things must have existed in God’s mind prior to creation, else they never could come to be in a world created by him. That would be like saying there was some passage in the book that existed without the hand of the author. Yet how could God, considered in himself, “know” them? This very problem lies at the back of why theologians are driven to assert that the divine does not suffer, even in the crucifixion. But again this has two insurmountable problems. i) If the divine cannot suffer then the assumption of the human by the divine seems impossible, for the divine must assume all that is real in the human, if it is to assume it in its fullness; and ii) just where does the metaphysical reality of suffering come from, if it does not exist beforehand in God’s creative mind? If the author puts something in the book, he must know it, not less, but better than everyone else. Surely the characters cannot know the novel better than he does.

I’m not going to pretend to have nice and tidy answers to these questions. But it does seem to me there are nuggets in the open theist camp that have not been fully mined. The first thing we must think more about is if it is possible for there to be some sort of “becoming” in God’s very being, because if so, we could perhaps better explain the Incarnation and how God “became” man. We must think about if this becoming is something God imposes on himself or takes on from some prior state of being or if he has eternally been existing in such a way. The second thing we must dig more into is God’s existence in himself (ad intra) apart from the world, prior to creation. Does God in this mode of being possess potentiality, and if so, who or what sets such a limit? If it does not come from God’s will, how could it exist? Does it come from his nature? Is his nature different from his will? And if God does in fact possess potentiality, does this mean he can potentially “open” his own experienced inner life of joy and fullness to a self-imposed vulnerability, insofar as he allows himself to be moved by creation? And if so, does this mean that God really does experience some new reality, in virtue of the creation, when he experiences pain and evil?

**In fact, now that I think about it, how could three persons share the attributes even of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence? The Father does not know himself as the Son, nor is he “in the place of” the Son, nor can he become the Son. Therefore there are things the Father doesn’t know (“I am the Son”, “I was generated by the Father,” etc – all the “I statements” predicated of the Son). There are places the Father is not – he is not in whatever metaphysical “space” the Son occupies. And there are things he cannot do – he cannot BE the Son.

On Divine Impassibility, Aseity and the Incarnation

“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.” CS Lewis, The Four Loves

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Here’s what I’ve got.

If God is a se that means that he is not dependent on any reality outside himself in order to be what he is. His own essence has no “needs” as it were, nor is God somehow more “complete” in virtue of any reality other than himself. Thus it follows that God, in creating the universe, does not acquire some new perfection, some richer or more full mode of existence, in doing so. God is not “more God” after creating. Anyone who concedes that God freely created the world must also concede this, for it is the simple consequence of believing that God did not have to create. To suppose God had to create is to suppose that God metaphysically needs the world in order to be himself or realize his own perfection. But if that is true, God’s being is contingent and dependent. This is a conclusion that anyone who believes in God at all ought to find impossible to accept. The ultimate explanation for all of reality and the Unconditional Fact behind all conditioned existences cannot itself be conditioned.

So, to repeat, God in creating the universe did not gain some new perfection in doing so. He would have been perfectly fine – just as infinitely happy – if the universe did not exist. Therefore, God’s reason for creating was not for any good that would accrue to himself in doing so (since that would be impossible and make God’s essence co-dependent on the creation.) Rather, the whole reason God creates is for the goodness of the things he has made themselves.

This point, when grasped, has staggering consequences. Allow me to list a few.

1. Since God cannot have created in order to maximize his own experience and happiness, He cannot have created with the motive of “displaying his attributes” at the expense of the creatures he has made. Ergo, the Calvinist scheme which holds that God creates vessels of wrath, not for the purpose of doing good to the creature, but in order to show forth his hatred of sin or display his justice, must be false. For in creating God is not seeking to satisfy some unfulfilled desire. He does not “need” vessels of wrath nor even to “display” his attributes in creation to be happy or to be God. He is perfectly happy and fully God with or without a creation! Remember, he creates entirely for the good of the creature, not for the good of himself. Therefore, since his action in creating has as its motive purely and entirely the good of the creature, he cannot thus use creatures in such a way that is inconsistent with what absolutely best for them. This has consequences for our doctrine of Hell I would like to work out another time.

2. If God did not have to create, then it was possible for God to exist alone, without a creation. Therefore, God has essential and necessary properties “ad intra” or without regard to a creation. That is, God, since he can exist without a creation, must have properties or things that are true about him that do not themselves depend on creation itself. He would have these properties whether or not creation existed. One of these properties, it seems to me, must be infinite and unsullied happiness. Otherwise, if God is not essentially infinitely happy, then God existing in himself could be better than he is – in which case he would not be God, the full perfection of being. What this means then is that God is necessarily happy. Therefore God cannot be unhappy – he cannot suffer – because then he would cease to be God, since to be God necessarily entails being happy. In other words, a property of divinity is to be infinitely happy. God, since he cannot but be God, cannot but be infinitely happy. Therefore God cannot suffer.

Some may suppose that God in himself is not necessarily infinitely happy, but is only contingently happy. But this to me has several difficulties. If God ad intra (that is, in himself apart from creation) is possibly less than infinitely happy — if, in short, God as existing in himself Tri-Personally can suffer — then we must ask, what would be the cause of such suffering? God ad intra is in perfect communion with himself. Further, he knows and loves himself perfectly, so there is no lack of union to cause any grief. Since he is omnipotent, where would any resistance that could give rise to suffering come from? Suffering or unhappiness implies that something is present to oneself which is not desired. But how could God ad intra, existing in himself as perfect Trinity, be faced with something he didn’t desire? If we are talking about God’s essential and necessary properties – that is, if we are talking about God alone – where would such unhappiness come from?

3. Therefore, since God cannot suffer without ceasing to be God, Kenosis theories must likewise be false. For insofar as God can exist without a creation, he can have properties which do not depend on creation, but which rather depend entirely on his Triune experience alone. In such an experience is the fullness of all joy and bliss and perfection, or else God could be better than he is, and we can conceive of some being greater than God. Thus these properties which God has of himself ad intra cannot be lost by God or he would cease to be God. There would be nothing to connect what are now two different subjects as a single thing. God’s identity would fall apart. Therefore, when the second person of the Trinity unites a passible, human nature to his person, the divine nature cannot itself suffer. The second person of the Trinity does not experience any less beatitude, joy, and happiness due to the fact that he is united to a suffering human nature; or else, again, God in assuming human nature would cease to be God.

We must remember that all suffering derives from something created or ad extra to God, and that no created thing can possibly be any sort of obstacle or give any resistance to divine omnipotence. Thus the second person’s divinity is such that any human experience of suffering, even something so horrible as the crucifixion, is instantly consumed in the joy of uncreated and infinite triune bliss. As a snow flake is instantly consumed by a flame, so too is the passible human suffering of Christ qua man consumed by the impassible divine joy of Christ qua God.


On The Trinity and God’s Unity

Is it easier to ask questions than to find answers, and the most profound truths can be plumbed to their depths with the inquiring language of a child: if God is one, how can he also be three?

I am no expert on the Trinity. I want this space to be simply my own musings on the question posed above.

In one sense God, as “a being” must be One. Any belief in God at all must be a belief in a Single God. In particular, any belief supported by the philosophic reasoning lain down previously in this blog cannot deny that the “thing” ultimately responsible for the universe and all that is, must be one thing. Anyone who wants to can look back and see my argument for this. Simply put, my mind cannot conceive that at the basic level of existence reality is fractured or enisled from itself. Things cannot be ultimately disconnected from each other. There must be some unifying force, some underlying synthesizing agent, some cohesive mind or hand behind all that is. There must be some Single Principle. Otherwise I cannot understand how things could act on each other or co-exist in the same reality. Otherwise the term “uni-verse” simply loses meaning.

Thus I cannot deny that God, since he is such a ultimate and unifying principle, from whom flows all created things, is Singular. But as soon as I say this and start to think it through I run up against the doctrine of the Trinity, which say that God (singular) is really Three Persons (plural). The church Fathers seem to be at pains to point out all the various heresies involved in conceiving of these persons as not “really” separate persons. There is both Modalism and Partialism. The first states that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really only different “modes” of the same divine essence. This results in the fact that God is really only one person who appears differently. Thus the true distinction and reality of the three persons are destroyed. The second heresy, on the other hand, says that each person is real but each one makes up only “part” of God. This seems to make God as such a component of pieces and also implies that no person is himself fully divine. For divinity is what happens when all three persons come together. And so the Father as Father cannot be divine, nor the Son as Son, etc.

The Athanasian Creed defines the Trinity like this: “But the Catholic faith is this, that we venerate one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in oneness; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance; for there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, (and) another of the Holy Spirit; but the divine nature of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one, their glory is equal, their majesty is coeternal.” (Even if one thinks this creed, which some put around 500 AD, is of late origin, this same definition is found in many places in the ancient writings. See and control F “Trinity” if interested.”)

Now, what are we to make of this ancient Creed of Christianity, this One God in Three Persons?

To tell the truth, I don’t rightly know. But I will say I find Aquinas’ solution to be somehow promising (at least very intriguing). To horribly simplify his approach, it goes like this.

Well, first, a caveat. It needs to be clear that it has always been held that each Person of the Trinity has particular things about it that is true of itself alone, and false of the other persons. For instance, the Son was eternally begotten, but the Father and the Spirit were not. Likewise only the Son was incarnate. So, different things can be said about the persons. Yet at the same time each person has the essential qualities of divinity – such as perfection, immutability, omnipresence, etc.

Now, with that out of the way, Aquinas understands the Trinity like this. There is, first, the Father. And the Father, by an act of understanding himself, “begets” as it were, a perfect conception of his own essence. This internal conception is the Son. Thus he is sort of the result of an act of intellect on the part of the Father, which is why he is also called “the Word” or Logos. Now this Word, which is the exact representation of the Father himself, is also an object of the Father’s love. That is, there is an impulse on the part of the Father’s will which, as it were, reaches out to the Son, which “proceeds” from him. This is called the Spirit. Thus the Spirit, by way of a sort of vital impulsive movement, proceeds from the Father to the Son; and the Son, receiving such movement, himself also spirates the Spirit to the Father.

Thus Aquinas compares the relation between the Father, Son, and Spirit to our own experience of Intellect and Will. From what I can tell on this scheme the thing inside us which does the thinking would be the Father, the concept, which is itself a perfect image of the thing thinking, would be the Son, and the love which spirates out of of the thinking thing towards the concept would be the Spirit. Very difficult to pin down! But that’s because it evokes (quite rightly I believe) self-consciousness to help shed light on God. The problem is that self-consciousness itself is a huge mystery, so it is sort of like bringing in Calculus to help explain Rocket Science. Both subjects are tough. But isn’t it odd that something so familiar can remain so obscure? All day long we have self-reflective experiences, yet how rarely do we stop to consider just how deep an existential mystery we are engaged in.

Aquinas also maintains that God is “one” in this self-relating Trinitarian process by maintaining that this self-relational just IS God. Since it takes places within God himself (itself?), there is no need of positing “outside” realities which the persons stand up against. All is going on in God, timelessly and eternally. God is changelessly knowing himself, generating himself, loving himself, relating to himself. And since these relations are REAL the “persons” involved in such an action are also real.

Anyway, cutting it short for now. In mid thought for sure. Sometimes it is better that way.