Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Problem with a Timeless God

Does God know that he COULD HAVE done differently than create this world? If yes, this implies changeability and/or temporality. If no, then all things are necessary and theological determinism results.


The Divine Ideas as Possible Grounds for God’s Middle Knowledge

“Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.)” CSL, Letter to Beversluis

There is a major difficulty in explaining how a timeless God in an “eternal now” could know our future free choices by simply seeing them. I made a rough sketch as to why this was in my previous post. My point was basically this. If God knows our future free choices timelessly, this really reduces to either a) that he knows them by determining them and therefore destroying free will or b)  that he is temporal, since he first gains knowledge of and then responds to various free choices in time. Therefore, if one wants to hold that God has infallible knowledge of our future free choices (I am aware some deny this), we must do more than simply assert that he “sees them in his eternal now.”

Let’s concede for a moment that there is enough Scriptural and experiential evidence to say that God’s having foreknowledge of future free choices is true; or that, in principle, there seems to be nothing spectacularly unbelievable in the idea of knowing what a person would freely choose in advance. I’m therefore going to suppose that there is no logical connection between merely foreknowing that something will come to pass and the necessity of the event that is foreknown. As far as I can tell, simply knowing what will happen does not strictly imply that the event itself happens because the agent foreknew it would happen.

Now, the idea of middle knowledge – i.e. God’s knowledge of what any free being would do in any circumstance – has been used to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and our free will. But traditionally the theory has been criticized because it provides no rational ground for such knowledge on God’s part. If God cannot observe free actions (which would mean he could not know them in advance), then in order to know them for certain he would have to determine their truth value by an act of will. But this really just reduces to theological determinism and destroys free choices. They would be what they are because God would have determined them so by his will.

But it seems to me there may in fact be a possible ground for middle knowledge, not in God’s will (which is voluntary), but in his nature. 

Imagine that there are such things as purely spiritual, individual essences. Could not these essences, as being singular and particular, possess their own properties in respect to how they would freely act in any situation? By freely I mean self-originatingly, insofar as the act came from that essence’s will, rather than the will of an outside agent. It seems possible that each agent, as an agent, has the property, as part of its own essence, of an infinite set of self-willed responses to whatever circumstances it may be in. In the same way a triangle has the property of three-sidedness inherent in its own essence as triangle, so too may Peter for instance have the property of self-acting in such a way in such and such a situation inherent in his own essence as Peter.

Now, the real point to grasp here is that the counterfactual facts of these essences are not something that exist because of God’s will. Rather, they exist in God’s mind, which is itself rooted in God’s nature. God’s will only comes into play when considering God’s creation of the world and that which is contingent. (Remember, classically theologians have always held that the Son is not produced by the Father’s will but by his nature.) Therefore, God’s will would have power over which circumstances he places the particular essences in – and this would constitute his providence over creation – but his will would not have power over the contents of his mind – i.e. what he perceives as possible and impossible, true and false, etc. This is no more problematic for God’s sovereignty, by the way, than supposing that God could not make a triangle with four sides or a married bachelor. The fact is that since the will naturally follows the intellect (rather than the opposite), it is just not possible, even for an omnipotent being, to perform actions logically impossible.

For that last point to work it is crucial we keep the relation between God’s mind and will correctly oriented. Grasping such a relation is necessary in order to understand how God could possess in his mind the ideas of creaturely essences, instantiate those essences, place them in all the circumstances he wanted to, and yet not be the one who “determined” their free actions. The core truth behind such a relation is this: the divine will follows the divine reason. That is, God “determines” not the content of his mind – for that is absurd – but rather his own action with respect to the content that is already there. Think of it this way. When a painter sits down to paint, does he determine the very nature of “shape” “color” “line” etc? Or does he determine, by using these concepts as they already exist in his mind, how to use shapes, colors, and lines?

Will and Intellect are closely intertwined, but the two are not the same thing and there is a relational priority between them. If a thing is “volitional” – that is, if we will a certain action – what we will or choose already presupposes a great many things we do not will or choose. In willing to drink beer rather than water I also do not will – in the sense that I lack the objective capacity for willing – that things like beer and water and taste and thirst exist. The will must necessarily function on “given” data that is presented to it that it does not itself freely choose. Think of the absurdity that would result if every choice meant that the options presented in the choice must themselves have been chosen.

So I want to make a sharp distinction between what exists

a) first in God’s knowledge, which he does not will in the sense of possessing voluntary power regarding (for remember what is “voluntary” is simply what the will chooses already supposing certain things it perceives as given and unchangeable) 


b) secondly through God’s act of will.

It seems to me reasonable to say that God’s act of will, in which he creates the essences he comprehends as ideas, and places them in various circumstances, does not itself determine how the creatures will freely choose in any situation. That is part of the unchangeable data given to it by the intellect that the will works on. The circumstances, the gifts of grace, the various emotional promptings, and the miraculous movement of the matter of the universe: these are things caused by the will of God. But the actual acts of free agents themselves – these, it seems to me, are simply things God instantiates or creates or allows to be, rather than actively determines.

But how, in regards to a mechanism, would God know creaturely essences which themselves have the ability to do otherwise? It seems to me we could just simply say that such knowledge is necessarily rooted in God’s nature as a potentially creative being. That is, it follows from God being necessarily possibly creative that he also has, necessarily and part of his nature, the ideas of free creaturely essences eternally in his mind, independent of their instantiation. Whether or not such essences will in fact be created, and what circumstances they will be in if they are, is something that would depend on his free will. But the truth value of counterfactuals would be grounded in God’s mind, which is rooted in his nature.

By the way, such a notion of God’s knowledge would be unaffected by whether or not you thought God was temporal or timeless, it seems to me.

The Timeless Now and Causal Loops

Eternalists – or those who believe God exists timelessly and unchanging – often believe this picture of God because they think it allows us to explain how God has foreknowledge of future events, in particular prophecy. God knows who will win the presidential election because God is “already” in the future. Thus he can, the argument goes, reveal to someone right now what will happen in the future because he sees it already going on.

I think this explanation of prophecy, God’s knowledge and his causal interaction with the world is flawed. And I will start my argument for this opinion with a question, which is this: granting that God is timeless, and granting that he interacts “at once” with all moments of time and the free choices we make at these moments, how does this mesh with prophecy?

What I mean is this. “Timeless-now-ists” (i.e. those who think God exists in a timeless now) would say that God knows all truths in a single logical moment. They will say that this includes God knowing his giving of free will, the free movements of the creatures themselves, and his response to their movements. Thus God knows in a single Now what happens at t1, t2, t3, etc. From this it follows that it also true that God knows that what happens, say, at t3 happens in part due to times that come before t3. That is, God knows that each moment in time is what it is in part because of times that come before it. I am married in part because at some time in the past I proposed to my wife, I was raised in a certain part of the world, and I was born from my two parents, etc. Now from this comes an important point: it seems undeniable that this temporal, causal relationship is also temporally sequential. That is to say, I was not raised in a certain part of the world because I later married my wife; nor was I born because one day I would propose to her.

How the point ties in to prophecy is this. It seems to me that in an timeless now, God’s causal interaction with moments of time would likewise have to follow a temporally sequential causal relation. That is, how he interacts with t3 would be “because” of what occurs at t3 and also because of what occurs before t3. But it doesn’t seem possible that how he interacts with t3 would be “because” of what occurs after t3. This is because if God uses what is after t3 to interact with t3 – say for instance that what occurs at t9 is his “because” for interacting with t3 in a particular way – then that would involve a causal loop insofar as the t9 that God is interacting with already has the preceding t’s as part of its causal history. So, I say that to say, it seems to me that God could not “see what happens” at t9 and use that to give a prophecy at t3. (I.e. God could not use knowledge gained at t9 to effect t3, because t9 already contains t1-8.)  Unfortunately this is the most common response from timeless-now-ists that I have read regarding how God makes prophecies in time.

It seems to me 2 things follow from this idea combined with the doctrine of God’s mode of existence: a) that God’s causal interactions with us, which involve true responsiveness and God doing things “because” of what we do in time, would uphold this temporally sequential relation among themselves. That is, God’s interaction at each stage would be “decided” by previous t stages, but not vice versa. His interaction at t3 would involve his interaction at t1 and t2, but not t4, t5, etc. This is because later t stages represent open possibilities with respect to God’s causal relation to us. And b) it seems no prophecy which temporally precedes the event of which it prophesies about could come about with absolute certainty without God taking away free will. That is, if a prophecy occurs at t3 about t9, then God’s interaction at t3 has not yet (logically speaking) “taken into account” what freely happens at t9 (again, because t9 itself already contains t’s 1-8). God could of course impose his will so that the prophesied event came about certainly; or he could give a conditional prophecy. But it seems to that if God were timelessness this would preclude the idea of him using what occurs at later temporally sequential points to affect earlier temporally sequential points, for that would involve a causal loop/regress.

So even if the eternal block theory of the universe is true, there is still a logical sequencing of temporal events within it. And this logical sequencing would have to be present in God’s being himself if he were to be really related to us. That is, if he relates to us in such a way because of what we do – say as forgiving us because we repent rather than holding us guilty because we do not – then God’s very being itself must “wait” on what we do in order to take our free movement into account with regard to his own relation to us.

Therefore I think no timeless-now-ist can consistently believe in free will and God’s real relation to the world. For there is a temporal sequencing in God’s relations themselves if we are free, as shown above. And, obviously, temporal sequencing is excluded by a simultaneous now that itself excludes sequence.

An Open Theist Kind of Predestination

One of the main arguments against the Open View of the future are all the biblical passages that speak about God’s predestination. Specifically I have always found the following argument quite damaging for Open Theism:

  1. God cannot know or guarantee future free human acts
  2. The death of Christ depended on at least one future free human act
  3. Therefore the death of Christ was itself an unknowable, unguaranteeable event

Now there are a couple ways Open Theists try to get out of this problem. One way is to say that God could override particular human wills in order to guarantee whatever outcome he wants. He can overwhelm the mind of a particular person with a Calvinist “irresistible grace” which makes it psychologically impossible for the agent to do otherwise. Another response is to say that God could physically move someone to get the outcome he wants. He could, so to speak, “back one into a corner” and limit his physical options in order to accomplish his purpose. Hence St. Paul’s heavenly vision on Damascus Road. Paul was blinded and probably had precious little freedom to resist the physical act of going wherever the vision told him to go. Yet his mental – that is, his moral freedom – was evidently unaffected since he claims later on that he could have been “disobedient” to this vision. So while Paul could not have helped being blind and physically going to so and so’s house; he could have been morally resistant to this state of affairs. I can force my son to get in the car and go with me to the store, but he can still pout in the backseat.

There seems, then, to be two different ways God can “predestine” or “guarantee” a particular event in history involving human persons according to Open Theism. He can a) psychologically overwhelm someone in the Calvinist irresistible grace way (he can change a person’s “want to’s”); or he can b) physically overwhelm them by limiting their physical options but still leaving intact their moral freedom or their ability to “resist” him spiritually.

Now the problem here is that neither of these methods of predestination can be applied to the crucifixion of Christ. For if God used the a) type, then moral responsibility would be removed from the act of crucifixion itself. Judas would not be blamed for his betrayal since he “had” to do what he did and since God overwhelmed him in such a way that removed his libertarian freedom. Similarly if God used the b) type of freedom, the same functional result follows. If God simply arranged the physical environment and circumstances such that Christ’s death was unavoidable no matter what free choices were made – much like Paul’s blindness was unavoidable whether or not he was obedient to the heavenly vision – then once again, the EVENT of Christ’s crucifixion could not be an event that garnered moral guilt.

Open theism must, then, postulate an additional understanding of Predestination. I would like to suggest one such additional understanding. I shall steal a phrase from Tom Belt and call this third type of predestination “Kasparovian predestination,” after the chess player Garry Kasparov. What I mean is this.

If Open Theism is true and temporal becoming is real, then God’s foreknowledge is a knowledge of future possibilities. God knows beforehand – you could even say before he created the universe – every possible state of affairs. He does not know that Cuthbert WILL buy the Iguana if he’s in the pet store on March 26, 2016, but he does know that if Cuthbert is in such a situation he may. Now if God really has knowledge of “might” counterfactuals such as this, then God, since he is perfectly loving and wise, would also know, it seems, how he would respond given which particular possibility came to be. This would include both a specific response to each individual and also an overall response for the totality of the world. Or to put it differently, God’s single creation-response would take into account both every specific individual as well as the overall picture of every individual: it would take into account each piece of the whole and also the picture of the whole itself.

Now if it is true that before God created the universe he knew both every possible state of affairs and also his own response to each of those states, it seems to me possible to say that whatever comes to pass in creation was in some sense predestined and foreknown by God. For God would know from the very beginning what things he would “allow” or “permit”; and he also knows what things he would not permit. Every possible scenario – every way in which the world can unfold – has already been weighed in God’s mind prior to creating. So in that sense nothing that comes to pass is outside his own pre-conceived divine counter-response. And since no creation-scenario falls outside his calculations it is quite right to say, in the qualified sense of permission, that if anything comes to pass God has from all eternity foreknown and predestined the allowance of such a thing.

Now, what about Christ’s death? If it depended on Pilate, Judas and others, how could God have ensured it would come about thousands of years before they were born? Well I think here it is important not to overlook a central figure in the crucifixion drama. I am referring to Satan himself. It may be that Satan’s fall was the contingent even that “secured” the death of Christ. Or if Satan’s sin did not guarantee Christ’s death, Adam’s could have. In other words, the death of Christ (though perhaps not necessarily his crucifixion) could have been contingent up to the moment of the first human sin, at which point, from God’s predetermination which is conditioned by creaturely free choices, it then became necessary. That is, God’s initial, free sovereign choice could have decided before he created the universe that if Adam sinned, then Christ would necessarily die. On this model God is still ultimately in control insofar as that the initial possibilities – the laws of the universe which our free choices operate on – have all passed through the judgment of God’s will beforehand. He has still, so to speak, given the nod to everything that comes to pass (of course this does not mean that God would want whatever happens to happen – only that He is the one who has set the consequences of the possibilities up.). This would also mean, contra some Open Theists, that God does have a particular reason for allowing certain evils, even if that reason is simply so that the evils themselves are temporarily possible and will be overcome in the future. If God had absolutely no reason for allowing evils evils would not exist.

So I want to suggest this third view of predestination; namely a “Kasparovian” kind, in which God, in foreknowing all possibilities, also predestines how he would respond to every creation-scenario (and, I would argue, possibly even what intentional states of consciousness he will take on in relation to each creature.) If predestination is thought of in this way it seems that even the texts which most strongly suggest a Calvinist understanding of things can be synthesized with an open future. For in a very real way God has predestines absolutely everything that comes to pass, either by his pre-planned permission or direct causal action. Although, as I said before, it does not follow from this that just because God has set the rules of the game up along with their consequences that he would want bad things to occur. All he wants is their possibility to.

Now an interesting question that arises from this is how could God, before creation even existed, “pre-know” such a thing as sin, evil, death, or suffering, since these things exist nowhere in his own metaphysical, self-contained existence? How then could he have known that Christ would experience these things? I’ll try to take a stab at that one later.

Berkeley’s Neglected Argument for God

“Some Truths there are so near and obvious to the Mind, that a Man need only open his Eyes to see them.” George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

Has anyone yet refuted Berkeley? Has any Naturalist addressed his point that ‘unperceived matter’ is literally unthinkable, and therefore cannot even be rationally thought to exist? I don’t think his case has been made often enough. So let me try to make it below.

Berkeley’s argument against materialism is simply that it is impossible to conceive anything existing independently of a mind perceiving it. To separate abstractly the “thing in itself” as Kant did – to make a statement about “unperceived matter” – is literally a contradiction, since any conception or statement already involves an act of mind. It’s like saying “perceived unperceived-matter.” Therefore, he concludes, it is impossible to assert that matter exists in and of itself without also implying that some mind somewhere perceives it.

All conceptions we form – say of matter existing ‘in itself’ – are themselves already products of minds. It is, then, self-contradictory to suppose that the physical world exists without being perceived by a mind. For ‘physical world’ is not itself a mind-independent concept. No one has ever ‘seen’ or ‘sensed’ a mind-independent reality for the simple fact that all our sensations are only experienced through our own rational minds. ‘Unperceived matter’, therefore, is literally unthinkable – a contradiction. Just WHAT is implied but some concept, the contents of which exist in a MIND which has used its senses to arrive at the particular idea? It cannot then be meaningfully asserted that the physical universe exists ‘in itself’, independent of mind.

Consider the following. Those who hold to a Big Bang, independent of a mind at the time of it occurring, must simultaneously hold to both a) all models of the Big Bang — all our descriptions of it which are supposedly true – are products of minds; that is, they models themselves don’t exist anywhere else except in a mind. Yet they hold that b) this thing that occurred at the beginning of the universe which the models is describing did so entirely independent of any mind perceiving it. But then we have an implicit contradiction: this thing that is mind-dependent – i.e. this model – existed as mind-independent. But just what are we talking about that is mind-independent? No such description is possible, for every description presupposes mind.

Therefore what the Naturalist must hold if he is to be self-consistent is that the Big Bang, insofar as we understand it, is really only a description of what is going on in our minds when we create a particular hypothesis of the origin of the universe. It cannot describe a reality that occurred independent of a mind, for that is an implicit contradiction. And insofar as we don’t understand the Big Bang at all (if he wants to go that route), it is impossible to say it actually occurred. For we can only believe in things that we first have some conception of, however small. To make pronouncements on the possibility of that which we have absolutely no knowledge of at all is impossible.

But how, then, can the universe exist independently of our mind perceiving it, say when we are asleep or when we die? By existing in an eternal Cosmic Mind.

To complete the quote that this post began with:

“VI. Some Truths there are so near and obvious to the Mind, that a Man need only open his Eyes to see them. Such I take this Important one to be, to wit, that all the Choir of Heaven and Furniture of the Earth, in a word all those Bodies which compose the mighty Frame of the World, have not any Subsistence without a Mind, that their Being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my Mind or that of any other created Spirit, they must either have no Existence at all, or else subsist in the Mind of some eternal Spirit: It being perfectly unintelligible and involving all the Absurdity of Abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an Existence independent of a Spirit. To be convinced of which, the Reader need only reflect and try to separate in his own Thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.”

Revelation and Divine Accommodation

“No revelation can be other than partial. If for true revelation a man must be told all the truth, then farewell to revelation; yea, farewell to the sonship. For what revelation, other than a partial, can the highest spiritual condition receive of the infinite God? But it is not therefore untrue because it is partial. Relatively to a lower condition of the receiver, a more partial revelation might be truer than that would be which constituted a fuller revelation to one in a higher condition; for the former might reveal much to him, the latter might reveal nothing.” George MacDonald The Consuming Fire

From what I can tell, the writers of the New Testament did not believe in a theory of Biblical inspiration equivalent to the modern, fundamentalist, encyclopedic, literal word-for-word theory of inspiration that is around today. Turn to the book of Hebrews for instance. If you follow the footnotes which reference what portion of the Old Testament the writer is quoting from, you will see that what the writer quotes as the OT is not exactly what the OT says (at least as it is recorded in our Bibles, which settles my point for all practical purposes.) Once you’ve become aware of this you notice this practice of “paraphrasing” going on quite frequently. Throughout the gospels and sprinkled throughout several of the letters you have a sort of fast-and-loose, creatively liberal use of the Old Testament in such a way where the passage reproduced does not say exactly what it is recorded as saying. It can look as if the Old Testament was used as a sort of recipe book in which the New Testament writers mixed together various portions and added a spice of their own.

Here’s another interesting observation. People often talk about Jesus’ belief in the inspiration of the canon and that this belief itself is an argument from authority that Christians should likewise view Hebrew Bible the same way. The argument runs – “We have good historical reasons to believe Christ was raised from the dead and that he therefore is the Son of God. Further, Jesus believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament. Therefore so should we. How can we question the theology of the one we believe was God incarnate?”

To this argument I will simply say that, although Jesus certainly did seem to hold to a certain belief in divine inspiration, no where is his particular theory spelled out. In fact, as much as he quotes the Old Testament, each time he does so he sheds new light on it, even to the point of appearing to correct it in the eyes of its most adherent interpreters. Who could forget the paradigm shifting juxtaposition: “YOU have heard it said an eye for an eye, BUT I SAY TO YOU…”

And notice, too, Jesus’ explanation for the discrepancy between his words and those of the Old Testament when they are pointed out to him: such things God commanded in the past because of the hardness of the people’s hearts he was speaking to. Thus there is latent in the words of the OT some sense of divine adaptation – or accommodation – in light of who the revelation was being given to.

Maybe God, in dealing with the fallen nature of humanity as it is in its various forms, meets humanity where they are and accommodates his message. To a race of rebellious, stubborn, and power-impressed people, perhaps the only message they would hear is one full of force and impending wrath? We – who are supposedly so much less primitive than they – can barely believe in a God so good that he would sacrifice himself out of sheer freedom and for no other reason than that he loves us. Is it so hard to imagine a group of people to whom that truth would have fallen on empty ears, and therefore been useless to reveal?

A child cannot understand that when you tell them not to touch the stove you are doing so, not because you don’t want them to enjoy the food on top of it but because you don’t want them to burn their hand. Try to reason with the child – give them your strongest arguments with the greatest show of emotional love – and they will likely still reach up and burn their hand when you are not looking. Yet if you threaten the child with punishment, very often their fear will save them.

Perhaps our theory of the “inspiration” of Scripture should consider this parental principle – this method of accommodation – as it pertains to the revelation of God to humanity?

Four Problems with Actus Purus

“Hence I think that nothing marks off Pagan theism from Christianity so sharply as Aristotle’s doctrine that God moves the universe, Himself unmoving, as the Beloved moves a lover. But for Christendom “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us”. CSL The Problem of Pain

Over at Eclectic Orthodoxy Thomas and I engaged in some debate about the problems of conceiving God as actus purus. He there asked me to spell out my difficulties more clearly. This post is my attempt to do that. Below I lay out what I take to be four (fatal) problems with the doctrine of actus purus.

1) God’s relation to the world.

According to Aquinas, since God is pure unconditioned act, his essence is not – in fact cannot be – referred to or dependent upon anything outside itself. As he says “Now, these relations which refer to God’s effects cannot possibly exist in Him really.” (SCG Book 2 Ch.12) Now, the reason Aquinas holds this is because, since God is totally independent of creation and unconditioned, nothing can be said about his being which denotes a relation of dependence. Thus, names like lord, savior, creator, lover, knower which all presuppose the existence of the creation do not really predicate anything true of God’s actual being. Rather, these words only tell us how our intellect is oriented towards God. Therefore, the relations between God and creation do not really exist in God himself. Nor do they even exist as realities outside him. They only exist in our minds.

The problem with this view is twofold. 1) It is inconsistent with Christian teaching. God really is creator, lord, savior, knower, and lover of the world. If these words only exist in our minds, then it follows that God is not really these things and that, while we may predicate certain things about him, we are not really describing him but only ourselves and how we think about him. 2) It is contradictory to believe in creation ex nihilo and still believe that God is not really related to the world. For things in the world are not just referenced to God naturally. They are not existing “of themselves” nor are they naturally “of themselves” drawn towards God. Rather, they are brought into being by God. He is therefore their creator, maker, causer and conditioner. This denotes a real relation in him towards these things, for, if he lacked such a relation, the world would simply never be brought ex nihilo into being. For something that is not self-existent to be brought into being by God, God himself must do something. Namely, he must stand in a relation to it as cause. Otherwise it would not exist. But if God stands in such a relation, then he really is related to the world as that which causes it to come into being.

In Aristotle’s metaphysics God moves the world like a magnet moves pieces of lead. All things are directed to him, but he, being immobile, is entirely unaffected by this fact. Instead he is totally absorbed in his own thinking and being. Hence, in Aristotle’s metaphysics, God cannot know or create the world. Why? Because such things imply a relation between God and the world.

If actus purus is taken to its logical conclusion – as Aquinas inconsistently tries to do – then what you end up having to say is that somehow God creates the world, and yet that this creation is nothing else than the mere dependence of the world on God. But the problem is that this fact, this very dependence, is due to the free and creative activity of God. Things don’t just happen to be drawn and related towards God on their own. God has made them to be this way. Thus to say that the creation is really related to God by way of dependence while also denying that God’s being really has “cause of the world” as an essential constituent is contradictory. If God creates the world, he must really be a creator. Aristotle was not burdened with this contradiction because for him the world was not created but was eternally old. But per Christianity, God is the one who is causing the dependence of the world on him. The “thing moved” is only moved because God is actively causing it to be moved. Therefore, we must be able to say of God’s very being (and not just some “extrinsic” feature of his that does not touch on his essence) that he is creator and related to the world.

In sum, per Aquinas’ view of relations, God cannot think “I am creator” or “I love the world” since these very thoughts denote the fact that God’s being has reference to something other than himself. However, to say that God cannot have self-reference to creation is incompatible with Christianity, which holds that God really is lord, savior, cause, father, lover, knower,and creator of the world.

2) God’s knowledge of free choices.

If God is actus purus, it follows that he cannot be conditioned by anything outside of or other than himself. Thus, Aquinas and thinkers who have held this also taught that God’s knowledge is the cause of things. God therefore does not know things because they happen – for that would make him conditioned – rather, things happen because God knows them. (Interestingly, Boethius, who came before Aquinas, held that God knew things precisely because he saw them happening. Not the other way around.)

Now, if God’s knowledge causes things, then this means that God’s knowledge causes free willed choices. But if free willed choices are cause by God, then the agent has no power regarding whether or not a choice is made. Therefore, the agent is not free to make the choice or not. Therefore libertarian free will is impossible.

On the other hand, if an agent does have the power regarding whether or not a choice is made, and if it is really up to the agent whether or not it does one thing or the other, then God’s knowledge itself would be in a state of potential, insofar as it could be – depending on the creature, rather than God’s own will – knowledge of one thing or the other. But if God’s knowledge can potentially be otherwise then actus purus is false.

In other words, if God knows that a creature does some action (say, sin) only because it freely does that action, then God’s knowledge is in light of that reduced to a particular concrete state from a previous state of potentiality. But if God is pure act he cannot be so reduced. Therefore, God’s knowledge either cannot be otherwise, in which case creatures cannot do otherwise, or God’s knowledge can be otherwise, and actus purus is false

3) God’s causing of sin

Furthermore, since on actus purus the existence of every contingency is reduced to God’s knowledge as cause, then each contingency is only contingent because God so chooses it to be. Therefore, since the divine will causes all things exactly as they are, and since things as they are have no power of themselves to be other than the divine will, all things reduce to the divine will. Hence, God wills absolutely all things that occur. This would include sin. Therefore, God wills sin.

Nor is it possible to say that God is the cause of the “being” of the sin and that the creature alone – independent of God – is the cause of the “defect.” For all that creatures have, since nothing in the created order has the power to be otherwise than how God has made it, they have because God has made them to have it. If therefore they have “defects” it is only because God has so made them to have defects.

Per actus purus nothing can happen other than what God wills to happen. Even if contingency were really possible, it would only be possible in the divine will – not in the created order. For if contingency were truly possible in the created order, it would be possible that God’s knowledge could be other than it is and that something could happen other than what God willed. But this would mean that God is in potentiality. It would also contradict the idea that the only reason each thing is the way it is is because God has so made it to be exactly how it is.

Thus it makes no sense to say, as Aquinas does, “The effect of the deficient secondary cause is reduced to the first non-deficient cause as regards what it has of being and perfection, but not as regards what it has of defect” For just why is the thing deficient, rather than non-deficient? You cannot stop with “because of the creature” for God made the creature to be exactly how it is. If there is a “limp” in the leg, it is not there independently of God’s willing it to be there.

Nor does it work to say that sin is a sheer privation, if this means the absence of some act. Insofar as an act is bad, it is sinful. But this presupposes there is some act in the first place in sin. Sin is not just “the absence of good” but rather the twisting or perversion of some good. And this requires an act of will. But all acts are exactly as they are because of God’s motion – a motion which entails that the agent being acted on has no power of itself to be otherwise than it is. Therefore, when actus purus is taken to its logical extreme, it makes God the cause of the act of sin.

If evil really were a total lack of being, then it would literally make no sense to call an “act” a sin. For acts denote being. Further, “non-being” can have no effects, for it does not in any way exist. But sin certainly has effects – according to Christianity death and the crucifixion. Therefore, since sin is an act, and since all acts reduce to God, cause causes sin on the actus purus model.

4) The gratuity and non-necessity of the world – or, the modal collapse

According to actus purus God’s act of being, which is his existence, is identical with his will. Further, God’s existence is necessary. Thus it follows that his will is necessary, since it is identical with his act of existing. However, if God’s will involves the willing of the world, the world’s existence is necessary too. But this is contrary to traditional Christian teaching.

If the world is truly contingent, it was possible that God not create it. But then it was possible for God to exist without the world, in which case he would be different than he is supposing the world exists and that he creates it. But if God can either be creator or non-creator, then God’s ad intra existence, apart from creation, contains potential. But what is pure act can contain no potential. Therefore God cannot be pure act.

What you have here is a modal collapse. Actus purus tries to predicate contradictory statements of God, insofar as it holds that a) God’s act of creation is unnecessary; b) God’s act of existence is necessary; and c) God’s act of being is a single act. These points contradict each other. If God’s act of being is one act, then it is either necessary or contingent. If it is necessary, then the world’s existence is also necessary, since his act of existing includes the creation of the world. On the other hand, if God’s act is contingent, then God is not a necessary being, since his existence is contingent. And, finally, if God’s act of being is not single, then actus purus collapses, as does simplicity, since you have two distinct acts on God’s part.


It seems to me all the difficulties of actus purus reduce to the fact that Aristotlean metaphysics is not equipped to accommodate the claim that God created the world freely, that he interacts with it, or that he is personal. The Aristotlean view of God, which is in itself consistent, posits God as more of a force, an object that eternally causes all things to change, completely absorbed in itself with no real relation to the world. Thus this model must presuppose the eternity of the world: there is no room for a creation ex nihilo. Nor is there room for any relationship between such a being and the creation. I don’t think such a metaphysics – while it is eloquent and forceful – is compatible with Christianity. It is much more compatible with Naturalism, it seems to me.

(And I didn’t even touch on the problems of actus purus and the incarnation!)