Category Archives: Divine Permission

God’s Timelessness, Permissive Decree, and Omnicausality

What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction…” Romans 9:22

There is a nest of problems that come with thinking of God’s causal relation to human’s free will. One of the views that I’ve been interested in lately (and that has been made popular in the blog world lately – see Eclectic Orthodoxy) is that of Hugh McCann’s. His position is not something entirely new, although he has perhaps done the best recently at most clearly articulating such a view. In short, McCann thinks that God causes absolutely all things that come to pass in time, but not in such a way that destroys free will. God “creates us willing.” He does not create “us” and then go on from there to make us will a certain way. Rather, his creation of us immediate. There is nothing between his willing that we exist in a certain way and our subsequent existing in that way. That would entail determinism – i.e. that God forces us to be something other than what we are. The way McCann sees it, and I tend to agree with him, is that God’s creating us just is his making us what we are in the first place.

Now this position is able to preserve human freedom because of God’s timeless causality. That is, because God transcends time, there is nothing out there in the world that comes “before” our free action such that since it exists therefore our free action must also exist. In other words, it’s not because at the beginning of the universe the particular atoms were arranged in just such a way that they necessarily arranged to produce our brains, and that those brains, themselves being governed by the laws of physics, had to give rise to the free choices that they did. Since God is really the ultimate cause and explanation of every movement in time whatsoever, the case is quite different. He operates on a different plane of causality altogether. The classic example is of his causal power being like that of an author to a novel. No one would accuse the author of “determining” the nature of his characters such that their freedom was violated when he makes them doing different things.

The whole question of a “violation” of freedom presupposes that there is some person already there – some creature that is just “given” – that God then acts on to make it do such and such. But again, if God is timeless, and if he is the source of all reality, there is no such character already “there” just existing by its own necessary existence. For it to exist at all God must first cause it to be. But in that case, we already have a fully created character.

One more thing that follows from saying that God is timeless is that asking whether or not he could have done otherwise becomes a meaningless question. I think it is true to say that God’s creation is contingent and that it need not exist. I also think it true to say that given God’s existence (which is necessary), the existence of the world does not necessarily follow. But, at the same time, since we know that God in fact has freely chosen to create (we do exist after all), God cannot not create. Since God is timeless there is no sequence to his acts (for sequence implies temporality and movement.) Therefore, since what he does he does changelessly, there is no sense in asking if he “could have” not created. For “could have” implies some past state of affairs when God could have actually acted differently. It’s not that God “had” to or “must” have created. Nor is it that he at one point just freely chose to do something he didn’t have to do. Both points put God in time. I would rather say that, given Gods necessary existence, a creation does not necessarily follow, but only if he freely wills to create the world does its existence follow. Putting the situation in a tenseless (and therefore timeless) conditional upholds both Gods necessity and the creation and contingency but avoids the “could have” problems.

Now, one apparent problem with McCann’s view is that it seems to fall victim to the critique against Calvinism insofar as it makes God the cause of sin and evil. It also seems to divide his will: God creates the very beings who he is wrathful with and who he commands to be otherwise, even though they have no real ability to do otherwise.

A couple things can be said here. The first is that the ability to do otherwise may not actually be necessary to secure moral responsibility. It may be that all that is required is a) a rational motive by the intellect; and b) the perception that acting on that motive is wrong. The second quick thing that can be said is that there may be nothing either logically incompatible or theologically problematic in saying that God has caused or created all sin and evil. You see, what we want to specifically avoid is making God out to be evil or of having him do or commit evil himself. But to create evil, or to make a universe in which sin exists, is not necessarily to commit an evil act. That would be a sort of fallacy of transfer: if God makes a red apple exist, he himself must be a red apple; or if God makes a man riding a bike, he himself must be riding a bike. Is it not possible that God, in creating evil and sinful actions, does not do evil insofar as all that he is causing he is doing with perfectly wise, pure, and good motives?

Now, this leads me to the last point of this post, which is about God’s permission of sin and evil. It’s easy to think that if God causes all that comes to pass, he is delighted or gleeful whenever sin occurs. After all, if people sin, they only do so because he has willed that they sin. And since God’s will is always fulfilled – since, indeed, according to this scheme all things that happen do so by God’s decree – how could he ever be upset about anything? Furthermore, how could he even “permit” a thing in the first place? If he is omnicausing all, just what could he be permitting, besides his own causal power?

This is where I think the question of God’s timeless relation to creation becomes really interesting. Sam Storms has suggested that God “is pleased to ordain his own displeasure” and John Piper has talked about the “complex emotional life” of God. Could it be that in willing sinners, God is revealing that which is in himself analogous to our experience of “permission” and “longsuffering”?

Think about it like this. What if God’s very causal, timeless relation is to the reprobate just such a species of permissiveness? What we mean by permission automatically presupposes some resistant object over and against which we exert a sort of causal allowance. What if God’s causal relation between sinners is this same sort of thing, just taken up timelessly?

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