Did the Lord God Almighty have to create the world? This is the question I now wish to pose to St Dionysius the Areopagite. It is a pressing question for Christian students of the Areopagite because he is so deeply steeped in Greek philosophy. Since the early days of its confrontation with paganism, the catholic faith has asserted the absolute freedom of the one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the plenitude of his Trinitarian aseity and joy, God need not have created the world; he might have willed otherwise and yet remained who and what he always is. But this was not always clear to the theologians of the Church. The great Origen, for example, appears to have suggested that God exists in a necessary relationship with his creation. Commenting on Wisdom 7:25, “For she [Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty [Pantocrator],” Origen comments:
Let us examine the saying that [Wisdom] is the απόρροια (that is, the emanation) of the purest glory of the Almighty, and let us first consider what the glory of the Almighty is, and then we shall understand what is its emanation. In the same way that no one can be a father if there is no son, nor can one be a lord if he owns neither possessions nor a slave, so even God cannot be called ‘Almighty’ if there are not those over whom he can exercise his power; and, therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things exist. For if anyone would have it that some ages or periods, or whatever else he likes to call them, passed away, ages when those things that have been made had not yet been made, he would undoubtedly prove that during those ages or periods God was not almighty but became almighty afterwards, from the time when he began to have those over whom he could exercise power; and in this way he will appear to have received a certain increase and to have come from a lower to a higher state, since it is not doubted that it is better for him to be almighty than not to be so. And how would it not seem absurd that God, not having something of those things fitting for him to have, should afterwards, by a kind of progress, come to have it? But if there never is a ‘when’ when he was not almighty, by necessity those things must also subsist by which he is called the Almighty, and he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince. (On First Principles 1.2.10; bold emphasis mine)
Therefore we call this blessed and ἀρχικέ (that is, sovereign, sustaining all things) the Trinity. This is the good God and benevolent Father of the universe, the δύναμις both εὐεργετικὴ and δημιουργική, that is, the power that does good and creates and provides. It is both absurd and impious to suppose that these powers have been idle at any time even for a moment. Indeed, it is unlawful to entertain the slightest suspicion that these powers, through which primarily God is worthily known, should at any time have ceased from workings worthy of him and have become inactive. For neither can it be supposed that these powers which are in God, more, which are God, could have been hindered from without, nor, on the other hand, with nothing obstructing them, can it believed that they were reluctant or neglected to act and work things worthy of themselves. It is therefore not possible to imagine any moment whatsoever when that beneficient power did not work good. Whence it follows that there always were those for whom it worked good, that is, his works or creatures, and that, doing good by order and desert, God dispensed, in the power of his providence, his benefits upon them. And by this it seems to follow that at no moment was God not creator, nor benefactor, nor provident. (1.4.3; bold emphasis mine)
If God is Almighty, as the Scripture declares, then “he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince.” If there once was a “time” when the world did not exist, then there was a “time” when God did not exercise authority and power over creatures; and therefore there was a “time,” per impossible, when God was not Pantocrator. But given divine simplicity, omnipotence is an essential attribute of God (“not only in God, but is God”). It is always active and actual. The conclusion logically follows: it is “necessary that all things exist.” The biblical title implies an everlasting actualization of the cosmos.
Now as John Behr rightly points out, in these passages Origen is not advancing a philosophical argument but exegeting the Scripturally-given titles of Christ and correlating them to the God who is eternally the Father of the Crucified. And Panayiotis Tzamalikos argues that these passages must be interpreted within the wider context of Origen’s work:
Origen’s doctrine of the divine being has certain aspects which are quite clear: Wisdom was timelessly in God apart from any creation, be it providential or actual. This means that God is visualized apart from any creation or even thought of creation. He created because he willed so. Wisdom ‘was in herself in no relation to anyone’. This is the state in which God is conceived in Himself, not as Creator.
It is out of God’s decision to create that the Son of God, as Wisdom, ‘became’ (γενόμενοσ) ‘God’s benevolent decision’ (ευδοκία) and ‘wanted’ (ἠβουλήθη) and ‘willed’ (ἠθέλησεν) ‘to establish a creative relation to future creatures (τὰ ἐσόμενα)’ [frJohn I]. Creation then is but a product of an act of volition. This act then is fundamentally imbued by the essential predicate of contingency. Which means that had the divine will wished otherwise, it could have brought it about that the world never came into existence at all. … Origen understands the creation of the world not as the unfolding of a cosmic essence, but as an act of volition. This concept of freedom of will stands in the core of this doctrine of creation. … This particular notion of action emerging out of self-motivation, not out of any compulsion, in Christianity takes the form of creation ex nihilo: the uncaused production of the world solely out of the divine will. The world exists because God willed so; the world is as it is, because God wills this to be so. (Origen on Cosmology and Time, pp. 120-121)
Yet the protests of Origen’s opponents were not unreasonable. In the two passages from First Principles quoted above, Origen does seem to be saying that the act of creation is necessary to the Trinity’s existence as Deity and Lord, that he must exist in conjunction with the world in order to be the God the gospel declares. Given the Greek worldview in which divine and nondivine beings exist in a happy continuum, most pagans would have been perfectly comfortable with an always-existing cosmos. But Origen’s logic did not sit well with his fellow believers. It violated something deep and true in the Church’s apprehension of the biblical God, namely, his sovereign freedom. Matters came to a head in the Arian controversy.
In response to the heretical teachings of Arius, St Athanasius of Alexandria decisively distinguishes between the Father’s eternal generation of the Son by nature and his creation of the world through the Son by his good will and pleasure. The Son is internal to God and proper to his essence; the world, external and contingent. In the course of defending the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, Athanasius found himself having to respond to the charge that if the Son is intrinsic to the divine being, and if the world is created by and through him, then the world is necessarily eternal, just like Origen said. Athanasius formulates the objection: “But look, they say: If God is always Maker, and the power of framing does not come to him, then must we not also say that, because he is the fashioner of all things, therefore his works also are eternal, and is it wicked to say of them too, that they were not before they came to be?” The Arians thus seek to hoist Athanasius by his own petard: you can’t have it both ways—you can’t have both an eternal Word and a nonnecessary creation. Here’s Athanasius’s reply:
These Arians are senseless … However, so as not to leave even a weak argument unnoticed, they must be told that although God always had the power to create, yet the things made had not the power of being eternal. For they are out of nothing and before they came to be, they were not. And things which did not exist before they came to be—how could these have the power to co-exist with the ever-existing God? … But the Son, being not a creature but proper to the substance of the Father, always is. For since the Father always is, what is proper to his substance must always be: and this is his Word and Wisdom. That creatures should not be in existence does not detract from the Creator, for he has the power of shaping them when he will. But for the offspring not to eternally co-exist with the Father is a disparagement of his substance. His works, then, as he willed, were shaped through his Word: but the Son is eternally the proper offspring of the Father’s substance. (Against the Arians 1.29; bold emphasis mine)
The Father is always Father, for he is always and eternally the Father of Jesus Christ. His divine paternity is independent of his making of the world. And the Son is always Son, for he is eternally begotten of the substance of the Father. Their constituting relationship belongs to the transcendent life of the Godhead: hence Athanasius’s repeated claim that the Son is proper to divinity. The Trinity’s volitional creation of the world ex nihilo, on the other hand, belongs to a different order of being. Even though God grants created beings an absolute beginning—for they are created from nothing and tend toward nothingness—he always possesses in the Son the power and active potential to make. In this sense God may appropriately said to be Maker, even in that inconceivable noninterval between not-creating and creating. By an act of will, the Father creates the world through the Son. One might even be tempted to attribute to Athanasius an early version of the Byzantine distinction between essence and energies, but the temptation should probably be resisted. For Athanasius the divine will is inseparable from and identical to the divine Word:
It should be clear then that God, being Maker, has his creative Word not from outside but as proper (idion) to him—this must be repeated yet again. If, on the one hand, the willing belongs to him, and his will is productive and sufficient for constituting the things which come to be, and, on the other hand, his Word is producer and creator, then it is beyond doubt that this Word is the living will of the Father, and Essential Energy, and True Word, in whom also he constitutes and governs all things excellently. Indeed, no one should doubt at all that the One who arranges is prior to the arrangement and to the things that are arranged. So, as I have said, God’s creating is second to his begetting. For the Son is proper to (idion) and truly from that blessed and everlastingly existent essence, whereas those things that are from the will have come to be constituted from outside [the divine essence], and are made through his proper (idion) offspring, who is from [the essence]. (Arians 2.2)
The Son is the essential will and Power of the Father and thus the ultimate ground of the creatio ex nihilo. God’s creation of the world, Khaled Anatolios comments, must therefore be thought as encompassed, contained, enfolded “within the intra-divine relation of the Father and the Son” (Athanasius, p. 123). While Athanasius frequently speaks of the world as external to God, a deeper truth obtains: the world “subsists ‘in’ the Son through participation” (p. 120). To be other than God is to share in the eternal Word of the Father; to be outside is to be inside: “For he is himself the Father’s Power and Wisdom, and by partaking of him things originate are sanctified in the Spirit; but the Son himself is not Son by participation but is the Father’s proper Offspring” (Arians 3.1).
By the positing of a clear distinction between divine generation and divine creation, it became possible for Athanasius to entertain the counterfactual of the world’s nonexistence: “Even if it was the Father’s conception not to make things that come into being, the Word would none the less still be ‘with God’ and the Father ‘in him'” (Arians 2.31). Neither creation nor noncreation alters the Trinitarian identity of God. Athanasius boldly declares that while God is essentially and eternally Father, he freely “became Creator” (Arians 2.2). The “became” shocks. God is immutable; he does not change. Athanasius is clear on this. God is everlastingly and unconditionally Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet the word may nonetheless be used in order to highlight the difference between the divine generation of Son and Spirit and the creatio ex nihilo, as Thomas F. Torrance explains:
The truth of the matter, then, is that while God was always Father, he was not always Creator or Maker. This is not to say that the creation was not in the Mind of God before he actually brought it into being, but that he brought it into being by a definite act of his will and thereby gave it a beginning. Quite clearly words like ‘was’, ‘before’, ‘when’ and ‘beginning’ are time-related, and present us with problems when we speak of God, for the time-relations they imply may not be read back into God. These terms have one sense when used of God when they are governed by the unique nature of God, and another sense when used of creatures in accordance with their transitory natures. Thus when the Scriptures tells us that ‘in the beginning God created’ we must understand ‘beginning’ in a two-fold way: with reference to the creating act of God, and with reference to what he has created or his works (ἔργα). Hence Athanasius could say that ‘while the works have a beginning in being made, their beginning precedes their coming to be’ [Arians 2.57]. Behind the beginning of the creation there is an absolute or transcendent beginning by God who is himself eternally without beginning. This is what makes the creation of the world out of nothing so utterly baffling and astonishing. It is not only that something absolutely new has begun to be, new even for God who created it by his Word and gave it a contingent reality and integrity outwith himself, but that in some incomprehensible way, to cite Athanasius again, ‘the Word himself became the Maker of the things that have a beginning’ [Arians 2.57]. God was always Father, not always Creator, but now he is Creator as well as Father. (The Trinitarian Faith, pp. 87-88; bold emphasis mine)
Something “new even for God?” It’s a provocative statement, but it makes the point that must be made once absolute divine freedom is asserted: the universe is not the consequence of an involuntary emanation but a free, gratuitous, ad extra work of the Holy Trinity—”let it be!” The universe need not have been made but gloriously was and now contingently is. Latin and Byzantine theologians would later struggle to express this divine freedom within their respective metaphysical conceptualities.
Georges Florovsky proposes that the Alexandrian patriarch was the first theologian of the Church to reflect consistently upon the eternal tri-unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit independently of God’s economic self-revelation, i.e., “to discriminate strictly between the inner Being of God and His creative and ‘providential’ manifestation ad extra, in the creaturely world.” What if God had never created the world? Would he still be the same God we see disclosed in the history of Israel and Jesus Christ? Athanasius’s answer—yes! By this theoretical bracketing of theologia and economia, Trinitarian theology comes into its own. Florovsky summarizes the decisive breakthrough:
God does not need His creatures. His own Being is perfect and complete in itself. And it is this inner Being of God that is disclosed in the mystery of the Trinity.” But the actual mystery is double. There is, indeed, the mystery of the Divine Being. But there is another concomitant mystery, the mystery of Creation, the mystery of the Divine οἰκονομία. No real advance can be achieved in the realm of “Theology” until the realm of “Oikonomia” had been properly ordered. This, surely, was the reason why St. Athanasius addressed himself to the problem of Creation even in his early treatises, which constituted, in a sense, his theological confession. On the one hand, the meaning of the redemptive Incarnation could be properly clarified only in the perspective of the original creative design of God. On the other, in order to demonstrate the absolute sovereignty of God it was necessary to show the ultimate contingency of the created Cosmos, fully dependent upon the Will of God. In the perspective of the Arian controversy two tasks were closely related to each other: to demonstrate the mystery of the Divine Generation as an integral feature of the Divine Being itself, and to emphasize the contingency of the creaturely Cosmos, which contingency can also be seen in the order of existence. It was precisely in the light of this basic distinction between “Being” and “Will” that the ultimate incommensurability of the two modes of existence could be clearly exhibited. The inner life of God is in no way conditioned by His revelatory self-disclosure in the world, including the design of Creation itself. The world is, as it were, a paradoxical “surplus” in the order of existence. The world is “outside” God; or rather it is precisely this “outside” itself. But it does exist, in its own mode and dimension. It arises and stands only by the will of God. It has a beginning precisely because it is contingent, and moves toward an end for which it has been designed by God. The Will of God is manifested in the temporal process of the Divine οἰκονομία. But God’s own Being is immutable and eternal. (“St Athanasius’ Concept of Creation“; cf. David Bradshaw, “Divine Freedom in the Greek Patristic Tradition“)
Or to put the matter in the language of contemporary philosophy, the God of the Bible could have libertarianly done differently. Is this also true for the Areopagite’s understanding of divine creation?
(Go to “Transcending Freedom and Necessity“)
God, I would have thought, is free not to create, because there is nothing outside God that could force him to do so, or in any sense anything that could happen to God if he didn’t, or any advantage he could gain for himself if he did.
In another sense, God cannot not create precisely because he is free: it is in his nature to create and nothing could ever constrain God not to act in accordance with his nature.
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Many of these problems are readily solved with an adequate philosophy of language, and, in particular, the notion of extrinsic denomination. For example, the statement “the sun kills the plant” is true or false depending on whether the plant dies from solar radiation. The sun itself need not be any different. What makes the difference between the truth or falsity of the proposition about the sun is ultimately the condition of the plant.
Similarly, God’s free creation of the world involves no change in God. God is not any different than he would be had the world not existed. To assert otherwise is to both deny God’s infinity and to make him dependent for who he is on us. What makes the proposition “God is the creator of the world” is the existence of the world, not any difference in God.
The notion of God’s freedom we find in Christian dogma is stronger than the absence of coercion. On the Aristotelian theory, rocks fall to earth not because of an external cause, but because it is in their nature. If God is freer than Aristotle’s stone, there can be no necessity whatsoever that he create the world. Things could have been otherwise, which is to say, not al all.
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Thomas, perhaps this is where I wonder if we run up against the limits of Aristotelian logic, which is apropos to the point you are making about language. Surely there is necessity, even within God, because what God does must be identical with who he is. If God is properly Creator, then he must create. If he is improperly Creator, then he is free not to. As I allude to below, I can’t see how naming God as Creator through improper predication leads to anything but a hornets nest of questions. But, perhaps I am missing something rather obvious – which could well be the case.
I don’t know of any “classic theists” who argue that God is not necessarily what he is. God necessarily exists, is good, etc. The specific claim is that there are also things that are not necessarily true of God, viz. that he is the Creator of the world.
We should at least be clear on the consequences of attributing some sort of real change in God, some acquisition of a perfection he would not otherwise have had without the world (or however we choose to characterize it). If God is otherwise with the world now existing than he was or would have been without it, he is finite. For prior to the creation of the world he was one way, and with the creation of the world he was another way. For there to be that difference, there must be something God was lacking. And God would be in need of the world to achieve it. In short, we would, at least partially, be responsible for improving on God.
Most of the difficulties you cite have been treated at length by many of the towering figures of the tradition. For instance, it is not the case that God is said to be identical with his “acts” if that includes, e.g., appearing in the burning bush, but with his Act. God’s actions (or better, operations) in the world are not constitutive of him, nor part of him, but they are in, of, and constitutive of things. Anything that exists, for instance, does so through God’s operating in them; yet by this act of existence (the operation in the creature that makes it be) is brought about not God, but the creature.
I conflated Act and acts, but meant Act. Forgive the sloppiness, I am not a philosopher or the son of a philosopher.
I read you as saying there was either a dilemma between saying that God’s acts of decision and creation must be identical with his act of being (and therefore he is necessarily the Creator), or else that they were not identical and therefore accidents (and then God would be passable).
I could well be wrong about how that was framed; I was ultimately trying to get at the assumptions behind this:
“If God is not in essence Creator, then doesn’t creation become a move from passive to active potency, or in a word passible?”
No, Thomas, I just stated it poorly. By way of clarification I am saying his act as Creator is identical with himself. Being Creator and creating are distinct, in the sense of one being the cause of the other.
As I have had the chance to chew on this a little more, I would say that any amount of libertarian deliberation in the Divine will within God does run the risk of passibility because it moves out of pure act into passive potency which is later actualized. I think that Origen, and perhaps Dionysius (at least as Perl is describing him), along with Augustine are offering a more coherent option. But, my opinions on this matter are far from fixed. I welcome your push back on this.
“Any amount of libertarian deliberation in the Divine will within God does run the risk of passibility because it moves out of pure act into passive potency which is later actualized.”
This is why classical theists don’t God regard God’s freedom of will as deliberative. If God wills in a deliberative fashion, he is passible, mutable, and finite.
With respect to the mention of Augustine, I would regard him as a model of someone who holds to a strong doctrine of immutability, but can nevertheless affirm without any contradiction that God is free. Theologians like Augustine and (especially) Aquinas are very careful to lay out what they mean by the terms “free”, “will”, “action”, etc. There’s only a paradox between pure act, freedom, and creation if their clarifications are overlooked. (I’m not necessarily saying that you regard this as paradoxical.)
Are there any good biographical sources on the Dionysius? As I continue to follow this series it is a matter that I am becoming more interested in.
We know virtually nothing about the author, so successful was his pseudononymous strategy. He wrote his treatises in the first-half of the fifth century. He may have lived in Syria. He probably was a monk. How’s that for a bio? 🙂
Well, congrats Fr. Kimel, you have explained everything by explaining nothing! Clearly the pseudonym was a bad marketing strategy, and Dionysius didn’t presage our modern concept of building comprehensive media and communications platforms. But, I suspect he was all the better for it, and we reap the benefits of a saint whose name we will never know on this side of glory.
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Jed, check out this review of Charles Stang’s book on Dionysius.
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I finally got around to reading that link. Funny thing, I know the author, and was good friends with his sister when I was in high school. Anyhow, very fascinating. Wouldn’t that have some far-reaching implications for how we would understand the chronology of neoplatonism?
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Here’s a lecture he gave on the same material: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rGKBjX1Ld0
The matter of creation is where I find the issue of Divine simplicity most perplexing. I must say, I have certain sympathies with Origen on this matter. This isn’t to devalue the points being raised by St. Athanasius here, but I have a hard time understanding how he squares “Creator” as an improper or accidental attribute of God. I don’t think that Athanasius is conceding some sort of ad absurdum in his argument here, but it is hard to not see his account leading to some formula where God creates from a voluntarist act of will that could have been done otherwise, or not at all.
If, however, God is identical with his acts (and here I think Aquinas is right in his formulae of simplicity as actus purus), then how is he not self-identical as Creator. If God is not in essence Creator, then doesn’t creation become a move from passive to active potency, or in a word passible? I don’t think this means that God is identical with his creation, which is an effect of his act as Creator. So, I have a hard time grasping how we get around the necessity of creation if God is to be named Creator, which follows from Origen’s argument of God as Almighty. Surely creation is contingent, and is ex nihilo but even our language for nothingness is analogical, and Dionysius (as I have been reading along here) seems to place a barrier on our grasp of nothingness.
I’m not sure that saying creation has existed eternally in the “Mind” of God is anything but grasping at straws. But, at the same time, I am not entirely sure we can escape the notion entirely. I can’t say I am any less confused on these matters at this point, but perhaps the questions in my mind are sharpening.
BTW, I meant to say that in creating, if God is not properly Creator, it seems to imply passibility, since there is a movement from passive to active potency if we were to say God could have created or could not have, but decided to do it in the manner in which he has. I don’t think I stated that clearly in the comment above.
Does anything good come from Nazareth?
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Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.
Let me throw into the mix this citation from Athanasius. It’s one of John Zizioulas’s favorites. I have no idea how it fits in with my presentation of Athanasius in this article:
What think ye, brethren?
Fr. Aidan, I just want to thank you for posting on Dionysius and Neo-Platonism, which I am finding helpful in answering some of my questions and articulating new ones. I wish I could take part in your discussions (Trinitiy! Freedom and necessity in God! Etc.), but leaving aside my inarticulateness, I am always arriving after the show has moved on. But I did want to express my gratitude to you, even if I remain silent otherwise.
P.S. Rightly or wrongly, I always think of the Anaphora’s “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, in behalf of all, and for all,” in Neo-Platonic terms.
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Thank you, Renee. I’m really enjoying writing this series, but it’s turned out to be a bigger project than I anticipated. I realized yesterday that I need to re-read The Divine Names yet a third time. Dionysius is a difficult writer! Every time I start to think I have a grasp on him, he slips through my fingers.
The passages quoted from Origen in the opening section really solidify (the probably already noted) connection between Bulgakov’s Sophiology and Origen’s ‘pre-eternal’ creation… and I think I agree with them. The language of Athanasius (my patron saint) and others that God ‘wills’ creation and therefore makes it unnecessary is correct, but this language must be qualified with the assertion that God’s ‘willing’ is also eternal and never temporal. This means that, for Origen and Bulgakov, despite the temporal appearance of creation, creation existed ‘ideally’ (Bulgakov likens creation to Plato’s Forms/Ideas and Maximos’ logoi) within God’s ‘mind.’ This doesn’t negate creatio ex nihilo; rather, it brings together creatio ex nihilo and its temporal complications in light of God’s eternal willing and creation’s place between the two.
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This is quite helpful in describing the logical, as opposed to merely temporal, order of creation. I’m still hung up on the question of necessity and freedom. I am in agreement that God freely creates, however I am not sure I can follow Athanasius (as audacious as that seems) in asserting that he could have created differently or not at all. I do see why he would arrive at his conclusion in his argument against the Arians, but in that answer, new sets of questions arise in the doctrine of simplicity. Do you think that the same synthesis you are offering here might apply to the (possible) necessity of God being Creator and his freedom to create?
There’s a real interesting thread over on Twitter that is discussing this question right now: https://twitter.com/eorthodoxy/status/1016020845880381443?s=21
Jed, I think we need to take the Eastern take on this seriously. It would have been easy enough to have just gone along with the Platonist view of the eternity of the world, yet the Greek Fathers insisted that it is meaningful, and necessary, to insist on the counterfactual that the Trinity might not have created the world. Have you read yet the Bradshaw essay linked in my article? If not, please do so and let me know what you think.
Regarding divine simplicity, I am reluctant to give it such a status that it prevents us from saying things that the catholic faith insists we need to say. Perhaps absolute divine freedom is one of those things. In that case, we can either conclude that we are presented here with a genuine aporia or that our understanding of divine simplicity needs to be adjusted. The doctrine of the Trinity is a prime example.
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Fr. Kimel, thanks for this. Bradshaw’s article does serve, in the very least, the contours of my contention here. I cannot really comment on how he is reading the Greek Fathers here, as I have only begun to interact with them (thanks in large part to this blog). However, I assume he is doing so competently. With this in mind, I am largely in agreement with the Western/Augustinian model with respect to this discussion, as well as with Origen, and Perl’s construal of Dionysius.
Perhaps necessity is not the best term here to describe God’s act in bringing about creation and I would like to explore this more, even if at this point I’m not sure how to escape the analogical language of necessity. But, what as I read Bradshaw, I see equivalence between Divine and creaturely freedom rather than analogy. While I do think that God is absolutely free in creating, I can only approach this apophatically, because I do not think we can draw lines of equivalence between Creator and creature in such a way that construes freedom as the deliberation over any given set of options. Perhaps this runs up against the real differences between East and West (or at least the most dominant strands in both). I can’t escape the irony of my sense that the Greek Fathers, on the question of creation lapse into the same sort of voluntarism that we Calvinists typically fall into on matters of salvation.
Much of this hinges on whether Creator is a proper Name for God. James Dolezal is working to recover Classical Theism in Reformed Circles these days, his work God Without Parts is indispensable. In his more recent work All That Is In God he tackles this thorny problem by drawing a distinction between our relative naming of God as Creator, and what he is absolutely in himself. I’ll quote him here:
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Divine simplicity is the cornerstone of the analogia entis. It accounts for the semper maior dissimilutudo between God and creation. As such, we cannot even begin to fathom what divine freedom entails. God’s freedom not to create the world is nothing like my freedom not to get out of bed this morning and go to work. I agree that there is no necessity for God to create, yet per the doctrine of divine simplicity God’s freedom is his nature/essence is his existence. Or, God transcends the dichotomy that we creatures experience between necessity and freedom, will and nature.
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“God transcends the dichotomy that we creatures experience between necessity and freedom, will and nature.”
I think this is the conclusion I have reached (or will reach) regarding Dionysius.
The problem with the “transcends” conclusion is that if God transcends modality, the world/creation is not properly contingent (as over against God’s necessity.) But the world must be contingent if we have any reason to think God made it or even exists. He must be necessary (ie NOT the world) and it must be contingent (ie NOT him.) Valicella has a good essay on this critiquing Hugh McCann. Unless one wants to pantheistically conclude that the word is the divine, and the world itself transcends necessity/contingency.
Chris, could you email me a copy of Vallicella’s critique of McCann please (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I do not know how Dionysius or Hugh McCann (or David B. Hart) would respond to the concern you have raised. It doesn’t strike me, though, as an objection that hits home against the apophaticism of Dionysius; but I’d need to read, ponder, and discuss with my philosophical betters Vallicella’s argument, though.
Edit: Cancel the above request. I found Vallicella’s critique of McCann on my harddrive. 🙂 For anyone interested, Vallicella’s essay can be found here.
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Well, I got through about eight pages of Vallicella. It was a fairly quick perusal, so I may be off on this. He seems to think that some form of libertarian freedom of “deliberative” choice is required for freedom to be authentic. The notion that the flourishing of a nature “beyond libertarian choice” is a greater, more perfect freedom is not countenanced. If, however, one thinks freedom is the will guided by the intellectual grasp of the good, one can further argue that perfect attunement to the good and the actualization of all potential would result in the reduction of libertarian choice to zero. Modern choice is deficient and founded upon ignorance of the good, malicious and irrational flight from the good, or imperfect achievement of the good.
Vallicella follows the typical line of thinking one must suppose possibility larger than the actual and the actual larger than the necessary, but all that is a consequence of particular philosophical choices in the wake of modernity that should not be granted. As Plato showed in his divided line (and the analogy of the sun and the cave allegory, for that matter), the Good transcends everything that can be conceptualized along the line. So, if “for us” the possible appears larger than the actual, that does not mean from the absolutely unique Good that the same applies. In fact, it does not apply. Contingent freedom may be analogous, but it is only analogous to Divine freedom and the fact that we move from potency to act and thus our sense of the actual is “smaller” than the possible does not mean that God is subject to the same constraints or that thinking about God’s freedom entails accepting a “penultimate”, i.e., libertarian model licit for creation as equally licit for God. Certainly, the idea that one must resort to occasionalism if one rejects such a view is a complete misunderstanding of secondary causality. It seems to me that much of this argument regarding McCann is tied to analytic categories of thought. The metaphysics of participation are scarcely, if at all approached.
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I’m relieved that one of my philosophical betters (namely, Brian) has chimed in.
My immediate and unsophisticated reaction to Vallicella’s argument (and he advanced a similar argument a few years ago against Mascall’s argument that God plus the world does not equal two) was that he is operating, despite his affirmation of divine simplicity, within a metaphysics of univocity, as Desmond would put it. (I presume that the same also obtains with analytic philosophers who claim that divine simplicity results in a modal collapse.) Hence he is lightyears away from the metaphysics of Dionysius and the apophaticism of both the Church Fathers and even Aquinas. Apples and oranges. A different ballpark, different game, different rules.
It’s modal objections like the ones he brings up at the end that are leading some Thomists (like Grant) to posit “extrinsic” models of divine willing and knowing (and creating.) Id be interested to hear what you think of his (Bills) paper.
I don’t see how it is coherent to claim that God causes the world and that he also transcends causality altogether. If the world is contingent, and God causes contingent things, and God doesn’t cause himself, he cannot transcend necessity. Does God stand to the world as a cause stands to the effect? If so, then the world must be effected by God. Or put another way, if God transcends necessity/contingency, then what is the world? If God is neither necessary nor contingent, what is the world?
Also some Thomists (at least Grant) find BVs criticism correct. You can read a short summary of Grants criticism to the transcendence claim in his academic review of McCanns Sovereignty book. The review is only 3-4 pages. A more thorough interaction with BVs criticisms, say by at least stating them individually (he makes three in the essay) and replying specifically to each would make Brian’s comments more helpful, at least to me.
When it comes to divine creation, I would argue that the interpretation of divine creation as an act of efficient causality is analogical. The danger here is the reduction of God to the status of a being. We know what we mean when we say that beings efficiently cause events and entities, but divine creation is very different, isn’t it? When God creates, he does not act on anything; he bestows being ex nihilo.
P.S. Can you provide a link to Grant’s review of McCann please. Thanks.
Thanks, Chris, for sending me Grant’s review of McCann. For those who’d like to read it, click here.
I don’t see how it is coherent to claim that God causes the world and that he also transcends causality altogether.
It makes sense to me for the claim is made that God transcends causality (and necessity) as God is in Himself. God’s transcendence is rooted in God’s perfection – creation does not add to God. This is to say that outside the consideration of creation, claims of God as contingent or necessary (or perfect, for that matter) has no meaning, and as such it is coherent to claim that God transcends the dichotomies of necessity/freedom, will/nature, and so forth.
I believe this adequately addresses your concern that if God transcends modality, creation is not properly contingent and God not properly necessary. Transcendence speaks to God’s aseity, that He is by reason of being the cause of His own existence, beyond necessary relation to any thing. While maintaining that God did cause some things to be brought into existence He is indeed creation’s necessary cause and creation is as such wholly contingent, God’s transcendence is (or must) likewise be maintained lest we reduce God to creator without remainder. Such a reduction is precisely what I think Dionysius and other Christian theologians are careful to avoid.
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Robert, would you mind stating BV’s criticisms in your own words – specifically the three he puts forward in the essay Al posted?
Also, I’m not sure many would agree with you that God is “the cause of his own existence.” In fact that appears patently self contradictory. For God to cause himself, he would have to act on himself. On Thomistic theology, this is impossible. Rather, the more appropriate claim would be that God has no cause. This is because he exists necessarily. This, of course, is a modal claim, and entails God cannot transcend modal categories.
Also, I see you claim the world is contingent. What does that mean, if God is not necessary? If the world is not contingent in the strict sense, why does it need a non-contingent (i.e. necessary) cause?
Lastly, do you deny that the divine essence is necessary?
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Since we are on a Shakespearean roll here, let me say that ‘I must be foolish only to be wise’. God is without cause, but such is boring and isn’t quite poetic and certainly with less rhetorical force. So it seems to me, but perhaps we are doing theology in a different register.
I do affirm that God is necessary, but it seems to me this is a meaningless assertion a se. For us, however, it is an absolutely necessary assertion. 🙂
I will check out BV and let you know what I think, as soon as I have some time. What are the three points of his critique?
I agree we ought to uphold the transcendence of God. Let me put the difficulty (as I see it) in a nutshell.
For the existence of God to be a reasonable hypothesis, it must be true that he caused the world. That is, the world must be something that is caused. If it weren’t caused, then there is no need to postulate that God exists. However, if the world is caused, then God must stand to it as a cause. I.e. It must be related to God as an effect. Without this distinction we lose the need for God – at least the Christian creator God – and pantheism or atheism ensues.
Now, if God causes the world, then the world is contingent. It depends on God. But if the world is contingent, then God must be necessary.
Why think that God exists? If God transcends modal notions altogether, then what modal notions apply to the world? Do modal notions apply to anything? To suppose God exists as distinct from the world, it seems to me we must say that God is necessary, and the world contingent: God is uncaused, and the world is caused. Without saying this, I see no way of drawing a distinction between the world and God – a distinction which we both very much want to uphold, given his transcendence.
At the risk of sounding glib and dismissive (which I assure you I am neither): I believe however that God exists perfectly well without my hypothesis. To speak of God as cause and necessary only makes sense in relation to contingencies. A se, surely we can agree, there are no contingencies, no accidents, so to refer to necessity and cause make very little sense. You even stated as much: God has no cause.
I suppose we could affirm that God is necessary to himself, but that seems to clarify very little, in what way is He necessary to Himself – can we speak truly of necessity or is it being who he eternally alway perfectly in full plenitude is,/i>?
Chris, I just read through Grant’s review. I’m afraid I’d have to go back and reread McCann in order to assess Grant’s criticisms, which I cannot do at this time. One thought did occur to me, though: it would be interesting and fruitful to bring McCann into conversation with Plotinus (Ennead VI.8).
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I shouldn’t have checked the combox this late at night, but now I am sucked back in. I still think that Dolezal is onto something when he speaks of the relativity in how we understand God as creator. As creatures, we name God as Creator and this is expressed in creating. However, in God what is signified in the name “Creator” speaks of that which inheres within him ontologically. I am far more amenable to what Fr. Kimel and Brian and others are maintaining – at some point we are left with the language of transcendence or apophaticism because we can’t permeate ‘into’ God and what it means for him to be Creator in himself.
But, to the point that Brian brings up in his most recent comment, much of where this whole discussion goes regarding necessity and contingency is also bound up in how we define freedom. I’m so poorly versed in metaphysics that I am liable to only be dangerous here, but what if freedom in God has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with him being identical with who he is? Wouldn’t actus purus eliminate deliberation (and in a manner of speaking necessity) in God because he simply is who he is in the plenitude of his perfections as expressed in the Divine Act of Being beyond being?
What impresses me, as the discussions on Dionysus continues, is that we are left with little to work with by way of meaningful language when it comes to these matters; at least language that permeates the mystery of how God relates to creation and what freedom, contingency, and necessity actually entail. As the focus attenuates in this discussion, the more and more convinced I am becoming that it might not be the best idea to speak of freedom and necessity in either/or language when it comes to God as Creator (that isn’t to say I think that both/and solves anything either). Perhaps when we say God creates freely, it isn’t proper to say that God could have done otherwise, as much as creating in the way he has is the expression of his Divine Act, and whatever it means for God to be Creator in himself.
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“what if freedom in God has nothing to do with choice and everything to do with him being identical with who he is? Wouldn’t actus purus eliminate deliberation (and in a manner of speaking necessity) in God because he simply is who he is in the plenitude of his perfections as expressed in the Divine Act of Being beyond being?”
Plotinus (I think) would agree with you, Jed … but probably not Aquinas.
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There’s something vulnerable, even defenseless about trying to talk about God. We can use concepts derived from the cosmos, but the transcendence and uniqueness of God mean that our attempts to grasp God through concepts are inherently limited. Seems to me that the analytic tradition does not accept the ungraspable God. It has a kind of naive confidence in language and logic that misses the incommensurable in theo-logic. We must be taken up by grace to an understanding beyond our capacities (revelation). And so, often, one’s words fail before Reality which exceeds us.
In any event, just as one sometimes has to say God is beyond Being because folks cannot think of being outside of a cosmological context and one sometimes has to say God does not exist because folks think existence as a lowest common denominator expression of bare facticity restricted to the finite realm of appearance, one also sometimes has to say God is not a cause because causality gets reduced to elements of a mechanistic paradigm that lack the “apophatic/analogic” elasticity to gesture toward God.
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where’s the “super like” button?
I wouldn’t agree that the analytic tradition doesn’t acknowledge God’s “ungraspableness.” What will help us here is not, I think, vague generalities, but getting down to the specific problems at hand that prevent us from having more clear notions of God and the world.
Do you think that the world is caused? Is it contingent? And do you think God is necessary? Do you think the divine essence is simple? And do you think it is coherent to apply contradictory predicates to an act (if you grant that God’s existence is an act) that is wholly undivided?
I suspect you do not think God in his divinity is both temporal and timeless, material and immaterial, created and uncreated? If we can say he is both necessary and contingent, why can’t we apply all sorts of contradictory predicates to him – in his divinity, that is – ?
There are strides being made by current Catholic thinkers like Grant and Pruss to try to understand how contingency can be predicated of God. These are in a nascent stage, but deserve attention. Their key insight revolves around the idea of extrinsic models of divine willing and knowing. You ought to check out some of their stuff if interested. In short, contingency (and possibility) can be predicated of God only extrinsically – i.e. only insofar as other things are referred to God the necessary being. “Creation” is simply the divine essence, which is absolutely necessary, together with a relation to the creature. This relation is not something in God, nor identical to the divine essence, but simply the creature’s dependence on God.
I have not read Grant or Pruss. I am not addressing partcular individuals who may very well have interesting contributions to make. A general comment about the analytic tendency should not be taken as a judgment on individual thinkers. The view that there are significant limitations to the analytic mode is not idiosyncratic. It often underlies the critique of modern approaches to theology in David Hart’s The Experience of God. I am making brief comments in a thread on a theoblog, not offering a detailed criticism of scholarly articles. I have written elsewhere enough to indicate my views on simplicity, necessity, contingency, etc.
I will add that what appears to be evident irritation in your comment, as if I am talking non-sense, making assertions that violate logical principles of non-contradiction, is frequently the kind of exasperation that one meets in folks who are immersed in the analytic tradition. Here is a quote from David Hart’s The Hidden and the Manifest:
The God who is at once the Being of all things and beyond all things, and who is at once revealed in a Logos who is coequal likeness and at the same time hidden in the infinity of his transcendence, is immeasurably more incomprehensible than the One, which is simply the Wholly Other, and which is consequently susceptible of a fairly secure kind of dialectical comprehension (albeit, admittedly, a comprehension consisting entirely in negations). The Christian God, by contrast, requires us to resort to the far severer, far more uncontrollable, and far more mysterious language of analogy . . .
In my view, the analytical use of language is not sufficiently attuned to the plurivocity of being or the way analogical attempts to touch upon the mystery of God involve one in language that resists determinate exactitude.
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It’s worth pointing out that it is believed that the ‘far severer, far more uncontrollable’ analogical language is not employed out of a sloppy and lazy approach to theology – rather one is compelled to do so due to the nature of the subject, the plurivocity of Being: the ‘Christian God…. requires us to resort’. The lack of control is due to the mysterious and infinite interval of dissimilarity which must condition theological inquiry. It’s a requirement – not a choice of an inferior approach to do theology.
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