The Absolute Freedom of the Simple Life

In the preceding article, “An Utterly Simple State of Affairs,” we were left with questions about divine freedom: specifically, if the act of creation of essential to the divine being, as Hugh McCann claims, how does this not entail the enslavement of Deity to necessity (i.e. modal collapse)? McCann begins his rejoinder by specifying the necessary conditions of libertarian freedom (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 231). He lists three:

  • absence of determining cause
  • spontaneity
  • intrinsic intentionality

That God fulfills the first condition is patent. By definition, nothing compels God, either externally or internally. That the second condition is fulfilled is also given. The timeless and simple Deity does not sit around deliberating upon options. As McCann puts it: “Everything about God is pure doing” (p. 231). The third condition is fulfilled by the fact that all volitional acts are intrinsically intentional. We do not will anything without meaning to do so. Free action implies intention. We do not intend to decide to act; the decision is included in the intention. So also for God. “Exactly the same applies to the act of will that is God: it too is intrinsically intentional, an action he fully understands, and intends with complete commitment, meaning it to have exactly the nature it does” (p. 231). (Note: the capacity “to do otherwise” is not included in the above list of conditions for freedom.)

Now comes the startling McCannian assertion: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determination of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does” (p. 231). The intending of God is the willing of God is the doing of God and only thus is God:

That is, the reality that is God’s having the nature he does is itself the action of his freely undertaking to have it, and all that is essential to him is founded in this exercise of freedom. It does not follow that God confers existence, or any other aspect of his nature, on himself, in the sense that his act of so doing is prior to or causally productive of the aspect being present. But it does follow that his nature falls under his own sovereignty. For even though his nature is essential to God, it is “up to him” in the sense that there is nothing that makes it what it is beyond the very exercise of voluntariness that constitutes it. Thus, just as the features of voluntariness give us control over our own acts of will, so God controls the act of will that constitutes his very being, and thereby exercises sovereignty over it. (pp. 231-232)

There is nothing prior to God, ontologically or otherwise—no pre-existing template or model of divinity waiting to be instantiated. God wills to be the good event he is. All of his attributes and activities are what he intends. This divine willing is primordial, constitutive, definitive, irreversible. God timelessly and immutably purposes to be the One disclosed to reason and faith. There is no other Creator, no other Deity. God determines God. Such is his simplicity and freedom.

The assertion that God wills his being might easily be misinterpreted as self-creation, God creating himself out of nothing. McCann rejects the idea as nonsense: “The fact is that nothing, eternal or otherwise, can confer existence on itself, in the sense that its own being counts as a causal product of some activity in which it occurs” (p. 215). Not even God can generate divinity ex nihilo; God is not ontologically prior to God. Yet neither do we wish to concede that the essential attributes of divinity are metaphysical givens, “conditions of his being, independent of any exercise of will on his part” (p. 217). If this were so, then he would be as much a prisoner of his nature as we are of ours. “You think it’s tough being human, Job? You ought to try being me for a day!” One consequence would seem to follow: “If all of God’s characteristics arise from his own nature, then everything he does as creator counts as a manifestation of his essence, which presumably belongs to him necessarily” (p. 218). Not only is God not free to create; but he must necessarily create this world, and only this world, just as it is. Out goes the window the sovereignty-aseity intuition. The only way to avoid this captivity to nature, argues McCann, is to assert God’s volitional responsibility over the dynamic state of affairs that he is.

But what about all those possible worlds of which modal philosophers speak? They don’t exist!

To speak at all of possibilities and necessities about worlds God might have created is to presuppose that prior to his act of creating the world—the act which, as it turns out—is God himself, there were possibilities and necessities as to what God might be. But that is exactly what we cannot do if … any abstracta pertaining to God have their first being in the action that is God himself. For if that is so, then there is nothing prior to the actual state of affairs that is God, nothing prior to his willing both himself and the universe in the one, free act with which he is identical. As to whether worlds other than the one we have are possible in relation to God, then, we can answer only that the world is as it is, that the creator of heaven and earth has made it so. Beyond this we can say nothing, for beyond this there is nothing [to] be said. (p. 233)

The counterfactuals and de re possibilities imposed upon divinity by the advocates of modal collapse do not obtain. They are a category mistake. They cannot apply to the perfectly simple Deity who is his act of willing. God is too actual to be subjected to our contingencies. Hence we cannot say that “in creating the world God can do otherwise than he does … Prior to creation it is impossible to speak of options” (p. 233). God is the producer of possibilities and necessities. “His freedom as creator is such as to transcend all modality” (p. 234). The simplicity of God is his absolute freedom.

Incompatibilists will of course continue to insist that the “could have done otherwise” is integral to authentic freedom, despite the decisive difference between Creator and creatures. In this case, McCann remarks, all we can do is concede that God does not display libertarian freedom. “I would suggest, however, that if this were done it would only become necessary to define a better, higher type of freedom—one transcending even the libertarian variety—and then to attribute this higher freedom to God” (p. 234). The key point stands: “God is not only a being who by his own choice exists a se, but also one who by his own choice transcends logical possibility itself” (p. 235).

At this point readers are no doubt wondering the extent to which McCann has broken from the classical theological tradition. I’m wondering about that, too. Yet his references to Aquinas throughout his book suggests that he intends a real measure of continuity with the medieval tradition, albeit in the idiom of analytic philosophy. I note the following:

1) Radical transcendence

As for Aquinas, so for McCann—both philosophers invoke divine simplicity to secure the Creator’s transcen­dence of the created order. God differs differently by the absence within his nature of composition and passive potentiality—hence McCann’s emphatic insistence that the modal and tempo­ral cate­gories appropriate to finite being must not be employed to analyze divinity and its relation to the universe. God is the transcendent source of our logic, not its captive. McCann does not explicitly invoke the via negativa (though what else are simplicity, immutability, and atemporality but negative attributes?), nor does he elaborate the analogy of being, yet both make their presence curiously felt in in his controversial claim that universals are created with beings. Universals, propositions, geometrical figures, and all the rest of the Platonic horde acquire their reality by their instantiation in actually existing entities. They do not exist in a realm independent of the “concrete world and the mental activities of thinkers” (p. 201). He believes that the entities of the conceptual order, including the abstractum of possible worlds, are the products of divine imagination and agency. “Prior to its creation, McCann contends, “an abstractum has no being whatever, not even in abstracto” (p. 211).

Thus, on an absolute creationist account, God is not subject to abstracta, in the sense of being hemmed in by the possibilites they define. Rather, he is able to act with perfect freedom. He is not limited by prior possibilities, because a part of creation is the production of the very possibilities themselves … Absolute creation … is a single, timeless act in which all of creation is produced in one fell swoop, and the natures of things, along with the entire Platonic menagerie implicit in them, are created in their exemplification—that is, as manifested within the concrete reality that is the temporal world. (p. 201)

Despite his firm rejection of Platonism and despite his repeated identification of God as a being, albeit a totally unique being, I am tempted to suggest that McCann’s account of divinity is appropriately described as beyond being. Too Dionysian? Indubitably. Early in the book McCann identifies aseity as the key attribute demanded by the cosmological argument:

The most important property he must have has already been mentioned: that of aseity. If the creator is to bround the existence of contingent beings, he himself must exist of his own nature; there can be no distinction in him between essence and existence … Still, it is difficult to comprehend: the thought is that, were we sufficiently cognizant of the divine nature, we would see in it complete self-sufficiency and fullness of being—so that there could be no question of its depending on anything else, no question of how or why such a being should be. That is a sublime conception: short, at least, of mystical awareness, nothing in our present experience answers to it … For a being that exists a se, essence and existence are indistinguishable: what it is and that it is are the same thing. But then there can be no basis for counting beyond one, because what makes God a God is also what makes him this God, one God. Instead of being the subject of conferred (and hence, not-self-derived) being, God is his own existence, and his fundamental nature is being itself. (p. 12; emphasis mine)

Sounds awfully like an Angelic Doctor we know. God transcends genus and species. I suspect Dr McCann would be content to simply name this one and all-sufficient God … the LORD.

2) God is his willing

Just as the God of Thomas wills his essence as the Good and in this willing simultaneously wills the world as ordered to the Good (see “The Willing God“), so the God of McCann simultaneously wills his divine nature and the world. Nothing is prior; nothing compels. God freely determines his divine life and being. As quoted above: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determi­nation of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does.” The key difference between Thomas and McCann is that the latter bypasses Thomas’s distinction between the “necessity” of God’s self-willing as the Good and his “voluntary” willing of creatures that need not be. For Thomas, God does not need to create because he is the infinite plenitude of Being and Goodness. That he does create displays a gratuitous excess. McCann agrees, but this is not his way of talking. His emphasis on the divine will approaches a form of voluntarism (confirmed by his preference for divine command theory of morality). God is free in every respect—or perhaps almost every respect, as McCann does not entertain the possibility that God can or will command evil. “God’s will is perfect goodness,” he assures us (p. 192). All Christians pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We invariably come back to the question Socrates posed to Euthyphro. Leibneiz famously formulated the dilemma: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just?” At the level of transcendent divinity, perhaps the answer is a simple yes. God grabs both horns of the dilemma. Theologically translated: God wills himself as the Good; the Good wills himself as God. McCann avoids the language of necessity because he does not want divinity to be subject, as creatures are, to an inherited nature. God is not a haver of attributes; his nature is simple and freely enacted. Does this represent a significant departure from Aquinas? Perhaps not. Clearly Thomas does not think of the Deity as helplessly bound to a nature imposed upon him: in willing his essence as the Good—and with it the world—God freely, and befittingly, determines himself to be the Creator and Maker of all things. “His willing is His being” (SCG I.80.2).

The difference between Aquinas and McCann, therefore, may be more conceptual than metaphysical … or not. Something is lost by the latter’s abandonment of the Neoplatonic identification of God as the transcendent Good. At the end of the day, we are left wondering whether McCann secretly stands with one foot in the camp of another medieval philosopher, William of Ockham.

While I personally and decidedly prefer the apophatic theological tradition, as expressed in Dionysius and Aquinas, I find there is much to admire in Hugh McCann’s presentation of divinity. He is an compelling advocate of the classical theistic tradition and unabashed defender of divine simplicity. What I have learned from him is this: the simplicity of God is his absolute freedom. When this is understood, one begins to see why the modal collapse objection does not obtain; it misses the point. God is the creator of possibilities and necessities and thus transcends our modal worries.

(Return to first article)

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23 Responses to The Absolute Freedom of the Simple Life

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. Tom says:

    I wonder how it is that Bulgakov managed to affirm simplicity and divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I guess you’ll have to ask him. He wrote a lot of strange things, didnt’ he? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The answer lies in the denial of a real relation of God to creation.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Bulgakov’s position on divine foreknowledge is curious, don’t you think, Tom? On the one hand he can write:

      In order to come to a clearer statement of this problem, one must distinguish the two different planes in which it is posed: that of eternity and that of the history of creaturely being. In God’s eternity, where all exists in one extra-temporal act, there are no present, past, and future. Here, all things super-are from all eternity, and, of course, there is no limit to God’s knowledge; there is only omniscience. here, God is not the Creator and God for creation; rather, He lives in the inaccessible light of His self-sufficient absolute life that is always identical to itself. There is only knowledge here; foreknowledge and ignorance are absent. The latter arise only with regard to the relation between God as Creator and the world as creation. (Bride of the Lamb, p. 237)

      Bulgakov thus posits some kind of duality between God in himself and God in relation to creation. He is forced to posit this duality because he is convinced that creaturely freedom requires God’s ignorance. Hence he speaks of God “veiling his face.” What else is this but an unfortunate anthropomorphism?

      I don’t know what to make of this, but I cannot see this as anything but an inadequate, if not simply false, understanding of divinity and divine agency. The act of God’s being is divorced or at least distanced from God’s creative act. How can this be acceptable? How does this not introduce potentiality and composition into the divine nature?


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        There would be a huge problem if the distinction is a real difference in God. Do you think that Bulgakov understand the different planes to be a real distinction in God, or merely a distinction as it relates to us, as we see it from our vantage point?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I have no idea, Robert. I do not have a solid grasp of Bulgakov’s understanding of divine creation.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            It seems to me one can (or perhaps must, but this can be argued) read the cited passage positing not a real duality in God, but rather a nominal or conceptual duality of ‘planes’ as he calls it. The language that Fr Bulgakov uses to express the duality, ‘here’ vs. ‘there’, seems to me pointing to the duality as we only can see it from our perspective, the ‘here’ of God as over against the ‘there’ which exists in relation to creation. Read as such I don’t see a conflict with but rather an affirmation of divine simplicity, the ‘self-sufficient absolute life that is always identical to itself.’

            Liked by 1 person

  3. brian says:

    I think Bulgakov understands all contingent aspects of knowing as “for us.” I read him as I read Balthasar, however, as recognizing that eternity is not a “flat plenitude” as one surmises in Parmenides. Rather, the spontaneity and novel discovery we recognize as constituting an “event” must be posited as intrinsic to divine life. Otherwise, temporal, finite existence would absurdly appear to possess an excellence lacking in divine perfection. How does this square with an aseity without potentiality? It seems antinomic to us, but that is due to our finite limitations and our analogic grasp of divine perfections. The semantic disconnect is similar to the way folks often take impassibility to mean indifference or a lack of response to human action, whereas Hart correctly points out that it only indicates the ever faithful constancy of divine love no matter how astray the creatures wanders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I wonder what Bulgakov would think about this quotation from David Burrell:

      God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a consequence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action.

      Any thoughts?


  4. malcolmsnotes says:

    My quick response:

    The idea that God is “sovereign over himself” is incoherent. It implies that God exists prior to himself to act on himself and give himself what he already has. A first principle cannot act “on” or “upon” himself. It is impossible. And if it is not impossible, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a first principle to begin with.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      How might McCann reply? He would agree that it’s nonsensical to think of God as creating himself from out of nothing (see the first long quote above). But I think he might remind us that the simple and illimited Deity does not have a pre-existing nature, i.e., a set of properties (even though we have no choice but to talk about him as if he does). God is simply his eternal Act.

      Recall the first article in the series. McCann approaches God through creatures: How do we explain the fact that creatures do not explain their existence (in Thomist terms, their existence is not identical to their essence)–hence the positing of a transcendent Creator whose existence is identical to his essence (aseity). At no point are we in a position to speak of God in himself “before” creation. When we do so–and we all do so–we are engaging in mythology.


      • malcolmsnotes says:

        McCann would agree it’s nonsensical to think of God as creating himself out of nothing?

        God is identical to God’s creating the world out of nothing. Therefore God just is his act of creating the world out of nothing. But then “God” is identical to “creating the world out of nothing. Ergo, God is equivalent to creation out of nothing, which is incoherent.

        We need the distinction between God and the world (which McCann rejects) if we are to meaningfully say that God accounts for the world.

        Again, I’m not the only one who thinks this. BV makes the exact same point in his review of McCanns book on sovereignty, as does Matthews Grant in his short review.

        Also, the problem does not spring from imagining a “before” (ie temporal) relation on God. The problem is modal – not temporal or one of duration. The question is, can we make a *distinction* between God and the world – at all. In fact you recognize that we can, by saying that God is different from creatures because in him essence and existence are identical. Would you say that distinction is temporal, or that it require a “before” in God’s life? And if not, then obviously we can describe God “in himself.” And if we can do that, it seems to me we can describe him as necessarily existing.

        Also, you say God possesses aseity. Does this not mean he necessarily exists?


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          I am not sure I understand how something can be modal without bring temporal.
          This is obvious with future contingencies – what might be is something that has not yet happened but might – it can only exist as a contingency prior to the point where it is postulated it might occur. Once it has happened or not happened it ceases to be a contingency.
          The problem to my mind is that past contingencies are no more than future contingencies projected back into the past – we consuder the point at which they would have been purely possible future contingencies and speculate as to what other future contingencies might have arisen instead. If this is not what a past contingency is, what then does “might have been” mean at all?
          If both future and past contingencies are the same in character, and both require temporality in order to exist at all, what could an atemporal contingency even be? Unless a coherent account of what an atemporal contingency might be can be given, asking the question “Might God not have created?” is incoherent, since it otherwise requires applying a temporality to the act of creation which (unless you assume time itself to be uncreated) it doesn’t actually have.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. malcolmsnotes says:

    One more, with regard to this:


  6. malcolmsnotes says:

    You say, “God is the creator of possibilities and necessities and thus transcends our modal worries.”

    I take this also to be incoherent (as does Valicella, and WM Grant). To be “creator” designates a modal dependence – i.e. if God creates the world, and need not have, then God can exist without the world. This reduces to simply saying that the world is contingent, and God is necessary. But if you say the entire modal framework is itself created, then you’re not saying anything intelligible. Creation entails that one thing is necessary and independent, and the other contingent and dependent. But if you go on to then say that that entire relation and all that is contained in the relation is itself “created” you’re both affirming the modal framework (by saying it depends on something else) and negating it (by saying dependence as such does not imply something that is necessarily independent.)

    BV has a good essay critiquing McCann on this point.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “To be ‘creator’ designates a modal dependence – i.e. if God creates the world, and need not have, then God can exist without the world.”

      But McCann would reply that this is a statement that you cannot rightly make. It presumes a logic that does not obtain “until” there is a world in which logic is embedded or instantiated. And there’s nothing peculiar about this. Every scholastic, Thomist or otherwise, would insist that God’s relationship to the world is asymmetrical and logical, not real. God does not “become” Creator; and McCann would agree with them. Creation happens in the creature, not in God. I think Tom Cothran calls this “extrinsic denomination.” The infinite and simple God is not a being that can have a relationship of the kind you presuppose.

      As noted in my article, McCann’s thesis about universals is controversial, and if true it certainly strengthens his central argument; but I’m not sure if his central argument depends upon it, as evidenced by the scholatic consensus on the asymmetricality of the Creator/creature relation.

      Where McCann might be criticized is the voluntarist formulation of Deity, but even here I’m not sure how strongly, e.g., a Thomist would object, given the identity of will and essence. Even more challenging, perhaps, is how he would reconcile his position with the doctrine of the Trinity, which he does not address.


      • malcolmsnotes says:

        If McCann says we can’t make the statement, then he can’t go on to say the world needs God to explain its existence. The world can just exist “a-modally.”

        If the world need not depend on God, why posit his existence, why say he created it?

        Does the world depend on God?

        Does God depend on the world?

        If these questions are meaningful, then modality itself cannot be something created by God.


      • malcolmsnotes says:

        Also, nothing I’ve said presupposes anything against extrinsic denomination. I agree God does not “become” creator – as if that attribute accrued to him simply in virtue of his reference and relation to the world. My point is, if between God and the word there really is this asymmetrical relation (as you call it), then God must be necessary, and the world unnecessary. That is, necessity must be a predicate of identity with the divine essence, just like goodness and aseity: it must be impossibly false; it must be a description of who God is – the I AM, the necessary One.


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Here are two, of several, “Closer to Truth” interviews with Hugh McCann that are germane to our discussion:

    Does God create abstract objects?

    Does God have a nature?


  8. Tom says:

    One patristic example of seeking to understand the providential use of divine (fore)knowledge which never ceases to engage me is Gregory’s ‘On Infants Early Deaths’:


    • Tom says:

      Gregory’s argument assumes something like Bulgakov’s distinction in God between God’s knowledge of the world’s possibilities and its actualities. Bulgakov, I think, just perceives the implications of this distinction.


  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I added tonight a new paragraph that I hope will clarify my presentation of McCabe. As I reread through this article, I’m tempted to say, “Just go read chapter 12. McCabe’s a lot clearer than I am.” 🙂


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