An Utterly Dynamic State of Affairs: The God Who Is His Creating

If God is the answer to our most profound existential and metaphysical questions—the Absolute who stops all the bucks—then he must be characterized by an absence of parts and potency; otherwise, classical theists maintain, we would still find ourselves asking for an explanation for either his composition (who or what brought you together? where did these properties come from?) or the realizations of his potentiality (what made you change?). This is the doctrinef of divine simplicity. Yet if this doctrine is true, how do we reconcile the God’s incomposite nature with his personal freedom? Specifically, could God have chosen not to create the world? Or as the analytic philosophers like to ask: Is there a possible world where God is all alone? R. T. Mullins states the problem:

Could God have refrained from creating the universe? If God is free then it seems that the answer is obviously ‘yes.’ He could have existed alone. Yet, God did create the universe. If there is a possible world in which God exists alone, God is not simple. He eternally has unactualized potential for He cannot undo His act of creation. He could cease to sustain the universe in existence, but that would not undo His act of creating.1

The classical theist has only two options, argues Mullins: he must either abandon divine simplicity or concede that God had no choice but to create the world. If divine simplicity is true, it logically denies possibilities in the divine life. In God all potencies and powers are fully actualized: the distinction between act–potency does not exist. Everything that God has, everything that God does is identical to the divine essence. Therefore, maintains Mullins, God is not truly free in his act of creation; he could not have done otherwise. Philosophers call this modal collapse: modal collapse obtains if there is only one possible world, thus rendering all propositional truths necessary:

One could avoid this problem [of unactualized potential] by allowing for a modal collapse. One could say that everything is absolutely necessary. Necessarily, there is only one possible world—this world. Necessarily, God must exist with creation. There is no other possibility. God must create the universe that we inhabit, and everything must occur exactly as it in fact does. There is no such thing as contingency when one allows a modal collapse.2

In response to the modal collapse objection, Hugh McCann proposes an innovative (yet perhaps also traditional) answer: God is an actual state of affairs. “State of affairs”‽—to say the least, this is an odd expression to apply to divinity and requires some unpacking.

”States of affairs,” writes McCann, “are referred to by gerundive expressions such as ‘the piece of paper’s being white’ or ‘Booth’s assassinating Lincoln.’”3 So what’s a “gerundive”? In Latin grammar a gerundive refers to a specific verb form: a verbal adjective, that expresses the fitness or necessity of the action to be performed—but English has no such equivalent. English does, however, have gerunds: verbs ending in –ing that function as nouns. So I think what McCann has in mind are gerund phrases. He then goes on to distinguish abstract states of affairs from their instantiations:

The actual or concrete state of affairs that was Booth’s assassinating Lincoln was an action, by Union lights an act of treason; it plunged the nation into shock and mourning, and produced a fierce reaction against the states that had formed the Confederacy. By contrast, the abstract state of affairs Booth assassinating Lincoln is not an act, neither of treason nor of anything else; it is an act type. It is no more shocking than William Seward assassinating Lincoln or George McClellan assassinating Grant and like any other abstract entity it is utterly incapable of producing anything. Indeed, as with universals, there is no reason to think abstract states of affairs even exist apart from their instances and from thoughts about them; they could serve no purpose in an independent existence, for like universals they are utterly inert.4

When McCann suggests that we might usefully think of God as a state of affairs, he is clearly thinking of something concrete and active, not abstract:

If we are to think of God as an actual state of affairs, we must first decide whether to portray him as a state—something analogous to Socrates’ being wise—or as an event or act of some kind, analogous to Socrates’ behaving wisely. Of these, the second is by far the better choice. States, as the name implies, are static. Nothing is accomplished in a state qua state, whereas in God everything is accomplished. In addition, to portray God as event-like is in keeping with traditional views according to which God must be unders­tood to be “pure act”—that is, to involve no unactualized dispositions. As such, God is a unique sort of being. He does not change . . . but also because for him to change would simply be a matter of one or another disposition in him coming to realization, whereas God has no unrealized dispositions. Nevertheless, there is a dynamic quality in God that is not captured by the notion of a state. God is best thought of as a kind of primordial event, but one that does not consist in a transition, and is therefore timeless. What kind of event is that? The traditional answer was: the fullness of being, existing of its own nature—for us, then, an event in which God is identical with his actual or realized essence, which is in turn identical with being itself. God is, then, his existent nature, his being, an actual dynamic state to which existence itself is essential and upon which all else that is real depends. He is not reactive or passive toward anything, awaits no prompting in order to be manifested in any respect, and is not modeled on any archetype. God is, rather, fully and completely spontaneous—nothing held back, nothing hedged, nothing in doubt or subordinated, and by the present account utterly without dependency of any kind.5

The McCannian construal of divinity as dynamic state immediately connects to the Ipsum Esse Subsistens of St Thomas Aquinas. Timothy McDermott interprets the famous phrase: “God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing.”6 God is a verb, not a noun. McCann’s proposal also connects with Dionysius the Areopagite’s understanding of the One as an ecstatic outpouring of being, not a being but a transcendent event of erotic love.

McCann notes one advantage of thinking of God as an actual state of affairs. In all phrases that refer to states of affairs, subject and predicate are inseparable. For example, consider the example given above: Booth’s assassinating Lincoln. “Assassinating Lincoln” does not stand on its own. It must be accompanied by reference to the actor: “Booth’s assassinating Lincoln.” McCann draws out the analogy:

In the nominals that refer to states of affairs . . . subject and predicate have to remain together. God is not just goodness and justice, but his being good and his being just. The inexpungibility of the subject points in the direction of the ultimate unity of God, but it also reflects the fact that he is irreducibly personal—so that in the primordial event that is God the features essential to personality, in particular those of knowing and willing, must be dis­played. And it is easy to see how these can be displayed in the same act, for it is impossible to will anything, without at the same time comprehending what is willed, without understanding what one is willing. As for the object of that act, for Aquinas the primary object of God’s knowing will is in fact himself; that is, God is an act of at once comprehending and willing his own essential being. This should not be taken as suggesting that God is self-creating, in the sense of conferring existence on himself. Rather, I would suggest, it signifies that God fully comprehends and is absolutely com­mit­ted to being all that he is, and moreover that he is in fact identical with the very act that is his being thus comprehending and committed, that these dimensions of his nature are as fundamental as his being perfectly good, or anything else about him.7

Classical theism is often accused of depersonalizing divinity, yet McCann’s divine state of affairs exhibits all the characteristics that we associate with personhood, minus the cor­pore­al­ity. Deity knows and wills and acts. He’s tailor-made to be the sovereign Creator we meet in the Bible. But Deity is also metaphysically simple: we cannot ultimately dis­tin­guish who he is from what he is or what he does. God is his personhood, is his attributes, is his activities. McCann bites the bullet: in the act that is his eternal identity, God eternally wills to be Creator:

The actual state of affairs that is foundational to all actuality must equally be the action that is God’s being his own being, so to speak, and also the action that is his creating the universe. So God is not only identical with his existing; he is also identical with his creating the world.8

In the idiom of event: “God just is his creating the universe.”9

To better understand the relation of God to the universals we call divine attributes, McCann adduces Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo’s nature did not cause him to paint the ceiling; he freely accepted the papal commission. Hence the attribute creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling is accidental to his being; yet while it is accidental to his being, it is essential to his action: “the act that was his creating the ceiling could not have existed except through this attribute being displayed, and if the attribute could be taken away, the action would go with it.”10 Now compare God’s creation of the universe. The universals creating and creating the universe belong to the divine action. If they were not present, the action would not be. The relevant difference between the two lies in the simplicity of the eternal Creator. If God just is his creating the universe, then creating and creating the universe are essential to him. The same logic applies to all of the divine attributes. As McCann notes: “For by the simplicity view, God’s creating the universe is precisely the same actual state of affairs that is his being omniscient, his being omnipotent, his being perfectly good and just, and the rest of what we think belongs to God as creator.”11 These properties too are necessary:

Since the actual state of affairs that is God’s creating the world is equally one of his willing his own being and his existing a se or of his own nature, the universals that define these characterizations are essential to him as well. Finally . . . there is no need whatever to think of these universals as having any being apart from their manifestation in the actual state of affairs that is God himself. Accordingly, their existence is in no way prior to his own, so that he is not dependent upon them. On the contrary, since on the present view universals have no existence in their own right, they depend for their being on the primary reality that is God. The same can be said for the multitudinous abstract states that are instantiated in that reality.12

The universals we call divine attributes depend on the primary reality that is God. Existence always comes first in the order of being.

But what about modal collapse? It looks as if Dr McCann may have made the situation even worse. How is God libertarianly free if the divine act of creation, with the attributes manifested therein, necessary to God being God? Do we still need to issue the modal collapse alarm?

(30 September 2018; rev.)



[1] R. T. Mullins, “Simply Impossible,” pp. 195-196)

[2] Ibid., p. 196; cf. William Vallicella, “Divine Simplicity and Modal Collapse.”

[3] Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 226.

[4] Ibid., pp. 226-227.

[5] Ibid., p. 228; emphasis mine.

[6] Timothy McDermott, Summa Theologiae (1997), p. xxxii. See my article “Ipsum Esse Subsistens: The God Who Is a Verb.”

[7] McCann, p. 229.

[8] Ibid., p. 229.

[9] Ibid., p. 230.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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1 Response to An Utterly Dynamic State of Affairs: The God Who Is His Creating

  1. darkglasshumbly says:

    Libertarian freedom is childish. True freedom is to be compelled by perfection. God the father, everywhere and always, is compelled by love to trust the son in what he does next. God the son, everywhere and always, is compelled by god the father in what he plans next. God the Holy Spirit, everywhere and always, is compelled to rejoice in all things, either actually or prophetically according to the futurity of the omniscience of the trinity. This is why the transcendence of god, extensively, is the immanence of god, intensively. This dynamism requires trinity (whereas trinity is just a mysterious bolt-on to most people’s idea of theology.) furthermore, the omniscient immanence of god requires “all other things than the matter at hand” to be in his peripheral vision compared to “the matter at hand.” As god sees a newborn child born in 2022, the war in Ukraine is in his peripheral vision. As god sees the war in Ukraine, the newborn child is in his peripheral vision. He oversees both things, but they do not collapse down into an absurd gaze of static omniscience. The human phenomenon of conscious and subconscious is analogous to this, the difference being that as created beings, we are not omniscient, and so we are localised as finite becomings who depend on Christ, who is the bridge between the finite becoming of creation learning from the creator and the infinite becoming of the creator unfolding from his trinitarian self-relationship. We must be kind to open theists, because even though their theology is blasphemous toward the omniscience of god, it may be less blasphemous, perhaps, than the static tyrant who only creates to prove to the creation that he didn’t have to, and only saves to demonstrate that he doesn’t have to, only becomes incarnate in Christ because he doesn’t have to. Better a forgetful old man than an infinite roman emperor. Even Romans 9 only speaks of a long game of wise providence, creating vessels of destruction out of beings who will become vessels of mercy in the end, when Christ is consummately all in all. It does not preach an existentialist who lives in constant opposition to a void, always exploring the limits of good and evil, always grasping after the state of not having to do anything.


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