Paula Kirby is one of the more thoughtful contemporary critics of religion. A few years ago, I was much struck by a remark she made in one of her essays, that even Christians don’t all believe in the same God. This, to my mind, is a much more powerful argument against religious faith than the puerile “One God further” objection which is frequently hurled against believers by the New Atheists, and which has been ably refuted by Barry Arrington on Uncommon Descent, and also by the Thomist philosopher (and former atheist), Professor Edward Feser (see here and here).
In all fairness, I have to acknowledge that there is some truth to Paula Kirby’s contention: even within a single Christian denomination, believers are likely to hold wildly divergent views about the God Whom they all worship. To illustrate my point, I’ve compiled a catalogue of sixteen questions about God which currently divide Christians. The differences of opinion on many key issues are stark, and too glaring to be ignored. Some of the questions listed below have direct relevance for Intelligent Design theory, while others do not. Nevertheless, I have listed them anyway, as they are questions on which many readers will have views that they may wish to air.
The conclusion I have come to is that while Ms. Kirby goes too far in claiming that Christians worship different gods, she is surely right when she contends that they don’t all worship the same God. Although the vast majority of Christians share a common set of beliefs about God (which are expressed in their creeds), they also hold an astonishingly diverse array of views on a multitude of vital issues relating to God. These differences of opinion are not denominational: for the most part, they exist within each denomination, often dividing members of the same congregation. Sadly, it is not uncommon these days to hear one Christian denigrating the beliefs of a fellow churchgoer with the patronizing comment: “Your God is not the God Whom I worship.”
Some readers may be thinking, “That’s all very well, but why are you discussing this question in an Intelligent Design forum?” The short answer is that while Intelligent Design theory says nothing about the supernatural, there are certain views about the supernatural which mesh well with ID and there are other views which don’t. Many of the criticisms leveled at Intelligent Design are ultimately religious in nature: ID clashes with some people’s deep-seated beliefs about what God is, and about the way in which He interacts with the world. I think we need to face up squarely to that fact. It is also a fact that a large proportion of people who accept Intelligent Design theory are Christians of one stripe or another. I hope this post will give them the opportunity to sort out their own theological beliefs, by highlighting what I see as the key points of contention among Christians today.
I realize that talking about this startling division of opinion within Christianity will unsettle many people, but I believe that it is far better to acknowledge it publicly than to gloss over these theological differences, for they are both large and growing. My hope is that a lively but courteous exchange of views among Christian believers in the 21st century will help resolve some of these vexing differences of opinion, and bring about a closer agreement. I’d also be interested in hearing from any Jews and Muslims who may wish to share their views on the issues I’ve raised, and people of other religions, as well as skeptics, are also welcome to contribute. All I ask is that commenters express their views courteously.
I’ve kept this post fairly short for the sake of people who dislike reading long essays, but I’ve also attached an appendix with an in-depth treatment of the issues raised, for those readers who appreciate philosophical discussions.
The points on which Christians agree about God
Despite the differences between the various Christian denominations, there is a high level of agreement among Christians in what they teach about God, in their doctrinal declarations and confessions of faith. Here, for example, is what the First Vatican Council of the Catholic Church had to say about God, in its declaration On God, the Creator of All Things (Session 3, 24 April 1870):
1. The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, Creator and Lord of Heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection.
2. Since He is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, He must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in Himself and from Himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides Himself which either exists or can be imagined.
3. This one true God, by His goodness and almighty power, not with the intention of increasing His happiness, nor indeed of obtaining happiness, but in order to manifest His perfection by the good things which He bestows on what He creates, by an absolutely free plan, together from the beginning of time brought into being from nothing the twofold created order, that is the spiritual and the bodily, the angelic and the earthly, and thereafter the human which is, in a way, common to both since it is composed of spirit and body .
4. Everything that God has brought into being He protects and governs by his providence, which reaches from one end of the earth to the other and orders all things well . All things are open and laid bare to His eyes , even those which will be brought about by the free activity of creatures.
Apart from the opening reference to “the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church,” I can see nothing in the foregoing declaration about God which a Protestant pastor might disagree with. The same goes for the declaration about God by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), in its opening paragraph. (For readers who may be interested, here is a fairly complete list of Dogmas of the Catholic Church compiled by F. John Loughnan in 2001. Statements 12 to 71 deal with God.) Likewise, I’m sure that Catholic bishops would completely agree with what most Protestant confessional statements have to say about God, including the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530, Article 1), the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion (1562, Articles 1 to 5), the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646, Chapter 2), the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689, Chapter 2) and the Methodist 25 Articles of Religion (1784, 1808, Articles 1 to 4), which were John Wesley’s adaptation of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion from the Anglican Church.
Here, for example, is what the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 says in Chapter 2 (Of God and of the Holy Trinity):
1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
(1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; Deuteronomy 6:4; Jeremiah 10:10; Isaiah 48:12; Exodus 3:14; John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17; Deuteronomy 4:15, 16; Malachi 3:6; 1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:23; Psalms 90:2; Genesis 17:1; Isaiah 6:3; Psalms 115:3; Isaiah 46:10; Proverbs 16:4; Romans 11:36; Exodus 34:6, 7; Hebrews 11:6; Nehemiah 9:32, 33; Psalms 5:5, 6; Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:2, 3)
2. God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself, is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them; he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things, and he hath most sovereign dominion over all creatures, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth; in his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain; he is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands; to him is due from angels and men, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience, as creatures they owe unto the Creator, and whatever he is further pleased to require of them.
(John 5:26; Psalms 148:13; Psalms 119:68; Job 22:2, 3; Romans 11:34-36; Daniel 4:25, 34, 35; Hebrews 4:13; Ezekiel 11:5; Acts 15:18; Psalms 145:17; Revelation 5:12-14)
3. In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.
(1 John 5:7; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Exodus 3:14; John 14:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; John 1:14,18; John 15:26; Galatians 4:6)
The only thing in the London Baptist Confession of Faith’s statement about God which some contemporary Christians might find jarring is that it takes a very exalted view of God’s sovereignty. For example, the Confession of Faith declares that God “hath most sovereign dominion over all creatures, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth” – in other words, it denies that God has any duties towards His creatures, although it qualifies the severity of that statement by adding that God is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering.” (As we’ll see, other Christian denominations teach this as well.) In a similar vein, the Confession declares that since God is “in and unto himself all-sufficient,” His knowledge is “independent upon the creature,” which means that God doesn’t need to watch us in order to know what we’re doing. While most Christian Fathers theologians down the ages would probably agree with this statement, I should point out that many of the Eastern Fathers subscribed to a rival, Boethian account of Divine foreknowledge, which depicts God as a Timeless Surveyor of the past, present and future, Who “looks forth from the lofty watch-tower of His providence, perceives what is suited to each, and assigns what He knows to be suitable,” as the Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524/5) nicely expressed it in his work, the Consolation of Philosophy (Book 4, Chapter VI). The “watchman” metaphor clearly implies that God’s timeless knowledge of our past, present and future choices is derived from His human creatures, and many Christian laypeople tend to envisage God’s foreknowledge in precisely this manner. However, the Baptist Confession is perfectly compatible with official Catholic teaching about God, and the vast majority of Catholic theologians today would agree with the Confession’s assertions that God has no duties towards creatures and that His knowledge is utterly independent of creatures.
Christian teachings about God were basically hammered out between the fourth and the seventh centuries. From that time until the mid-nineteenth century, there were only two real points of contention about God among mainstream Christians (by which I mean those subscribing to the decrees of at least the first four ecumenical councils): first, St. Augustine’s shocking claim (which was subsequently defended by Domingo Banez and by John Calvin) that God [either positively or negatively] predestines certain souls to Hell from all eternity, without any consideration of how they lived – a doctrine which the Orthodox Confession of Dositheus (1672) subjects to “an eternal anathema” – and second, the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (as Western Churches teach) or from the Father alone (as the Orthodox Church teaches).
In the last 150 years, however, the unity of Christian belief about God has fragmented, for various reasons. By the nineteenth century, several trends which had already become influential in philosophical circles began to infiltrate Christian thinking about God: first, a rejection of the God of classical theism as a cold and detached Deity, in favor of a more personalistic view of God; second, a tendency among some Christians to think of God as having feelings, and as being moved by His own creation; third, an aversion to the describing God as miraculously intervening in His own creation, as this seemed to suggest a lack of foresight on His part; and fourth, a reluctance (after Darwin) to impute animal suffering to God, as this would seem to make Him responsible for the evils existing in Nature: instead, natural evils were ascribed to the laws of Nature, which God, having established, could no longer change. Under the influence of pragmatism in the late nineteenth century, Christians also began re-examining their doctrinal statements about God and asking what they meant in practical terms, with the result that statements deemed to be excessively metaphysical were quietly shelved, or even jettisoned altogether. In the twentieth century, the concept of God underwent a much more rigorous scrutiny by logical positivist philosophers, which caused many Christians to critically re-examine their traditional beliefs about God, and ask if they made any sense or not. Additionally, the horror of the Holocaust caused many Christians to reject traditional theodicies as a hollow sham, and to look for more convincing answers to the problem of evil. Finally, in the twenty-first century, the aggressive New Atheist movement has launched a sustained assault on the Christian concept of God: in his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that any Designer of life and the cosmos would have to be more complex than His designs, and would Himself require a Designer (leading to an infinite regress of designers); and in addition, he contends that the God of the Bible is a monster. Dawkins’ arguments against the Judeo-Christian concept of God are not new – indeed, they were advanced in the eighteenth century by David Hume and Thomas Paine, respectively – but they managed to reach a wide popular audience, unnerving many Christians.
What I find especially interesting regarding the contemporary disagreements among Christians about God is that they are largely intra-denominational rather than inter-denominational. As I see it, the key differences boil down to about sixteen points of contention.
The sixteen key points on which Christians differ about God
As I see it, the theological disagreements between Christians regarding God mostly center around the following issues:
(1) Is God a noun or a verb? Should we think of Him first and foremost as a Tri-Personal Being Who knows and loves perfectly, or is He best characterized as Being Itself, Truth Itself, Love Itself?
(2) Does God have one center of consciousness, one “self” and one “I”, or three centers of consciousness, three “selves” and three “I’s”?
(3) Is God’s Mind internally complex, or altogether simple?
(4) Is God completely outside of time (atemporal) or is He temporal? And does God actualize Himself when He decides to create, thereby making Him really related to the temporal world? Or should we say instead that while creatures are really related to their Creator, God is not really related to His creatures?
(5) Is God a timeless spectator of His creatures’ actions in the past, present and future, or does He know what His creatures do without needing to be informed by them? Putting it another way, can God design His creatures with a built-in capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of what they choose to do, or is He inherently incapable of being informed by His own creatures, since a creature cannot actualize its Creator?
(6) Does God simply conserve things in being, or does He also actively co-operate with natural agents in bringing about their effects?
(7) Is God bound by the laws of Nature which he established at the dawn of creation, or can He over-ride them at will?
(8) Does God rely on linguistic concepts in order to understand the things He has made? And does God reason from premises to their conclusion, or does He know the conclusion without having to reason His way to it?
(9) Is God’s understanding of Nature holistic and “top-down,” or is it also “bottom-up”?
(10) What is the scope of Divine omnipotence? Is God capable of doing anything whose top-level description doesn’t involve a logical contradiction, or only those feats which can be consistently specified in exhaustive detail from top to bottom?
(11) Is God capable of preventing natural evils but willing to allow them for the sake of realizing some “greater good” which is part of His Divine plan, or is He for some reason unable to prevent these evils?
(12) Is God in some way capable of having experiences, such as the color “green,” or is He wholly active and therefore incapable of experiencing anything?
(13) Can we literally speak of God as having feelings of joy and love, or is He wholly active and therefore incapable of feeling anything?
(14) Can we literally ascribe negative feelings to God, such as anger and hate?
(15) Is God capable of empathizing with us? Does He know “what it’s like” to be me?
(16) Does God have any duties towards us?
The way I see it, Intelligent Design theory has implications for questions (3), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10) and (11). That’s six out of the sixteen questions on my list. “Why?” you might ask. Let’s begin with the notion of intelligence. Although the definition of intelligence used by ID advocates says nothing about language, the definition of specified complexity (which is a hallmark of intelligent agency) does: we call a pattern specified if it can be described succinctly, in just a few words. Thus the patterns we use to identify design presuppose the existence of some sort of language (which is not too different from our own) that the Designer must have used to specify them, when making them. Hence specified design concepts are essentially linguistic. And if many (or all) of the various creatures in the natural world are designed in a very specific way, then the concepts which define them have to be expressible in some kind of language, too. And if the Designer of these creatures is God (as many believe, including myself), then God must have a language of His own for describing the things He has made.
If many of God’s concepts are essentially linguistic, then they must possess a rich, complex internal structure. That in turn requires God to have a complex Mind, which is able to formulate (and presumably hold) such concepts. (It makes no difference for Intelligent Design purposes whether this concept-formulation takes place inside or outside of time.) At this point, skeptics will retort: “Who designed God’s mind, then?” But complex entities only require a designer if they are composed of distinct parts, which are prior to the whole that they comprise. However, I see no reason why a complex Mind would need to be composed out of parts. The skeptical objection confuses the notion of diversity (which can be fittingly imputed to God) with that of composition (which cannot).
Intelligent Design theory is silent on the question of whether the Designer’s activity merely conserves natural agents in being or whether He actively co-operates with them, in the production of their natural effects. But it seems to me that to rule out active involvement in the world on the part of the Designer would place severe constraints on His creative freedom. The same goes for the requirement that the Designer should never over-ride the laws of Nature – which means that He can never work miracles. A Designer might agree to do that, but there’s no reason why we’d expect Him to. Sometimes He might want to do something different.
None of the proteins and molecular machines in our bodies which Intelligent Design advocates frequently talk about can be deduced from a high-level description of man as a rational animal (or for that matter, a rational primate). Nature, it seems, cannot be understood from the top down. Design itself is a top-down process, but the Designer’s understanding of Nature must be both “top-down” and “bottom-up.”
Intelligent Design has implications for the doctrine of Divine omnipotence, too. ID advocates are fond of pointing out that so-called “bad designs” in Nature only look sub-optimal because they have to satisfy multiple design constraints. The design of the octopus’ eye might look more elegant than ours, but it wouldn’t work for land-dwelling vertebrates whose eyes need lots of oxygen. Skeptics who ask why God couldn’t have made a simpler and more elegant vertebrate eye are engaging in crude picture-thinking: because they can mentally picture a simple eye, they assume that God (being omnipotent) must be able to make it. But their concept is a hazy one, because the vital details regarding how such an eye would supply vertebrates with oxygen have not been supplied. The moral of the story is that we cannot say whether something is possible for God to accomplish without fleshing out all the details, from the bottom up. Top-down picture-thinking just won’t do.
Finally, Intelligent Design has something to say about the problem of evil. In his book, The Edge of Evolution, biochemist Michael Behe persuasively marshals evidence suggesting that the malaria parasite was intelligently designed and then continues:
Whether on balance one thinks life was a worthwhile project or not – whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity – that’s a topic on which opinions over the millennia have differed considerably. Each argument has some merit. Of the many possible opinions, only one is really indefensible, the one held by Darwin…. He decided – based on squeamishness – that no designer existed.
Since Behe is writing as a scientist here and not as a philosopher or theologian, he expresses no personal opinion regarding who designed the malaria parasite. Leading Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski has written a thought-provoking book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), defending his personal view that the cruelty which is rife in the natural world is not the work of God but of Adam, whose sin retroactively caused the entire natural world (which existed for millions of years before Adam) to be plunged into suffering. A variety of views on the origin of natural evil can be found within the Intelligent Design movement. But the one thing on which members can all agree is that these natural evils – at least, the evils we find in the biological world – did not happen as a result of either natural law or chance, or some combination of the two: they were the result of some agent’s design. This is a conclusion which clashes sharply with how many Christians today would like to explain away natural evil: God, they say, is not directly responsible for what Nature brings about over the course of time, so natural evils cannot be laid at God’s doorstep. What Intelligent Design advocates are saying is that this attempt to excuse God is scientifically flawed. You can ascribe natural evils to the will of God (if you like), or to the Fall of Lucifer, or to the Fall of Adam and Eve, or even (if you wish) to interfering aliens; what you cannot do, however, is ascribe them to blind natural processes. That solution simply won’t hold water. Is it any wonder, then, that the Intelligent Design movement arouses active hostility among so many “progressive” Christians?
Where Christians stand on these sixteen questions
How Christians of all stripes have traditionally answered these questions
To illustrate the diversity of opinion that exists among contemporary Christians, I’d like to contrast the way in which they’d answer these questions today with the way in which Christian theologians, doctors and members of the clergy have answered them, down the ages, in accordance with the traditional teaching upheld by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant believers alike. Here are the answers that you would have gotten from mainstream Christians of all stripes (that is, those who subscribe to the teachings of the first four ecumenical councils of the Christian Church), until about 150 years ago:
(1) God is a verb; God in Himself is Pure Being. Only in an analogous sense can He be called “personal.” While it is true to say that He is three persons, the concept of a “person” does not properly express what God is; rather, it tells us who God is: a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (2) God is One Being, with One Mind and One Will: hence we should say that He is one “I” or “self,” Who knows Himself in three fundamentally distinct ways. (3) God’s Mind is altogether simple, and utterly devoid of any internal complexity. (4) God is outside time; He is altogether immutable. And although God creates, conserves and will ultimately redeem the world, these activities add nothing to Him and in no way actualize Him, since He is incapable of being any further actualized than He already is. In that sense, we can say that God is not “really related” to the world. (5) God’s knowledge of the world is totally independent of creatures: He doesn’t need to watch us in order to know what we’re getting up to. (6) God doesn’t merely uphold things; He also actively co-operates with natural agents in bringing about their effects. (7) God can over-ride the laws of nature at will. That’s His privilege, as Creator of the cosmos. (8) God does not require any concepts in order to understand things, let alone linguistic concepts. (9) Opinions differ on whether God’s knowledge of the world is entirely holistic: Thomists would say that each thing has a single form, which God understands from the top down, while other Scholastic philosophers would say that things such as organisms are multi-layered, with several forms, so God knows these things from top to bottom. (10) God can do anything which is not logically contradictory – or at least, anything which is not logically contradictory for an All-Perfect Being to do. This He can make a flying horse but not a square circle or a stone that He cannot lift; also, He cannot tell a lie, or tell someone to worship another deity. (11) In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is part of the infinite goodness of God that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good. God permitted the Fall of Lucifer and the subsequent Fall of Adam and Eve, because He foreknew that out of these events, a greater good would come: the Redemption of the world, through the sacrifice of His Son. (12) God is wholly active and therefore incapable of experiencing anything. Also, He’s an incorporeal spirit, so it makes no sense to speak of Him as seeing anything. (12) God is wholly active and therefore incapable of feeling anything. Nothing that we do has any emotional impact on God. God’s love is not a feeling, but an act of will; the same goes for His joy. (14) Since nothing that we do has any impact on God, it makes no sense to ascribe any negative feelings to God. God does not feel angry, but His actions resemble those of an angry person, insofar as He punishes those who have wronged Him. (15) God does not know what it is like to be me; nor does He need to. He has perfect understanding of our condition, without the need for empathy. (16) God is the Sovereign Lord of creation and therefore has no duties towards any of His creatures.
The contemporary debate among Christians regarding these sixteen questions
Let’s now take a look at the way in which Christians today are thrashing out these sixteen questions.
(1) According to classical theism, God is properly characterized as Being Itself, Truth Itself, Love Itself. Only then can we address the question of whether God is personal – or more specifically tri-personal, as Trinitarians maintain. Popular piety, on the other hand, proceeds from a personalistic notion of God as Someone, rather than from a rarefied notion of God as Pure Being. When parents explain the concept of God to their children, they usually begin by saying: “God is our Heavenly Father,” and then they add that God knows and loves each of us. So who’s right: the parents or the theologians? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle?
(2) Most Christian believers tend to fluctuate between two mental pictures of God. When they are in distress, they may cry out, “God, help me!”, as if there was One “self” or “I” or center of consciousness Who was listening to them. But when praying to the Trinity, they often pray separately to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Whom they seem to address as if they were three distinct centers of consciousness, or three Divine “selves,” or “I”s. I’ve even heard people refer to the Holy Spirit as “the forgotten Paraclete,” because not many prayers are specifically addressed to God the Holy Spirit. It’s almost as if these people picture the Holy Spirit as feeling a bit left out, because so few people pray to Him. What’s going on here? It seems that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a clear answer to this question, either: in its article on the Trinity, the Catholic Encyclopedia declares that in God, “the same mind will have a three-fold consciousness, knowing itself in three ways in accordance with its three modes of existence,” and in a similar vein, the late Catholic theologian Karl Rahner S.J. (1904-1984) explains in his book The Trinity (Burns and Oates, 1970, reprinted 2001, p. 107) that in God, “there are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way,” adding that “There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by Father, Son and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.” But in a recent online article titled, Are there three personalities in God, an “I” of the Father and an “I” of the Son and an “I” of the Holy Spirit?., Fr. Ryan Erlenbusch, a priest of unimpeachable orthodoxy, writes: “Though I will not go so far as to say that there are three “consciousnesses” in the Trinity, I will say that the three “I”s, egos, and personalities in the Trinity are that to which human consciousness may be considered as analogous.” What’s going on here?
(3) As the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser correctly points out in his 2009 article, William Lane Craig on divine simplicity, the doctrine of Divine simplicity, which declares that God is in no way composed of parts, “is absolutely central to the classical theistic tradition, and has been defended by thinkers as diverse as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes.” For Catholics it is “an absolutely binding, infallible, irreformable teaching of the Church, denial of which amounts to heresy,” and for many Protestants, it is also binding, as many historic confessional statements declare that God is “without body, parts or passions.” But theologians have also taught that the Mind of God is capable of containing a multitude of different ideas, which raises the question: how do all these ideas fit inside God’s simple Mind? One commonly given answer is that by knowing Himself, God implicitly knows the various ways in which creatures can participate in His Being. But as I’ll argue below, there seem to be many concepts which can only be expressed in some sort of language, which means that they are inherently complex. So how do we reconcile the Christian teaching on Divine simplicity with the complexity of God’s concepts? If we examine the doctrinal declarations carefully, it turns out that the doctrine of Divine simplicity applies only to the essence of God: thus the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) speaks of God as having “one essence, substance, or nature absolutely simple.” However, Eastern Orthodox theologians distinguish between God’s essence and His operations, or energies – a view which has never been condemned by the other branches of Christendom. Thus it seems that there is nothing to prevent God’s operations from being multiple, even though His essence is simple. Finally, we might ask whether complexity (as measured by the length of a thing’s verbal description) necessarily implies composition (i.e. something’s being made out of parts): only the latter is excluded by most Christian doctrinal statements, which speak of God as being “without body, parts or passions.” Could the Mind of God, then, be complex without being composite?
(4) James 1:17 unambiguously declares that in God there is no shadow of an alteration or change, which is one reason why Christian theologians have always interpreted Scriptural references to God changing His mind in metaphorical terms. Also, if God is mutable, then He is potentially destructible. Christian confessional statements also affirm that God is immutable. But in recent years, Christian theologians such as William Lane Craig have asked: “If God makes a free decision to create this world, then doesn’t that make Him really related to the world? And if He is really related to the temporal world, doesn’t that make Him temporal, too?” Perhaps, these theologians suggest, we should speak of God as omnitemporal (present at all times) rather than atemporal (outside time). A classical theist (such as St. Thomas Aquinas) would reply that God is not really related to this world, but that the world is related to Him: God is already fully actual, so His act of creating the world cannot actualizes Him any further. However, the classical theistic view that God is not really related to His creatures strikes many Christians as very odd, since seems to isolate God from His own creation. So who’s right, Aquinas or Craig? Or does the truth lie in the middle?
(5) As I pointed out above, there is a theological divide going back many centuries regarding how we should envisage God’s foreknowledge of our free choices. On one account (endorsed by Calvinists and to some extent by Banezians as well), God is like the author of a story book, whose characters choose to act in certain ways and who are subsequently rewarded or punished for their deeds, according to the author’s plan. On this view, God knows what we’re up to because He’s writing the story. On another account (the Molinist view), God knows what we’re doing because He knows exactly what each of us would freely choose to do, in every possible situation. On both these accounts, God knows our choices without needing to be informed by us. On the Boethian account, by contrast, God is a timeless spectator of the past, present and future: He is like a watchman in a high tower, with the whole of history laid out before Him, allowing Him to see the future without determining it. The first two accounts seem to be irreconcilable with genuine libertarian freedom: if I have no more freedom than a character in a story book, then even if I am free vis-a-vis the other characters in the story, I am certainly not free vis-a-vis the author: I can only do what she decides that I shall do. And if God knows exactly what I would do in every possible situation, then it makes no sense to say that in a given situation, I could have acted otherwise. On the other hand, most Christian theologians don’t like the Boethian account, because it makes God dependent on creatures for His knowledge of our choices – even if His knowledge is eternally unchanging. So which account of Divine foreknowledge is right? Or are all of them wrong?
(6) The traditional Christian view has always been that God does a lot more than merely conserve creatures in being: He also actively co-operates with natural agents, whenever they bring about an effect. In recent years, however, a growing number of theologians have proposed that God gives a certain level of autonomy to His creation, and that He confines His role to conserving it in being. Nothing could act without Him, but whenever something acts, the action as such belongs entirely to the creature. In that case, there can be no “tinkering” by God with His own creation, which rules out all but the front-loading versions of Intelligent Design and pleases many theistic evolutionists, but at the cost of limiting Divine freedom, as well as Divine agency. On the other hand, if God and creatures jointly bring about effects in the natural world, that seems to make God the author of natural evils – a view which many find theologically uncongenial. Who’s right here?
(7) Ever since the first century, the traditional Christian view has always been that God can over-ride the laws of nature at will, and that He can work miracles whenever He sees fit. But in the mid-nineteenth century, an Anglican divine, Baden Powell, argued for the view that the laws of Nature are God’s covenant with creatures, whereby He promises to remain steadfast in the way He acts. Were God to over-ride these laws, the argument goes, God would be breaking His covenant, and He could therefore not be trusted. The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared to lend a certain legitimacy to this view, and it became widely influential with liberal Protestants, who wanted to deny God’s responsibility for natural evils – in particular, animal suffering. A God Who cannot over-ride the laws of Nature could not be held responsible for the evils resulting from these laws, unless it could be shown that God could have prevented natural evils by making another set of laws. At the other extreme, Evangelicals (and until recently, most Catholics) passionately defend God’s freedom to work miracles when and if He chooses to: He is the Sovereign of creation. So, which picture of God is correct?
(8) To classical theists, the notion that God relies on linguistic concepts in order to understand the things He has made sounds crudely anthropomorphic: God’s understanding of creatures, they maintain, is direct and is therefore not mediated by any mental representations, such as concepts. Nor does God need to reason from premises to a conclusion: He already knows the answer. But it seems difficult to envisage how God can be said to know certain things about me (e.g. that I like pasta, that I am Australian, or that I will live to be a certain age) without believing certain propositions about me to be true, and if He entertains these propositions in His Mind, then He must formulate linguistic concepts, in order to do so. In recent years, certain Christian philosophers have espoused a view known as personalistic theism, which envisages God as thinking thoughts and having a consciousness of His own, not too unlike ours. And while it seems absurd to suppose that God has to reason His way from premises to a conclusion, there does not seem to be an obvious problem with this if God is outside time; for in that case, He is never ignorant. So, which picture of God’s Mind is the correct one?
(9) There is no doctrinal declaration regarding whether God understands things from the top down (i.e. holistically) or whether His understanding is “bottom up” as well. But the former view appears to be more compatible with the doctrine of Divine simplicity, as understood by classical theists, as it declares that God possesses a single, indivisible form for each kind of entity that He understands. But the problem with this view is that there are many things in Nature which can’t be understood in this way. Take the definition of man as a rational animal. Nothing in this high-level description says anything about the human body and what parts it is composed of, or what kind of animal a human being is. To properly grasp what man is, it seems that a multi-level concept of humanity is required: man needs to be understood from top to bottom. So it seems that God’s knowledge of the world is not just top-down, but also bottom-up. But that appears to create problems for the doctrine of Divine simplicity. How can these problems be resolved?
(10) The common view of Christian theologians down the ages has been that God can do whatever is logically possible. The Catholic philosopher Peter Geach carefully distinguished several concepts of omnipotence in a 1973 article titled, “Omnipotence” (available in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 63–75). On its most sophisticated rendering, “God is omnipotent” means that whenever it is logically possible for God to bring about something, then God can indeed bring it about. However, the Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga provided a devastating counter-example to this definition in his book, God and other minds: a study of the rational justification of belief in God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967). Suppose that it is a necessary truth about a certain being, called McEar, that the only action he can possibly perform is scratching his ear. On the definition proposed above, it then follows that, if McEar can scratch his ear, he is omnipotent, despite his inability to do anything else, since He is capable of doing everything that it is logically possible for him to do. Accordingly, some Christian philosophers (including Peter Geach) have concluded that the attempt to define omnipotence is futile. Instead, Geach prefers to simply describe God as almighty, meaning that God is not just more powerful than any creature, but that no creature can compete with God in power, even unsuccessfully. The dispute over omnipotence is not just an academic one: in recent years, New Atheists have argued that the designs we find in living things are inept, and that if a Creator existed, He could have done a much better job of making these creatures. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates reply that living things are subject to numerous design constraints, and that just because we can imagine a more elegant design does not mean that it is possible to create such a design. This invites the question: how wide is the scope of God’s omnipotence, if we can only know what it’s possible for Him to make once we’ve specified it in complete detail from top to bottom?
(11) As we saw above, the traditional view is that “it is part of the infinite goodness of God that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good,” in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas. One major drawback of this view is that it seems to make God a utilitarian: there is, in principle, no limit to the evil which He could allow us to undergo, so long as some “greater good” will ultimately come out of it. And if human beings are indeed “ends-in-themselves,” as Kant would put it, then it cannot be right for God to use one human being’s suffering as the means to bring about the welfare of another human being. But if, on the other hand, we say that God is unable to prevent the natural evils which occur in the world, then we might reasonably ask: why? What’s stopping Him? And if God’s power is limited, then how can he be omnipotent?
(12) According to classical theism, God is an incorporeal spirit, so it makes no sense to speak of Him as seeing anything, let alone the color green. But if God cannot see the color green, then it seems that He does not know everything that we know about green objects: we have a subjective, first-person knowledge of green which He lacks. Is a first-person perspective required for God to have a complete knowledge of the world? And if it isn’t, then how does God circumvent the need for a first-person perspective?
(13) On the classical view, insofar as we can ascribe joy and love to God, we can only ascribe them in an active sense. Since God is Pure Act, He cannot be said to feel anything, and so it makes no sense to ask “what it is like” to be God. But even among Scholastic philosophers, the view that God is an Unmoved Mover is controversial: some argue instead that Aquinas’ famous argument for the existence of an Unmoved Mover only establishes the existence of a Self-Actualizing Actualizer, or a Being Who can actualize other beings without needing to be actualized by any other being. And if God is self-actualizing rather than unactualized, then He might be capable of actualizing Himself, by generating His own feelings. On this view, then, God would be capable of feeling joy and love; but the difference between His feelings and ours are that His are entirely voluntary and self-generated, whereas ours are largely involuntary reactions to what happens to us.
(14) According to classical theism, God has no feelings, so He cannot be said to have negative feelings either. Moreover, anger properly denotes a bodily passion, so the only sense in which we can ascribe anger to God is a metaphorical one, based on a likeness in the effects: God punishes wrongdoers, just as an angry man punishes the objects of his wrath. But this view of God’s anger seems rather bloodless: as the American Presbyterian preacher Charles Finney once asked, “What would you think of a judge who did not hate and oppose law-breakers?” Moreover, we have seen, the argument that God is incapable of having feelings makes the questionable assumption that He is wholly active. What if, instead, God is capable of generating His own feelings – both positive and negative – in response to the choices His creatures make?
(15) Classical theists would maintain that God does not know what it is like to be me; nor does He need to. But if He doesn’t, then how can He fully empathize with us? Can a non-empathetic God really understand the plight of His creatures, if His knowledge about us is entirely third-person, objective knowledge, as opposed to first-person, subjective knowledge?
(16) Christian theologians have consistently taught that God is the Sovereign Lord of creation and therefore has no duties towards any of His creatures. But that view runs into problems: it seems to entail that no matter how much suffering God inflicts on an innocent human being (e.g. a newborn baby), it is impossible for Him to wrong that person. It also seems to entail that God could order one human being to do literally anything to another human being – murder, rape, torture or unnatural sex – without committing any injustice whatsoever. Defenders of Divine Sovereignty have a ready answer to these objections: God, they argue, is all-good, and could never inflict any harm on an innocent human being unless it was for the sake of their (or someone else’s) long-term good; nor could He order anyone to harm another human being unless it was for their (or someone else’s) long-term benefit. Also, God could never order any human being to perform an unnatural act, as that would run contrary to human nature, of which He is the Author. The problem with this defense is that it is utilitarian: it would allow God to inflict an unlimited degree of suffering on a particular human being – or to order someone else to inflict the same suffering on the individual in question – provided that it was necessary for the “greater good” of the human race. Another problem with this defense is that while it rules out the possibility of God ordering someone to commit unnatural acts, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of Him ordering one person to kill or torture another, as these acts are not contrary to human nature as such. But if God has certain duties towards His human creatures, then what binds Him to perform these duties? What could possibly bind God?
To give an example of how much diversity exists among contemporary Christians in the answers they would give to these sixteen questions, I’d like to cite myself as an example. I consider myself a practicing Catholic, although I certainly wouldn’t call myself a good one, by any stretch of the imagination. I assent to the doctrinal teachings of my Church, and I believe that the answers that I give below are compatible with Church doctrine. However, I am in complete agreement with only three of the traditional answers to the sixteen questions listed above – namely, answers (2), (6) and (7). Here’s how I would answer these questions: (1) God is both a noun and a verb; God (the Father) is Someone Whose Nature is to know and love perfectly; the Son and Spirit are the Father’s knowledge and love of Himself. (2) Since God is One Being, with One Mind and One Will, it follows that God has one “I” or “self,” and that God is conscious of Himself in three uniquely different ways. Following the theologians Rahner and Panikkar, I would also add that we can speak of the Son as the “self” of the Father. (3) God’s Mind is rich and complex, but not composite: God is not made out of parts. The complexity of God’s mind is (timelessly) self-generated by His choice to create the cosmos and the creatures that inhabit it. (4) God’s knowledge of the world is dependent on His creatures; He is timelessly informed of everything they do. This in no way detracts from God’s dignity, since God chose to give creatures the power to inform Him (timelessly) of whatever happens to them. (5) God is outside time, but He is really related to the temporal world: His free choice to create this world timelessly actualizes Him in a way in which He would not be actualized, if He were to create a different world or no world at all. (6) God doesn’t merely uphold things; He also actively co-operates with natural agents in bringing about their effects. (7) God can over-ride the laws of nature at will. That’s His privilege, as Creator of the cosmos. (8) God requires linguistic concepts in order to understand things. He also reasons (timelessly) from premises to their conclusions. This in no way detracts from His dignity: it merely implies that God (timelessly) knows some facts because He knows other, more basic facts. (9) Things are multi-layered, and therefore cannot be understood from the top down. (10) The scope of God’s omnipotence can’t be defined in the abstract: we can’t know whether God can bring about a given state of affairs unless its details are fully specified. (11) God’s permission of natural evils cannot be justified in utilitarian terms, by appealing to some “greater good”: the only possible justification for God’s non-intervention is that He is bound by pre-existing, over-riding obligations which prevent Him from eliminating these evils immediately, although He will ultimately eradicate them. Briefly: I (tentatively) follow C. S. Lewis in thinking that God originally made Lucifer the “lord” of this world (Earth) by making him responsible for overseeing day-to-day events taking place on this planet, and by giving him a limited degree of autonomy over the world of living things – a freedom which included allowing Him to put some artistic “finishing touches” to God’s original designs for living creatures. However, Lucifer rejected God, misusing the freedom given to him by fouling up Nature and by introducing a great many natural evils that were not part of God’s plan – which might explain the existence of some very nasty natural evils which make absolutely no sense in the greater scheme of things, such as animals that rape and practice casual infanticide and other unnatural acts, and malaria parasites that kill people. I also believe that God bestowed upon our first parents, Adam and Eve, the responsibility for deciding the scope of Divine providence in ordinary human affairs. In their pride, Adam and Eve chose personal autonomy, knowing that it would entail death and suffering for the entire human race: basically, they told God to butt out of everyday human affairs, leaving Him free to intervene only for very special reasons. To skeptics who would object that God should never have given such enormous responsibilities to Lucifer, Adam and Eve in the first place, I would suggest that it is simply impossible for God to make intelligent beings without offering them an allotted sphere or domain in which they can legitimately exercise their freedom: that is what makes them who they are. As the first parents of the human race, Adam and Eve had to have the responsibility for deciding whether they wanted the human race to be protected by God’s Providence or whether to reject God and go it alone. And to skeptics who would retort that an omniscient Being should have known how Lucifer, Adam and Eve would decide, and should therefore have refrained from making them in the first place, I would reply that God’s knowledge of how Lucifer, Adam and Eve would choose to act is indeed timeless, but logically consequent on His original promises to them. God, having promised to grant Lucifer, Adam and Eve these responsibilities, could not go back on His Word, but because He is all-wise, He will eventually checkmate the forces of evil, at the end of time. In fact, ever since the Redemption of mankind was accomplished at Calvary, human history has already entered its “end-game.” (12) Although God is incorporeal, I believe He is capable of experiencing qualia in some fashion: He has a rich “inner life” which exceeds anything we can imagine. (13) God is capable of feeling affections such as love and joy, but His affections are voluntary, and no creature can control God’s feelings. (14) I’m inclined to think that God is capable of hate and anger, as well, and that these feelings in no way interfere with His perfect and tranquil joy. (15) I’m inclined to think that God can fully empathize with us: He knows us “from the inside”, but without feeling any of the delight that His creatures may take in sinful acts. (16) God is indeed the Sovereign Lord of creation, but He is also our Father, by His own free choice; as such, He has the (self-imposed) duty to treat His children as ends-in-themselves.
Many of the answers I have given above are probably wrong, and I offer them tentatively. Readers are welcome to disagree with them. The point I want to make, however, is that an enormous diversity of theological opinion exists within the various Christian churches (including the Catholic Church), and I don’t see that diversity shrinking anytime soon.
So, do Christians worship the same God?
Given the sheer diversity of opinion among Christians on the sixteen issues that I described above, it would be absurd to claim that Christians all worship the same God. Clearly, they don’t. A God Who has to be conceived in personalistic terms isn’t the same God as a God Who can be properly characterized as Being Itself. A God with one “self” or center of consciousness isn’t the same as a God with three “selves” or centers of consciousness. A God Who is really related to this world is not the same God as one Who isn’t. A God Who is wholly active and incapable of being informed by His creatures isn’t the same God as One Who chooses to endow His creatures with the ability to make Him aware of their choices. A God Who isn’t capable of having feelings – let alone empathizing with anyone – isn’t the same God as one Who is. And a God Who can work miracles isn’t the same God as one Who can’t.
At the end of this post, I’d invite my readers to consider the question: what needs to be done, to reduce these areas of disagreement among Christians? I’d like to put forward a few modest proposals of my own.
First, Christians need to agree on what God is not. Happily, there is still a high level of agreement among Christians on this question: God is not corporeal, or composed of parts, or present at some places and times but not others, or capable of changing His Mind, or finite, or ignorant of the past, present or future. He is not dependent on other beings for His existence; the world is His free creation. And among mainstream Christians, it is still generally agreed that God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Second, Christians need to re-affirm the positive aspects of their faith: God knows and loves each of us; God freely chose to create this world as an act of love; humans rejected God’s free gift, but God sent His Son to redeem fallen humanity. Christians need to keep these facts in mind, so as to avoid acrimony in their theological disputes.
Third, Christians should be very careful of using the word “heresy” as a label for views that they disagree with. An unconventional view that reinterprets traditional beliefs in a novel way is not the same as an iconoclastic view that completely rejects those beliefs. Having said that, Christians should recognize that there are certain beliefs about God that are fundamentally incompatible with Christian teaching.
Fourth, Christians need to accept that any progress they make in resolving these theological issues will be slow: it may take decades, or even centuries. This should not be an excuse for inaction, however: the worst thing of all would be not to even try to resolve the theological divisions that exist among Christians, even within the same denomination.
Fifth, Christians should not shrink from taking the bold step of calling an ecumenical council, in order to resolve some of their theological differences. It really is a scandal when Christians cannot make up their minds whether the God Whom they worship is one “self” or three “selves,” one center of consciousness or three. It is a scandal when Christians cannot agree on whether God is really related to the world or not. It is a scandal when Christians cannot agree on whether God has feelings or not. And it is a scandal when Christians cannot agree on whether God has any duties towards His creatures or not. Christians need to resolve these issues. If an ecumenical council is called, however, it should be truly ecumenical: Christians of many denominations – at least, those which accept the declarations of the first four ecumenical councils – should be welcome to attend and actively participate.
Lastly, Christians should be aware that while Christian doctrine is capable of being elaborated and developed over the course of time, as the circumstances require – witness the introduction of a hitherto novel term, homoousios, into Christian professions of faith during the fourth century – it can never be changed. We cannot set aside the doctrinal declarations of the past, though we may need to reinterpret them.
Well, I’ve said my piece, and I’d now like to throw the discussion open. What do readers think?
APPENDIX: An In-depth Discussion of the Sixteen Questions Which Divide Christians
Note: The opinions I defend below are tentative, and I make them, knowing full well that many of them may be mistaken.
1. Is God a noun or a verb? Should we think of Him first and foremost as a Tri-Personal Being Who knows and loves perfectly, or is He best characterized as Being Itself, Truth Itself, Love Itself?
My comment: Popular piety tends to identify strongly with the first view: most people tend to think of God as Someone Who is watching over me. However, it is the second view which corresponds to the classical theism that developed during the Middle Ages: on this view, God is Being Itself, Truth Itself, Love Itself. That sounds very uplifting, but it invites an obvious question: if God is Love, then what does it mean to say that “God loves Himself,” as He surely does? Love loves love? Huh? And if God is Being Itself, then how are we to construe the specific statements about God that Christians believe? Should we say that Being is Three Persons, or that Being commanded the Israelites to keep the Sabbath? Some apophatic theologians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition go even further, describing God as “beyond Being.” That sort of talk, I have to say, leaves me cold.
On the other hand, describing God purely as an agent has its problems, too. For if knowing and loving are merely things that God does rather than what God essentially is, then that seems to entail that God can be characterized apart from these activities. But it is hard to see what would be left of the concept of God, if we took knowing and loving away.
Perhaps the best thing to say is that God is both a noun and a verb: He is a Being Who knows and loves because it is His Nature to do so. On this view, knowing and loving are part and parcel of God’s essence, because they are activities that He naturally performs. Thus God is Someone, but He is Someone Whose nature is to know and love.
Knowing and loving are always acts performed by someone: there’s no getting around that. At the same time, it is impossible to characterize the “Someone” Who is God, without invoking His activities of knowing and loving. Fortunately, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity offers a perfect way out of this impasse: the Divine Someone is the Father, and His personal knowledge of Himself is the Son, while His personal love of Himself is the Holy Spirit.
2. Does God have one center of consciousness, one “self” and one “I”, or three centers of consciousness, three “selves” and three “I’s”?
Before we can answer this question, we first need to establish that it is meaningful to speak of God as having a “self,” and “ego,” or for that matter, a “center of consciousness.” In recent times, some popular Christian writers, swayed by the influence of New Age thinking and Eastern religions, have begun to deny that God has a “self” or “ego.” To these Christians, the notion of a Divine Self sounds anthropomorphic. For instance, the Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore writes that “God has no ‘self’ apart from me, no self ‘before he met me,’ no self into which he retreats leaving me in myself.” However, since Christians of all stripes have always agreed that God has an intellect, it would be absurd to deny that God possesses consciousness of some sort, albeit a consciousness which is utterly unlike our own. And since God repeatedly speaks of Himself as “I” in the Bible, it would be extremely difficult for a Christian to deny that God has a “self” of some sort. The Christian theologians St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas, who are generally reckoned as the greatest theologian in the history of Christianity, both ascribed “selfhood” to God. There is a famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5) in which the saint declares: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Contra Gentiles (Book I, Chapter 45): “God’s act of understanding, therefore, is His essence, it is the divine being, God Himself. For God is His essence and His being,” later adding that “God Himself is truth” (Book I, Chapter 60).
Applying the word “ego” to God is more controversial, as many people associate it with a personal need for self-gratification or self-exaltation over others. But if “ego” simply denotes a person’s consciousness of him/herself, then it would appear to follow that God, Who understands everything perfectly, must have an ego as well.
Concerning whether there is One Divine Self or three Divine selves, there is currently an enormous division of opinion here among Christians. Some years ago, the Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne defended a model of the Trinity according to which it is a necessary truth that if there are any divine individuals at all, there will be three and only three of them. Swinburne defines a divine individual as one who is ‘necessarily perfectly free, omniscient, omnipotent, and existing of metaphysical necessity’ as well as perfectly good. The second and third divine individuals, according to Swinburne, timelessly derive their existence from the first. Each of these individuals has a mind and will of its own. The philosopher Edward Feser trenchantly criticized this view in an article titled, Swinburne’s Tritheism (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 42: 175?184, 1997). Feser concludes:
We see, then, that Swinburne’s account fails, not only as an attempt to demonstrate the coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity, but even as an attempt to state the content of the doctrine. For if Swinburne’s a priori arguments concerning the nature of God were convincing, they would, it turns out, constitute a strong case for Tritheism, and thereby serve to undermine Trinitarianism. This is, no doubt, not a result Swinburne would be comfortable with. It is, then, perhaps fortunate for him that those arguments are not convincing.
The Christian apologist William Lane Craig has recently declared that there are three distinct centers of consciousness in God, adding that “God is a soul who is endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties, each of which is sufficient for personhood.” To me, I have to say, that sounds like tritheism. Christian philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder feels the same way – see his article, Trinity Monotheism (Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 396) and see here for Craig’s reply.
As a Catholic who read a lot of Aquinas’ writings in my youth, I took it for granted that the Catholic answer to this question was that God has One Self, because He has One Intellect and One Will. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on the Trinity, addresses the question as follows:
The theory of relations also indicates the solution to the difficulty now most frequently proposed by anti-Trinitarians. It is urged that since there are Three Persons there must be three self-consciousnesses: but the Divine mind ex hypothesi is one, and therefore can possess but one self-consciousness; in other words, the dogma contains an irreconcilable contradiction. This whole objection rests on a petitio principii: for it takes for granted the identification of person and of mind with self-consciousness. This identification is rejected by Catholic philosophers as altogether misleading. Neither person nor mind is self-consciousness; though a person must needs possess self-consciousness, and consciousness attests the existence of mind (see PERSONALITY). Granted that in the infinite mind, in which the categories are transcended, there are three relations which are subsistent realities, distinguished one from another in virtue of their relative opposition then it will follow that the same mind will have a three-fold consciousness, knowing itself in three ways in accordance with its three modes of existence.
That seems to suggest that God has one “self” but that He knows Himself in three fundamentally distinct ways, which the article refers to as “modes of existence.” (By contrast, the heresy of Modalism, or Sabellianism, doesn’t ascribe three modes of existence to God; what it claims is that God reveals Himself to us in three different ways.) And I might add that the renowned Catholic theologian Karl Rahner S.J. (1904-1984) states in his book The Trinity (Burns and Oates, 1970, reprinted 2001, p. 107) that in God, “there are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way,” adding that “There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by Father, Son and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.” Case closed – or so I thought.
A few years ago, however, I was deeply shocked to discover a Catholic priest, Fr. Erlenbusch (whose orthodoxy, I might add, is absolutely unimpeachable) arguing that there are three “I’s” in the Trinity: see his article, Are there three personalities in God, an “I” of the Father and an “I” of the Son and an “I” of the Holy Spirit?. Fr. Erlenbusch made it clear that God has only one intellect and one will, but he favored the view that we should speak of three “I”s in God, because there are three Divine persons. To back up his case, Fr. Erlenbusch cited two particular passages from Scripture – “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26) and “And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee” (John 17:5) – and he concluded his article: “Though I will not go so far as to say that there are three “consciousnesses” in the Trinity, I will say that the three “I”s, egos, and personalities in the Trinity are that to which human consciousness may be considered as analogous.”
I would like to point out, however, that when God speaks to man in the Bible, He nearly always refers to Himself as “I.” And while God does say, “Let us make man in our image” in Genesis 1:26, Genesis also goes on to say: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created Him” (singular pronoun). The reference to “us” in Genesis 1:26 may simply be God using the royal “we.” Furthermore, while Jesus does indeed address the Father as “you” in John 17:5, He also declares: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). So the witness of Scripture cuts both ways. Finally, I might point out that if God is three “I’s”, then when He was revealing Himself to Moses, He should have said, “We are Who We are,” rather than what he actually said: “I am Who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
On balance, then, Biblical evidence seems to strongly favor the notion of one self, one “I” and one center of consciousness in God. Reason points towards the same conclusion.
3. Is God’s Mind internally complex, or altogether simple?
My comment: For 2,000 years, Christian theologians have steadfastly maintained that God is simple. Nevertheless, the traditional view that God is utterly simple has been vigorously challenged in recent years by eminent Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, although it also has its stalwart defenders, such as Edward Feser. Catholic doctrine (the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215) affirm that God is utterly simple in His essence, while Protestant doctrinal statements (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith) affirm that God is “without body, parts or passions.” However, these statements leave open the question of whether God’s (utterly simple) essence is identical with or distinct from His (multiple) operations or energies, as many Eastern Orthodox theologians (beginning with Gregory Palamas) have maintained since the fourteenth century. Given that God’s Being is necessary, while at least some of God’s operations are contingent acts, it seems that we must posit a distinction between God’s essence and His operations.
God’s contingent acts (including His thoughts) are therefore multiple. Is this enough to resolve the problem? I don’t think so. Thoughts, after all, are supposed to be in the mind of the knower, and God’s Mind is His very essence, since His Nature is to know and love perfectly. So it seems as if we have to affirm multiplicity in the Divine essence – something definitively ruled out by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which decreed that God is absolutely simple in His essence, as well as by various Protestant confessional statements which affirm that God is “without body, parts or passions.”
Two senses of the word “simple”
As a way of resolving this theological impasse, I would like to make a clarifying observation. The contemporary theological debate over Divine simplicity overlooks the fact that the word “simple” has two opposites: complex (or diverse and multi-faceted) and composite (or made up of parts which are logically prior to the whole that they compose). The Christian Church has consistently affirmed that God is in no way composite: He has no parts. However, as far as I can tell, it has never adjudicated on the question of whether the Mind of God is complex.
What holds God’s complex Mind together?
Nevertheless, the complexity of God’s Mind must be fully integrated, before we can describe Him as simple and indivisible. What holds God’s complex Mind together? In other words, how can God’s Mind be complex without having parts? To answer this question, we need to remember that it is God’s thoughts about His creation that require Him to have multiple ideas corresponding to the various forms of the things He has made (for more on this, see my discussion of question 8 below). However, since God Himself has no need for such ideas, His mental act of generating these ideas is entirely the result of His free decision to create. God had an over-arching plan when He decided to create the world; consequently, His ideas must be organized in a way that reflects this unity of plan. Some of God’s ideas will necessarily be arranged in a logical sequence, corresponding to God’s perfect train of thought which produces things in a preordained sequence and which foresees all consequences that may eventuate. Other ideas will be inter-connected, like a web – for example, God’s fundamental designs for creation. The point, however, is that ideas do not exist in splendid isolation from each other, like Platonic forms: they are perfectly integrated in God’s over-arching plan for the world. And this is the reason why we can say that God’s Mind, although diverse and complex in the ideas it generates, is not composite.
The complexity of God’s Mind, then, is not merely the irreducible complexity that we find in molecular machines, but something more profound: it is an integrated complexity in which each idea is connected to every related idea, in the Divine plan. Moreover, this complexity is self-generated on God’s part, from the perfect unity of God’s Mind. If God did not choose to create, His mind would be utterly devoid of complexity. In choosing to create a world, God thereby makes His own Mind internally complex, by generating the ideas that He needs in order to make a cosmos; however, the complexity of God’s Mind is integrated by the Divine plan for the cosmos. Hence we can affirm that God’s Mind, although complex, is non-composite and hence simple.
4. Is God completely outside of time (atemporal) or is He temporal? And does God actualize Himself when He decides to create, thereby making Him really related to the temporal world? Or should we say instead that while creatures are really related to their Creator, God is not really related to His creatures?
My comment: A superficial reading of the Bible might give one the impression that God frequently changes His Mind: on the other hand, in Malachi 3:6, God unambiguously declares, “I am the Lord and I change not,” and James 1:17 tells us that in God there is no shadow of an alteration or change. From an Intelligent Design standpoint, of course, the discussion is moot: it makes no difference from a design perspective whether we conceive of the Designer as changing His designs over the course of time, or as standing outside time and introducing new designs as the occasion demands.
However, the traditional Christian view is that God is beyond space and time, and various Christian doctrinal statements affirm that God is altogether immutable. God is atemporal: He did not decide one day to make the world, but rather, He decided from all eternity to create a world. Nor did God suddenly decide to become incarnate as a man: rather, God, viewing the fall of Adam from His Divine perspective outside time, decided from all eternity to become incarnate as a man.
In recent years, the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has championed an alternative view, according to which God is atemporal in Himself, but omnitemporal (present at all times and places) with respect to His own creation. Craig argues that at Creation, God entered into a new relation which He did not have before. In his online article, Timelessness and Omnitemporality, Craig argues that since God makes a free decision to create this temporal world, He must be really related to it, and if He is really related to the temporal world, then He must be temporal. In a similar vein, the philosopher Richard Swinburne argues that if God is personal, then He must be in some sense within time.
I have to say that I find these arguments for God’s temporality less than convincing: instead of says that God enters into a new relation (with creatures) at the Creation, as Craig suggests, it seems better to say that God enters into a timeless but contingent relation, which He would not have if He did not choose to create this world. On my view, God’s relation with the world He chooses to create is indeed real, but not temporal. In recent years, other Christian philosophers, such as Paul Helm and Katherin Rogers, have vigorously defended the traditional view that God is atemporal (see here for a discussion).
Why God must be really related to the world
However, I think Craig is surely right when he argues that God, as Creator of the cosmos, has a real relation with the world, which He would not possess if He did not choose to create this world. Classical theists’ attempts to deny this obvious fact appear to me to be utterly absurd. Following a distinction originally proposed by philosopher Peter Geach, some Thomist philosophers have suggested that the act of maintaining something in existence is a mere “Cambridge property” which entails no change in God, and does not require Him to enter into any real relation with the creatures Whom He maintains in existence. But the point here is not whether it entails a change in God, but whether it (timelessly) actualizes Him in a way that He would not have been actualized, had He not chosen to conserve that thing in being. And to this question, it seems that the answer must be “Yes.” A person who chooses to write a book enters into a relation which she would not have, if she hadn’t made that decision, and in so doing, she becomes an author. God’s action is of course timeless, but He is the Author of creation, and He would not be an Author if He did not choose to create. God’s timeless decision to create therefore actualizes Him ion a way in which He otherwise would not be actualized: it makes Him a Creator. And that’s a real relation.
Putting it more personally: will anyone claim that a parent’s relation to their child is not a real one? And isn’t God our Heavenly Father?
Classical theists also argue that since God in Himself is fully actualized, He is therefore incapable of further actualizing Himself by any contingent decisions that He makes, such as His decision to make this world. This argument strikes me as fallacious, as it fails to distinguish between the various senses of the term “fully actualized.” The term might refer to the radical claim that God is actualized in every way that it is possible for a Deity to be actualized. Or it simply refer to the more modest claim that the essence of God is complete in itself, requiring nothing else to actualize it. Since the activity of creation refers not to God’s essence but to God’s contingent operations (see my discussion of Question 3 above), then we can still speak of God as being fully actualized, in the second sense of the term.
My own belief, then, is that God is indeed atemporal. However, I don’t think that Craig’s view should not be condemned as unorthodox, since he affirms that God is atemporal without His act of creation. On the other hand, the view espoused by process theology, which places God completely within the stream of events, is fundamentally at odds with Christian orthodoxy. Finally, I would argue strongly that God is timelessly but really related to His creatures: the traditional, classical view that God is atemporal but that He has no real relation to this world makes no sense to me whatsoever.
5. Is God a timeless spectator of His creatures’ actions in the past, present and future, or is He wholly active, and hence aware of what His creatures do without needing to be informed by them? Putting it another way, can God design His creatures with a built-in capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of what they choose to do, or is He inherently incapable of being informed by His own creatures, since a creature cannot actualize its Creator?
My comment: Classical theism maintains that God is impassible, or incapable of being affected by anyone or anything, as it would be absurd to suppose that a mere creature was capable of exerting any kind of causal power over the Creator. Additionally, various Christian doctrinal statements teach that God is impassible, or “without passions.” At the same time, Christian parents commonly tell their children that “God sees all,” and the implication here is that God is somehow informed by what He sees, which means that creatures do, after all, have the power to influence the Creator. In recent years, a “compromise view” has emerged, which construes the doctrine of Divine impassibility to mean that creatures have no power to control the actions or feelings of their Creator, or to make Him suffer in any way. Such a view is entirely consistent with the notion that God might choose to endow His creatures with the built-in capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of whatever befell them. On this scenario, creatures would have the (God-given) power to make their Creator timelessly aware of events in the past, present and future, but they would have no power to control His choices or actions, or to make Him suffer pain.
Does God know our choices by determining them, or by having an exhaustive knowledge of what we would do in every possible situation, or by being timelessly made aware of them? Let us look at the various options that have been proposed.
(a) Theological Determinism, or Universal Predestination (the later Augustine, Domingo Banez and John Calvin)
There is a great deal of diversity in the outlook of theologians who have supported universal predestination, but the central idea is this: God knows each and every person’s choices (past, present and future) simply by making them happen, either by positively acting in a way that determines our choices or by negatively refraining from making us choose the right thing, knowing that this will guarantee that we will choose the wrong thing. Nevertheless, because we are beings who possess reason, and because we act willingly when God makes us choose in a certain way, our actions can still be described as free, and as genuinely our own. A universal predestinationist would therefore say that God’s foreknowledge of our choices does not logically presuppose that we have made those choices, but is instead logically prior to them, and that God does indeed determine our choices.
Recently, some Thomist philosophers have defended the predestinatonist account, by appealing an “author-storybook metaphor.” On this view, God’s causality is like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way. Consequently, “His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.”
Now, there is certainly a legitimate sense in which we can speak of the characters in one of J. K. Rowling’s stories as making free choices, and as getting their just deserts for their good or bad deeds. It might therefore seem that God could justly reward or punish us (the characters in His story) for our good or bad deeds.
Nevertheless, I think there are two fatal flaws in this modern defense of the predestinationist account. The first flaw is that if it is true, then it would be utterly inconsistent of God, as the author of our actions, to praise us for our good choices, or find fault with us for our bad ones. And yet, as Christians, we believe that God does just that. (In Matthew 25: 31-46, the parable of the last judgement, God finds fault with the goats for not helping the needy.) An author may like or dislike one of his or her characters, but an author cannot logically find fault with one of his or her characters and say to that character, “You should not have done that.” After all, it was the author who made the character act in that way, since the author wrote the story that way. And while the characters in a story can be described as free vis-a-vis each other, they are most certainly not free vis-a-vis their author, who decides what they shall do and thereby determines their choices.
The second problem with predestinationism is that if God decides to damn some people, then His decision to create them in the first place is morally indefensible. It is all very well to say that although their actions are ordained by God, they nevertheless go to Hell freely. The problem is that on this account, it is God who creates the people that go to Hell; moreover, God is the author of the decisions that send these people to Hell; thus God does everything that is needed to ensure their damnation.
I regard this unpalatable consequence of predestinationism as a theological reductio ad absurdum. For this reason, I find the modern defence of universal predestination unpersuasive.
(b) Molinism (and Suarezianism)
Molinists maintain that God’s foreknowledge of our choices does not logically presuppose that we have made those choices, but is instead logically prior to them; and that God does not determine our choices.
How can God’s foreknowledge of our choices be prior to those choices if God does not determine them? According to Molinists, God creates this world by selecting from a vast array of possible worlds, populated by possible people (including you and me). God knows what each of us would freely choose to do in each possible world, in any given situation. God then selects one of these possible worlds, and decides to create it. In the actual world, our decisions are free, but God foreknows them, because He has chosen the actual world (and all its outcomes) from all the possible worlds He could have made.
Because Molinism affirms that we have free-will in a strong, libertarian sense, and denies that God ordains anyone’s damnation, the Molinist account sounds far more compassionate than theological determinism, and it certainly has many able modern defenders. William Lane Craig is the best-known contemporary exponent of the Molinist view. In his defense of Molinism, Craig points out that we routinely affirm counterfactuals regarding the free choices we have made – for instance, I might say that if I had failed to complete high school, I would have become a chef, instead of going on to university as I did. Hence, the idea that God knows what we would do in every possible situation is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
One problem I (and many other philosophers) have with Molinism is that any plausible counterfactuals regarding what I would have chosen invariably turn out to be grounded in some prior, actual fact about me, which is then taken as a given when stating the counterfactual. For instance, my statement that if I had failed to complete high school, I would have become a chef, presupposes that I had actually formulated a back-up plan to become a chef in the event of my failing to complete high school. Thus it seems that cases like these do not help Craig, as Molinism requires God to know the truth of a very large number of counterfactuals that are not grounded in any actual facts: namely, the entire range of choices that each of us would make in any possible situation. On the Molinist account, God’s knowledge of these choices is logically prior to our actual existence! God knows everything that each of us would do, before we even exist! The natural question that springs to mind is, “How does God know all this?” The answer given by Molinist William Craig is that the ground for God’s knowing what I would do in every possible situation is simply the brute fact that that is indeed how I would act in that situation. Indeed, in a recent online essay, Molinist John DePoe attempted to turn the tables on sceptics of the Molinist account, by arguing that since God is essentially omniscient, it makes no sense to ask how He knows what we would do in every possible situation. He knows because He’s God, and that’s all we can say.
However, the objection is not that God could not know these counterfactuals, but that it is absurd to even posit such counterfactuals, because they put the metaphysical cart before the horse. It makes no sense to speak of what I would do in a given situation (e.g. what I would do if I were presented with an opportunity to steal), unless I actually exist in the first place. Molinism says that God knows what I would do, before I even exist: more precisely, God’s knowldege of what I would choose in every possible situation is logically prior to His act of creating me.
A second and more serious objection to Molinism is that I do not believe that it gets God off the hook when it comes to damnation. If Molinism is true, people are no freer than under Universal Predestination. For if (as Molinism maintains) it is true that for any choice that I actually make in a given situation, that was the choice I would have made in that situation, then there is no meaningful sense in which I could have chosen otherwise in that situation. The Molinist may reply that God does not cause my choice; but I would argue that in fact, by knowingly choosing to create a world, whose built-in specifications include the fact that I will make that choice, then He does in fact cause my choice. And if God, in choosing which possible world He should actualize, selects one in which He knows certain individuals will be damned because of decisions that they would make, then God has already ensured the damnation of those individuals, simply by deciding to create that world. Consequently, if people are damned for their bad choices in this world, they are no more responsible for their own damnation than they would be if Universal Predestination were true. Is such a God any more merciful than the God who predestines everything? I think not.
My final objection to Molinism is that it does not preserve libertarian free-will, as it claims to do. For if God knows exactly what I would do in every possible situation, then it makes no sense to say that in a given situation, I could have acted otherwise. Given the antecedent conditions which define that situation, it is infallibly certain that I will make one specific choice, and no other. That’s not libertarian freedom.
I conclude, then, that Molinism offers no advantage over the universal double predestination advocated by St. Augustine in the fifth century, and by Domingo Banez and John Calvin in the sixteenth century. I now turn to the Boethian solution.
(c) Boethius’ solution: God knows our future choices because He can see the past, present and future from a timeless vantage point
On the Boethian account of Divine foreknowledge, God is like a watcher on a high hill, Who sees all of history – past, present and future – laid out before Him. He can see our choices from an eternal, timeless perspective; nevertheless, our choices are entirely free. God does not in any way determine our choices; rather, His knowledge is (timelessly) determined by our making those choices.
One advantage of the Boethian account is that it acquits God of all responsibility for the damnation of any human being. If some people are damned because of the choices they have made, then God only knows this after the fact, logically speaking (not temporally, as God is outside time). All He does is reluctantly acquiesce in the decisions that wicked people make at the end of their lives, to eternally separate ourselves from him.
The Boethian account has been defended by John Wesley and C. S. Lewis, and it is also popular among Christian laypeople. Strangely, most Christian theologians have rejected the Boethian account for a variety of reasons, none of which I find convincing.
According to the Boethian account, God timelessly knows everything we will do, but He is still dependent on us for this information: from His timeless standpoint, He has to “see” – or more accurately, be informed of – what we in fact decide to do. Certain theologians object to the notion of God’s depending on creatures for anything. In reply, it could be argued that this “limitation” is self-imposed: in creating free agents, God timelessly chooses to rely on them for His knowledge of what they do.
Another point that needs to be made in this context is that God’s depending on others for information is actually a perfection on that God’s part, rather than an imperfection. For this dependency is what enables intercessory prayer to occur. Prayer is a conversation between two parties: God and the creature praying to Him. If God is pulling the strings, either by making us act (and pray) as we do, then we are not really conversing with Him, and His responsiveness to His creatures’ needs cannot be made manifest.
Other defenders of classical theism have argued that Boethius’ solution is at odds with the traditional idea that God is impassible – i.e. incapable by nature of being affected by what His creatures do, either inside or outside of time. How could our actions impact on God? Two points in reply: (i) difficult as this is to conceive, it is much less absurd than supposing that an essentially perfect Being could make a creature without automatically knowing what it was doing at any given time; (ii) it is wrong to say that our actions impact on God; rather, we should say that when God makes a free rational agent, it is somehow “coupled” to God in such a way that the agent’s choices automatically determine the content of God’s (timeless) beliefs about the agent’s choices.
Other theologians regard the Boethian account as insufficient for Divine Providence to work properly, since according to this account, although God has a timeless knowledge of all our choices, God only knows our choices “after the fact” – i.e. His knowledge of our choices is logically (not temporally) posterior to those choices. However, in creating the world, God makes providential plans that are logically prior to any choices we make. Thus it seems that we can thwart God’s providential plans. Case in point: if a mad dictator decided to start World War III, and if he managed to wipe out all of humanity, he would have destroyed the world before the Second Coming of Christ. By so doing, the dictator would have falsified statements in the Bible that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. If we accept the Boethian accountGod could not prevent this from happening, because according to that account, He would only know about the catastrophe if it actually happened, but by then it would be too late to prevent it. However, a defender of the Boethian account could argue that God might have decided to select a world (such as ours) from among many possible worlds, precisely because it was a world where His plans to intervene in history could not be thwarted, no matter what we did – in other words, a world where God has a perfect counter-move to foil any attempt to thwart His grand plans. For instance, God might well have made our world in such a way that there isn’t any physically possible way of destroying the whole of humanity, thereby ensuring that no mad dictator can stop the Second Coming of Christ. (One heartening fact which we already know is that there simply isn’t enough uranium on Earth to blow up the entire planet.) Another possibility is that God could forestall the madman’s attempt to destroy humanity, because God would know about the madman’s plan before he carried it out.
Another objection to the Boethian account is that it seems to be at odds with with a long-standing Christian tradition that at least some special individuals (the “elect”) are infallibly predestined by God. Many Christians believe that the Virgin Mary and the Biblical prophets and saints, were chosen by God, as part of His plan for humanity, and that their salvation was therefore guaranteed. However, this presents no problems for the Boethian account, as there is nothing to prevent God from deciding to “elect” a few individuals for His own special reasons (relating to the salvation of the human race), while giving the rest of us the options of either choosing to accept His grace or choosing to reject it. Thus, in most cases, God’s knowledge of our choices is retrospective, but God also decides to “mark” a few individuals for Himself by guaranteeing their salvation.
But how can the Boethian account explain away prophecies like that of Jesus Christ, who said to Simon Peter, “Before the cock crows twice, you will have denied me three times”? If God’s knew about Peter’s choice only by “seeing” Peter make it, then how could Jesus then tell Peter what he was going to do? What was there to stop Peter from turning around and making a different choice?
A defender of the Boethian account might answer that this kind of prophecy would indeed be a problem if it were commonplace – e.g. if God always announced what we were going to do before we did it – because in many cases, we could simply choose to do otherwise and thereby make God’s predictions wrong, which is absurd. However, the fact that I am free does not mean that I am capable of any act of virtue, no matter how heroic it may be. (There are many kinds of heroic acts, which I know I am quite incapable of.) Jesus, looking into Peter’s heart on the night of the Last Supper, would have seen that he was not courageous enough to acknowledge his Christian faith publicly when it meant putting his life at risk, and He may have then arranged to test Peter three times, by making a few people ask Peter if he was one of Jesus’ disciples. (This would have been a one-off limitation of those people’s freedom, but it raises no theological problems, as the people did nothing wrong in asking Peter if he was one of Jesus’ followers.) That explains the prophecy.
Some Christian philosophers have argued that a timeless God could not interact with His creatures (who are time-bound); also He could not intervene in human history at specific times. For instance, how do we explain the Incarnation, which occurred 2000 years ago? However, this objection cuts little ice with defenders of classical theism, who could easily respond that although God’s decision to become incarnate is a timeless one, from the standpoint of creatures, it occurs in time. The same line of argument accounts for God’s responses to intercessory prayer.
(d) Open theism: a view rejected by Christians from earliest times
Open theism, or the view that God does not know our future choices, is a theological option that Christians should reject as fundamentally incompatible with their faith. The record of history clearly shows that the early Church was quite familiar with the notion that human freedom precludes God from knowing the future in exhaustive detail. This was the pagan Cicero’s view, and the Church emphatically rejected it from the start.
If open theists are right, then Christians all around the world have for the past 2,000 years believed in a notion (that God foreknows our choices) which is either hideously immoral (if God is conceived as determining our future bad choices) or incoherent (if it is impossible for anyone, even God, to foreknow a future contingent choice, as open theists contend) – and hence in either case, irrational. Open theists are thus implying that a Roman living in the 4th century would have been rationally entitled to reject Christ in favor of Cicero. He or she could have justly argued: “Christians believe in the absurd notion of Divine foreknowledge; Cicero’s disciples don’t believe in any metaphysical absurdities; I think I’ll become a Ciceronian.” An open theist might respond that no early Christian creed made God’s foreknowledge an article of faith. However, we are talking here about a unanimous teaching that was believed “always, everywhere and by all” (St. Vincent of Lerins), and what’s more, upheld and defended against pagan philosophers who denied it, such as Cicero.
In his essay, Divine Sovereignty – Omniscience, Inerrancy and Open Theism: An Evaluation, Stephen J. Wellum argues that open theism is incompatible with Christian belief in prophecy and the inerrancy of Scripture. Here is a brief excerpt from his essay:
First, open theism must seriously reconsider their proposal on the relationship between divine sovereignty – omniscience and human freedom, because it leads to insurmountable problems for a high view of Scripture. No doubt, the openness proposal does allow for open theists logically to affirm inerrancy even though it would be highly improbable. But more importantly, the openness proposal undermines: (1) any kind of guarantee that either the human authors will freely write precisely what God wanted written, or that what God predicts will in fact come to pass; and (2) a strong epistemological grounding to our belief in and defense of the inerrancy of Scripture.
Second, if open theism wants to maintain and defend a high view of Scripture along with the theological underpinnings of that view, they need to surrender their open view of God. I do not see how any coherent and rational defense of an inerrant Scripture can be made on the foundation of open theism.
Third, open theists should not be surprised that other evangelicals find their views unacceptable and outside the limits of evangelical theology.
Finally, in his paper, On Divine Ambivalence: Open Theism and the Problem of Particular Evils, Dr. Paul Kjoss Helseth argues that open theism actually exacerbates the problem of evil, rather than accounting for it, as it claims to do. The main attraction of Open Theism consists in its radical espousal of the free will theodicy: the reason why God refuses to prevent the evils in the world is that He totally respects our freedom as moral agents. If, however, the Open Theist is willing to allow that God does intervene in history to ensure that His ends are not thwarted (or for that matter, to guarantee the truth of a prophecy), then the radical free will theodicy is undercut – and with it, the rationale for Open Theism. As Dr. Helseth puts it:
But the fact remains that the God of Open Theism is willing to intervene coercively in human history to bring about states of affairs that he really wants to bring about, and this fact presents a serious challenge to the Open view of evil. Why? Because it suggests that particular evils cannot be accounted for solely by appealing to the free will of wicked moral agents, for the genuine freedom that is presumed to be the ultimate source of evil is precisely what is overridden by the unilateral activity of God when he so desires. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that without an exhaustive plan that determines which particular evils will be tolerated and which ones will not, God’s toleration of one particular evil and not another becomes arbitrary. To put it differently, without an ‘overarching divine purpose’ and plan that establishes when his intervening mercies will be extended and when they will be withheld, his extension of those mercies becomes subject to the vicissitudes of the moment, and suffering – that is, the result of the instantaneous decision to withhold intervening mercies – becomes truly pointless.
If nothing else, when we consider the pain and suffering that exist in the world in light of the willingness of the God of Open Theism to coerce the will in order to bring about states of affairs that he really wants to bring about, it becomes immediately clear that the God of Open Theism cannot be trusted. For he is little more than a cosmic sugar daddy whose affections are now hot and now cold, but never constant.”
I conclude, then, that the only account of Divine foreknowledge and human freedom which can be successfully reconciled with the Christian view of God’s omniscience and goodness and with libertarian free-will is the Boethian account. Classical theists may find the notion that God can give His own creatures the power to make Him (timelessly) aware of their choices an uncongenial one, as it gives creatures the power to actualize their Creator. But the actualization involved here is not an actualization of God’s essence, but of God’s knowledge of the contingent creatures whom He has chosen to create. I see nothing contrary to reason in supposing that God can allow Himself to be actualized in this manner.
6. Does God merely conserve things in being, or does He also actively co-operate with natural agents in bringing about their effects?
My comment: The two views described above are known as conservationism and concurrentism, respectively. The Catholic philosopher Alfred Freddoso provides a helpful summary of these views in a short commentary he wrote on a book by the philosopher Peter van Inwagen. Nearly all modern Christians, if you asked them, would probably favor the first option – which is one reason why Intelligent Design strikes many contemporary Christians as theologically odd: to these people, anything that smacks of intervention sounds theologically ad hoc and unworthy of the God Whom they profess to worship. However, as Freddoso points out, it was the second view, concurrentism, which was almost unanimously upheld by Christian theologians in centuries past, with the sole exception of the fourteenth century Dominican, Durandus. Freddoso once characterized conservationism as “weak deism” – although he no longer uses this perjorative term. However, as he points out in his essay, concurrentism has the big advantage of being able to explain how God can work miracles (such as allowing Shadrach to survive in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3) without violating the natures of the things He has created: He simply refrains from co-operating with them in His usual manner. Thus fire, without God’s customary concurrent assistance, will not burn human flesh.
A conservationist might reply that while this is all well and good, the concurrentist view suffers from a huge problem with regard to God’s permission of natural evil. One could ask: why does God frequently permit forest fires to burn people and animals to death, if He could so easily render them harmless, simply by refraining from co-operating from fire in His usual fashion? He wouldn’t even have to work a miracle, or over-ride the laws of Nature. It seems that concurrentists have no choice but to “bite the bullet” and say that God has his own special reasons for co-operating with natural agents. I shall discuss what these reasons might be, in the question on natural evil, below.
So far, I’ve only mentioned two views on God’s interaction with natural agents when they produce their effects. There is a third view, occasionalism, which maintains that natural agents do not act at all: when fire burns us, for instance, it is really God burning us, and not the fire. This bizarre view has been defended by a handful of Christian philosophers, but is almost universally rejected by Christians, on the grounds that it denies the plain and evident fact that creatures can and do act: fire does indeed burn people, as we can all observe. Aquinas, for instance, was particularly scathing in his criticism of occasionalism.
Of the three views, I would say that the second, concurrentism, is the most ID-friendly. Mere conservationism, while compatible with front-loading versions of Intelligent Design, effectively puts God in the back seat by making Him a cause of creatures’ being, but not their agency. Such a view would limit the freedom of the Designer.
7. Is God bound by the laws of Nature that He has established, or can He over-ride them at will?
My comment: The traditional Christian view, down through the ages, has been that God can work miracles whenever He sees fit to do so, although by definition, miracles must be rare as they are exceptions to the regular order of things. However, in the nineteenth century, the liberal Anglican divine, Rev. Baden Powell (1796-1860), who became one of Charles Darwin’s outspoken defenders towards the end of his life, vigorously championed the theologically novel view that if God is a lawgiver, then miracles would break the lawful edicts that He had issued at the dawn of Creation. As ID advocates have pointed out repeatedly, Intelligent Design does not require the Designer to work miracles: one could suppose instead that the Designer front-loaded the initial conditions of the cosmos so that the structures He intended to produce would emerge without the need for further interposition on His part. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the overall tenor of Intelligent Design thinking is decidedly “miracle-friendly,” and most ID proponents would resist Rev. Baden Powell’s as theologically constrictive, insofar as they limit God’s freedom as sovereign of Creation. Additionally, it is difficult to see how a Christianity without miracles would be possible: one would have to jettison not only the Virginal Conception, the healing miracles and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, but also (one presumes) the Last Judgment, when God will bring human history to a miraculous close.
8. Does God rely on linguistic concepts in order to understand the things He has made? And does God reason from premises to their conclusion, or does He know the conclusion without having to reason His way to it?
My comment: The classical view of how God knows things outside Himself is handily summarized by philosopher Linda Zagzebski in her essay, Omnisubjectivity:
On the classical view of God, God does not know by representing reality outside himself in his intellect. God’s knowledge is direct, unmediated by concepts, percepts, the structure of language, logical inference, or any of the other cognitive aids we use in order to know the world around us.
Philosopher Edward Feser helpfully elucidates, in a post titled, The divine intellect:
For Aquinas, then, what makes you intelligent and a stone non-intelligent is that you can have both your own form and the stone’s form — as you do when you grasp what a stone is — whereas the stone can have only its own form. You possess the form of a stone “intentionally” — in the intellect — rather than “entitatively” — that is to say, without being a stone…
… Now God is the sustaining cause of the world, that which keeps all things in existence from moment to moment. The forms of all things — that which makes them what they are — must therefore exist in Him, not in an “entitative” way (since He is not a material thing nor in any other way limited) but rather in something analogous to the way in which forms exist “intentionally” in our intellects. (Cf. ST I.15.1)
To be sure, given divine simplicity, they cannot exist in Him in exactly the way forms exist in our intellects. But how, then, are we to understand the ideas in the divine intellect? For A-T, anything other than God that exists or might exist is an imitation of God…. The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence — which is one, unlimited, and perfect — might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ own views seem to have developed, over the course of his life. In his Summa Theologica, he maintained that there must be a plurality of ideas in the Mind of God: God, he maintained, knows all of the various ways in which finite creatures participate in His Being. But in his Summa Contra Gentiles, which according to recent scholarship was either written or revised shortly before his death, Aquinas taught that God has only one Idea in His Mind: the Idea of Himself, and that by knowing Himself God implicitly knows the various ways in which creatures can participate in His Being – a solution which would seem to entail that God has no explicit knowledge of the external world at all!
Why I believe God’s knowledge must be propositional
I find the classical theistic account of God’s knowledge wholly unsatisfactory, for three reasons. First, it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of knowledge: knowledge is defined as a state of intimate familiarity with what one knows. But this won’t do. For while someone might claim to know a place – e.g. London – or a person – e.g. its mayor, Boris Johnson – by virtue of being familiar with them, we would not credit their claim to knowledge unless they were able to state that certain propositions about the place or person in question are true (or false). A taxi driver claiming to know the streets of London like the back of his hand would surely be expected to know that the National Gallery is on the north side of Trafalgar Square; and likewise, anyone claiming to know Boris Johnson would certainly know that he is fond of cycling and proudly sports an unruly hairstyle. The point I am making here is that any knowledge claim presupposes the ability to formulate true propositions relating to the subject of one’s knowledge.
The second point I’d like to make is that knowledge claims require justification. If I claim to know that a statement is true, it is perfectly appropriate for someone to ask: “How do you know that?” Merely being right about what one claims to know is not enough; a lucky guess does not count as knowledge. The problem with the classical theistic account of God’s knowledge is that it provides God with no justification for what He is said to know. We are told that “God’s knowledge is direct, unmediated by concepts,” and that “The forms of all things — that which makes them what they are — must therefore exist in Him… in something analogous to the way in which forms exist ‘intentionally’ in our intellects.” I find this explanation both unintelligible – what on Earth do we mean by saying that forms exist “in” God, or for that matter, “in” our own minds? – and unconvincing. The fact that God’s Mind somehow contains the forms of all created things does not entail that He is able to articulate true propositions describing these forms. Likewise, the fact that God maintains all things in being does not imply that He is aware of everything relating to them.
Finally, as I wrote above, although the definition of intelligence commonly used by ID advocates – namely, “any cause, agent, or process that achieves and end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments” (The Design of Life, 2008, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, p. 3) – says nothing about language, the definition of specified complexity (which is a hallmark of intelligent agency) does: we call a pattern specified if it can be concisely described – in other words, if it has low descriptive complexity. Thus the patterns we use to identify design presuppose the existence of some sort of language that the Designer must have used (which is not too different from our own). Hence design concepts are essentially linguistic. And if many (or all) of the creatures in the natural world are designed, then the concepts which define them have to be expressible in some kind of language, too. And if the Designer of these creatures is God (as many believe), then God must have a language of His own for describing the world.
But if God’s concepts are essentially linguistic, then they must possess a rich, complex internal structure. That in turn requires God to have a complex Mind, which is able to formulate and entertain such concepts.
If God is omniscient, then necessarily, He possesses a vast amount of specified information about the world. And if He possesses it, then it seems we can legitimately ask: where is it? Is it “inside” God’s Mind (whatever “inside” means) or is the information stored outside God’s Mind, in some external medium which is “at His fingertips,” so that He can instantly access it as the occasion demands?
One apparent advantage of the “external medium” scenario is that it can easily be reconciled with the traditional doctrine of Divine simplicity. A cardinal difficulty for this view, however, is that it invites the further question as to how God would search for (and instantly access) the information He keeps about the external world, and where He keeps it. Does God have a heavenly library, and if so, how is it indexed? Classical theists could also object that the notion of a Divine library would make God dependent on something outside Himself for His knowledge of the world.
If, on the other hand, we envisage God as somehow keeping all this information within His Mind, then we face the problem of how such a multitude of diverse information could possibly reside within the simple Mind of God. However, this difficulty incorrectly assumes that the Christian doctrine of Divine simplicity excludes the possibility of any multiplicity or complexity within God. In reality, what the doctrine of Divine simplicity excludes is the false and heretical idea that God is composite, or made up of logically pre-existing parts. “Complex” and “composite” are not the same thing. God’s Mind is perfectly capable of being multi-faceted, without being composed out of parts which are logically prior to it.
Does God reason from premises to a conclusion?
Classical theists have consistently taught that God’s Intellect is not discursive: He does not need to reason His way from a set of premises to their conclusion. Various arguments are put forward in support of this claim. It is urged that since God is outside time, it makes no sense to say that He has to wait in order to know what the conclusion of an argument is. Also, if God had to make use of premises in order to arrive at a conclusion, His knowledge would depend on something outside Himself. Finally, classical theists maintain that a God Who had to reason His way to a conclusion would be less perfect than a God Who didn’t – and since God is all-perfect, it follows that He does not need to reason.
With regard to the first argument: although God is outside time, it still makes perfect sense to assert that He (timelessly) knows some propositional truths on the basis of knowing other truths. Nor do I see a problem with saying that God7s knowledge depends on certain premises which are outside Himself, since this dependence is simply a consequence of His free decision to create this world. Finally, I would argue that the notion of a God Who can have a properly basic knowledge of facts whose truth is inherently dependent on other, more fundamental truths, makes absolutely no sense. Hence, the very notion of a God Who didn’t have to reason His way from a set of premises to their conclusion is a nonsensical one.
How does God’s simple Mind know infinite sets of propositional truths, relating to mathematics and possible world?
Other questions about God’s knowledge remain to be answered. One might ask: does God have an explicit knowledge of all mathematical truths, or merely an implicit knowledge? Does He, for instance, know the full decimal expansion of pi, and does He know all the irrational numbers? In particular, does God know irrational numbers that are not computable, such as Chaitin’s constant? For that matter, does God know whether the Continuum Hypothesis is true? And does God know the details of all of the possible worlds that He could create, or does He merely know all possible outcomes within the world which He has chosen to create? Finally, does God have an explicit knowledge of all possible outcomes relating to this world, or merely an implicit knowledge? Can He, for instance, enumerate all possible 100-amino-acid sequences (and for that matter, all possible 1,000,000-amino-acid sequences) that are capable of folding up into biologically useful molecules, or does He simply know whether this particular sequence X of amino acids will fold up in a biologically useful fashion?
There is an (uncountable) infinity of mathematical truths, and many of these are uncomputable. Surely no-one would be so bold as to claim, then, that all mathematical truths can somehow be derived from one “master concept.” Anyone who wishes to say that God has an explicit knowledge of all mathematical truths would therefore have to concede that His Mind is capable of containing multitudes – in which case, the Mind of God can no longer be regarded as simple. And even if one were to maintain that God has an implicit knowledge of some mathematical truths (e.g. the full decimal expansion of pi, or the numbers which are irrational), the mathematical notion of pi, or for that matter an irrational number, is inherently complex: it cannot be expressed using a single concept.
I would suggest that God knows exactly as many mathematical propositions as He needs to, in order to create this world: no more and no less. In making this world, God had to make use of certain mathematical concepts. These were not pre-existing concepts in some Platonic realm of Forms; rather, they were the abstract ideas that God invented (or came up with), in order to create this world. Had He chosen to make a different world, He would have had to come up with different ideas. Moreover, the number of mathematical concepts required to create this world is finite. Hence God’s explicit mathematical knowledge is also finite: there is no need for it to be otherwise. There is no need for God to know all the irrational numbers; what we can say, however, is that God knows these numbers better than His human creatures do, so there is absolutely no possibility of our stumping God with a difficult mathematical question (e.g. What’s the trillionth digit in the decimal expansion of pi?”), even assuming that He were willing to answer such a trivial question from one of His creatures.
Edward Feser makes a valuable point in his essay, God and possible worlds, when he remarks that “possibility is grounded in God (qua Being Itself) rather than in anything outside Him.” Possible worlds, like mathematical truths, have to be grounded in the infinite intellect of God, Who is capable of actualizing other beings without having to be actualized by anything else.
For my part, though, I see no reason to suppose (as some Christians do) that God explicitly knows everything that He could possibly do: rather, I would say that God has exhaustive knowledge of possibilities that may eventuate within the framework of the world He has chosen to create.
Finally, with regard to possible amino-acid sequences, the Pandora’s box of a potentially infinite set of truths that God needs to know once again rears its ugly head. In my view, the best response to this difficulty is to suppose that the world contains built-in constraints which obviate the need for God to hold an infinite number of truths about possible outcomes in His Mind. Amino acid chains, presumably, can only reach a certain length before they become unstable. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that God’s explicit knowledge of possible outcomes relating to this world, while vast, is nonetheless finite.
9. Is God’s understanding of Nature holistic and “top-down,”, or is it also “bottom-up”?
My comment: Putting the question in a practical context, we might ask: does God have a simple concept by which He can understand each and every kind of complex object that He makes? How, for instance, does God represent to Himself the concept of a bacterial flagellum – or for that matter, the concept of a dog?
The Aristotelian-Thomistic view is that the final cause (or end, or goal) of a thing is the “cause of causes” (Aquinas, In Phys. II.5.186): once you thoroughly understand what a creature’s built-in goals are, everything else that can be said about its nature follows automatically from that. And since each creature can be characterized by its own distinctive telos, or “end,” the form (or essence) of that creature should therefore be simple. Human beings may have an imperfect grasp of the essential “what-ness” of a dog, but God has a simple, unified concept of “dogginess.” And while a bacterial flagellum may appear to be irreducibly complex, the bacterium which it belongs to has a single telos, which is known to God, so from a Divine standpoint, the concept of a bacterial flagellum is a simple one.
But in fact, as I have argued elsewhere, even a complete specification of a natural object’s built-in goals tells us very little about its form; and several radically different forms could all have the same ends or goals. All the argument shows is that the form of an object must be compatible with its built-in goals, which is quite different from saying that it is uniquely determined by those goals. And if the concept of a dog or a bacterial flagellum is inherently linguistic, as I argued above in my response to Question 8, then it follows that these concepts will need to be fully specified in order to be properly understood.
To see why, let us consider the following question: could God, for instance, make a man from dust simply by commanding, “Dust, become a man”? Or would He need to specify additional facts regarding the arrangement of the particles constituting the man’s body?
I discussed this question in a previous post on Uncommon Descent, where I responded to an assertion by an Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher that God could, indeed, make a man from dust simply by commanding, “Dust, become a man”? As he put it, “It’s just God ‘saying,’ as it were: ‘Dust, become a man.’ And boom, you’ve got your man.” In my post on Uncommon Descent, I responded as follows:
Let us suppose, now, that God commanded a piece of dust to become a man…. On behalf of the dust, I would like to reply: “What kind of man would you like me to become, Lord? A tall one or a short one? Brown eyes or blue? A Will Smith lookalike or a Tom Cruise replica? Blood type A, B, AB or O? Oh, and what about the micro-level properties of the man you want me to be? Exactly how many cells should this individual have? What sequence of bases should he have in his DNA? I’m afraid I can do nothing, Lord, unless you tell me exactly what you want.” I won’t belabor the point here: the difficulty should be obvious. The problem with merely telling the dust to become a man is that it under-specifies the effect ? or in philosophical jargon, under-determines it. And since dust is unable to make a choice between alternatives ? even a random one ? then nothing at all will get done, if God commands dust to simply become a man. To get a real man, every single detail in the man’s anatomy has to be specified, right down to the atomic level.
Now we can see why the psalmist wrote: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
So I would maintain that God does have to do super-engineering, if He designs an organism. This point has obvious religious implications: for instance, if you happen to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus (as many Christians do) then you will have to grapple with what biologist and Intelligent Design proponent Stephen Jones calls “the mechanics of the Incarnation” (see here for a very interesting blog by Jones on this topic). In short: there’s just no getting around the mechanics of design, even if you’re a Deity. The reason is simple: in the real world, things are specified at all levels, including the bottom level.
Nevertheless, even though intelligent design requires a bottom-level knowledge of the parts that are being arranged into a specific pattern, the act of design itself is a top-down process. As Biologic Institute researchers Mariclair Reeves, Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe put it in their recent paper, Enzyme Families—Shared Evolutionary History or Shared Design? A Study of the GABA-Aminotransferase Family (BIO-Complexity 2014 (4):1−16. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2014.4):
The implementation of innovation is nearly the opposite of ordinary physical causation. It is the top-down arrangement of matter in such a way that the resulting bottom-up behavior of that matter serves the intended purpose of the innovator… Sentences that convey different ideas may have similar structures, but when we write a sentence we start
with the idea, not the sentence structure. We never take a sentence that conveys some other idea and ask which letters can be changed to make it better suited for our present purpose.
I conclude, then, that God’s understanding of Nature has to be both “top-down” and “bottom-up,” in order for Him to fully grasp the forms that characterize various kinds of things, but that the imposition of these forms upon suitably receptive matter is a top-down process.
10. What is the scope of Divine omnipotence? Is God capable of doing anything whose top-level description doesn’t involve a logical contradiction, or can He only perform those feats that can be specified in exhaustive detail from top to bottom?
My comment: The classical view has been that God could do anything which is logically possible. Asking God to make a square circle is absurd, because it is an incoherent demand. (Very few Christian thinkers have defended the outlandish view that God is not bound even by the laws of logic; for a humorous take-down of this view, see here.) However, the view that God can do anything that isn’t logically self-contradictory runs into problems of its own. One difficulty that has been known to Christians from ancient time is the paradox of the stone: can God make a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? The actual feat of making a stone that one cannot lift is certainly a logically possible one: many stonemasons do the same thing, every day, when they make heavy stone blocks. However, a Christian would respond that it is logically impossible for God to make such a stone, as His power is unlimited. In that case, then, we have to redefine omnipotence: instead of saying that God can perform any logically possible feat, we should say that whenever it is logically possible for God to bring about something, then God can indeed bring it about. On this revised account, omnipotence therefore means: being able to do everything that it is logically possible for one to do.
The problem with this modified view, however, is that it says too little. I mentioned above the case (first raised by Alvin Plantinga) of a hypothetical individual named McEar, where it is a necessary truth about McEar that the only action he can possibly perform is scratching his ear. On the definition proposed above, it then follows that, if McEar can scratch his ear, he is omnipotent, despite his inability to do anything else, since He is capable of doing everything that it is logically possible for him to do.
In my opinion, this clever objection to the notion of omnipotence is not a fatal one. One could define omnipotence as follows: a being is omnipotent if for any logically possible feat, it can either perform that feat, or make something else that is capable of performing it. God cannot make a stone that He cannot lift; but He can certainly make human beings who are capable of this self-limiting feat.
In my view, however, the gravest difficulty with the notion of omnipotence is that it commits one to saying that God can bring about states of affairs which are not properly described. When someone claims, for instance, that God could make a horse capable of flying, like the mythical Pegasus, what, exactly, are we supposed to conceive of God doing here? And how would Pegasus fly, anyway? Are we supposed to imagine God working a miracle, by raising a horse in the air? But in that case, shouldn’t we really say that the horse is not flying (by its own natural power), but rather that God is holding it up? Or are we meant to imagine an alternative world, where the laws of Nature are changed so as to allow horses to fly – in which case, should we call the creature in this alternate world a horse or should we rather call it a shmorse? Or are we to suppose that God could come up with a physical design for a horse that would enable it to fly, even with the laws of Nature that hold in this world? But in that case, how do we know that such a design exists? There is not the slightest evidence for such a design, and aerodynamic considerations suggest that the enterprise of attaching natural wings that would allow an animal with the dimensions of a horse to fly, would be altogether unworkable.
The implications for Intelligent Design in the contemporary debate about the scope of God’s omnipotence relate to allegedly imperfect designs found in Nature, which are frequently cited by evolutionists as proof that organisms weren’t designed. Some ID advocates have responded by pointing out that there are multiple design constraints that need to be taken into account when designing an organism, and that when these constraints are considered, the designs we observe in living creatures can be seen as an optimal compromise. Recent scientific discoveries regarding the vertebrate eye (see here and here) have done much to vindicate this line of argument. (Of course, nothing in Intelligent Design theory stipulates that the Designer’s products are necessarily optimal; all they are required to do is function properly.) But if the Designer’s power is constrained in this fashion, then it seems to me that we have moved a long way from the classical view that God can do anything which doesn’t involve a contradiction.
I conclude that creatures like ourselves, with our limited minds, are incapable of delineating the bounds of Divine omnipotence. We simply do not know what God can and cannot do, until we have fully specified it in detail. In the absence of a complete specification from top to bottom, we cannot know whether an idea that we have in our minds is a genuine concept or an ill-composed sketch that does not refer to any conceivable state of affairs. God, then, can do everything that can be done; but human beings are by nature incapable of knowing exactly what can be done and what cannot.
11. Is God capable of preventing natural evils but willing to allow them for the sake of realizing some greater good which is part of His Divine plan, or is He for some reason unable to prevent these evils?
My comment: The traditional view of why God allows natural evils was expressed by St. Augustine (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.”
A few years ago, the theologian David Bentley Hart sharply criticized this view in his essay, Tsunami and Theodicy (First Things March 2005), arguing that Christians should see suffering and death as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a necessary requirement for the realization of some “greater good”:
There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality – in nature or history – is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.
I do not believe we Christians are obliged – or even allowed – to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
As we have seen, Hart explains natural evil in terms of original sin. But for moderns, this answer is unsatisfactory, as it invites the obvious question: “Why should the whole of humanity have to suffer for a fault committed thousands of years ago by Adam and Eve? Why doesn’t He intervene and stop people from suffering?”
I believe that the reason why God does not prevent all these natural evils because He cannot. There are of course instances when He does prevent them: most of us can, if we reflect a little, think of one or more events in our lives where we had a very close brush with death, but lived to tell the tale. It would be base ingratitude not to see the hand of Providence here. But if we ask why God does not prevent all natural evils in this fashion, then the answer I would give is that our first parents, Adam and Eve, deliberately chose to reject a world governed by God and free from death and suffering, in favor of a world in which suffering occurred, but in which they had autonomy. In so doing, they must have asked God to promise to let Nature take its course: “We don’t want a cosmic Nanny! And if we have to suffer and die without Your constant intervention, then so be it!” The one thing God cannot do is break a promise. That, I believe, is why we are stuck with the world we live in.
Some Christian readers may reasonably object that if God were to keep a “no-intervention” promise, He would in effect be tying His own hands: such a promise would prevent Him from rescuing people in danger, and even from working miracles. But there is no need to suppose that God ever presented Adam and Eve with a choice that would limit His freedom in this way. Instead, it is much more likely that God presented them with a choice between a world in which He would not intervene, in the ordinary course of events (thereby leaving them pretty much on their own), and a world in which He would supernaturally protect them from death and suffering. Adam and Eve, in their pride, chose the first option; but that still left God free to make extraordinary interventions and work miracles, in those rare cases where He saw fit to do so.
Skeptics may object that God should never have given such enormous responsibilities to Adam and Eve in the first place. In response, I would suggest that it is simply impossible for God to make intelligent beings without offering them an allotted sphere or domain in which they can legitimately exercise their freedom: that is what makes them who they are. As the first parents of the human race, Adam and Eve had to have the responsibility for deciding whether they wanted the human race to be protected by God’s Providence or whether to reject God and go it alone.
Skeptics might nevertheless reply that an omniscient Being should have known how Adam and Eve would decide, and should therefore have refrained from making them in the first place. I would reply that God’s knowledge of how Adam and Eve would choose to act is indeed timeless, but logically consequent on His original promises to them. God, having promised to grant Adam and Eve these responsibilities, could not go back on His Word, but because He is all-wise, He will eventually checkmate the forces of evil, at the end of time. In fact, ever since the Redemption of mankind was accomplished at Calvary, human history has already entered its “end-game.”
Finally, skeptics may object that the foregoing proposal fails to account for the pervasiveness of animal suffering in the world, much of which makes absolutely no sense in the scheme of things. In response: I (tentatively) follow C. S. Lewis in believing that God originally made Lucifer, an intelligent angelic creature, responsible for overseeing day-to-day events taking place on this planet, and gave him a limited degree of autonomy over the world of living things – a freedom which may well have included allowing Him to put some artistic “finishing touches” to God’s original designs for living creatures. As Scripture tells us, Lucifer rejected God. In so doing, He may have misused the creative freedom given to him by God, by fouling up Nature and by introducing a great many natural evils that were not part of God’s plan. This could explain the existence of some very nasty natural evils, such as animals that rape and practice casual infanticide and other unnatural acts, and malaria parasites that kill people. However, I’m inclined to think that pain and death, on the other hand, were part of God’s original plan. Death is necessary to restore ecological balance; and pain serves as a useful warning signal to creatures, indicating the presence of a noxious stimulus. A God Who designed His creatures without this capacity would be doing a poor job.
The foregoing proposals are tentative, and I put them forward in a spirit of humility, knowing that much of what I suggest may very well be mistaken.
12. Is God in some way capable of having experiences, such as the color “green,” or is He wholly active and therefore incapable of experiencing anything?
My comment: The philosopher Frank Jackson, in his now-famous article titled, What Mary Didn’t Know (Journal of Philosophy, Volume 83, issue 5, May 1986, pp. 291-295) tells the story of a scientist named Mary, who has lived all her life in a black-and-white room, and who (being very well-educated) knows everything that there is to know about color from an objective, third-person standpoint, but who has never personally experienced color. Here is how Jackson describes her case:
Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in complete physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles…
It seems, however, that Mary does not know all that there is to know. For when she is let out of the room or given a color television, she will learn what it is like to see something red, say. This is rightly described as learning – she will not say “ho, hum.”
When Mary is let out of her black-and-white room, it seems that she learns something new: she learns what it is like to see colors. And even if we don’t want to call this new awareness “learning,” it is indisputably true that her mental state changes when she sees colors for the first time.
Jackson’s article makes no mention of God, but it nevertheless raises an awkward question for religious believers: does God have a “Mary” problem? Traditionally, Christian thinkers have maintained that God has no experiences of anything, because no creature can have causal powers over the Creator. Hence nothing can make God aware of “what it is like” to see the color green. Also, since God is a spirit, He has no eyes, so He can’t be said to see anything. Thus God can never know “what it is like” to see colors such as red and green. It seems, then, that we have an awareness of color which God lacks.
Philosophers use the term qualia to refer to experiences such as the color green or the smell of ammonia. Qualia are distinguished by their subjectivity: you have to experience them to know what they’re like. In philosophical jargon, this experience is referred to as a first-person perspective. In her thought-provoking article, Omnisubjectivity, Catholic philosopher Linda Zagzebski argues that if God lacked the ability to adopt a first-person perspective, He would be unable to know the difference between the subjective experience of a state of affairs (e.g. the greenness of a tree, which is an irreducibly first-person perspective) and a third person perspective on the same state of affairs (e.g. a photograph taken of the same tree by a camera). He would also be unable to distinguish between one experience and another – e.g. between my experience of green and my experience of red, or between my experience of green and yours:
To recapitulate, I do not assume that when Mary leaves her black-and-white room and begins to see in color, she comes to know something she did not know previously… But as long as there is a difference between Mary’s mental states before and after she leaves the room, … an omniscient God must be able to tell the difference between the two states. And this point can be generalized. If any two qualia differ, God must be able to tell the difference between them. If the first person perspective on some state of affairs differs from the third person perspective on the same state of affairs, he must be able to distinguish them. The only way to distinguish qualia is to have them, and the only way to distinguish first and third person perspectives is to adopt those perspectives. (PDF, p. 7)
Zagzebski goes on to argue that God has the capacity for “representing all of another person’s conscious states, including their beliefs, sensations, moods, desires, and choices, as well as their emotions.” A God Who can represent people’s sensations (including the color green) is a very different kind of God from the God of classical theism.
As a young man in the 1980s, I was sorely troubled by this question. It seemed self-evident to me that a pure spirit could not possibly come up with the color “green,” or the taste of ammonia. These things had to be experienced in order to be known, and experience was the one thing that God could not have. Putting it more rigorously, I would argue that God must be capable of having at least some experiences, in order to create beings who are capable of having experiences of their own. If God were not able to undergo experiences, then His act of creating beings with qualia (or subjective feelings) would be tantamount to a “shot in the dark,” so to speak: “I’ll give these creatures of Mine the ability to see color and smell odors, but I’ll never know what that’s like.” That, I have to say, makes no sense to me.
Thirty years have passed since then, and I now believe that God has a rich inner life of His own. My own (tentative) belief is that God can, in His Mind, invent qualia, as a kind of game He plays in His Mind, and “get a feel” for what they are like. He can then choose to make a world in which His sentient creatures experience these qualia – the difference being that the experiences creatures have are but a shadow of the full spectrum of experience that God has, from His privileged perspective.
13. Can we literally speak of God as having feelings of joy and love, or is He wholly active and therefore incapable of feeling anything?
My comment: Many of the various Christian confessional statements listed above speak of God as a Being “without body, parts or passions.” Passions have always been regarded as unfitting for a Deity, for three reasons: they are to some degree bodily states; they are subject to fluctuations over time; and they are beyond the control of the person experiencing them. In order to exclude such an anthropomorphic picture of God, Christians formulated the doctrine of Divine impassibility: God, they said, has no passions. He is imperturbable. Some Christian thinkers in the classical theistic tradition even went so far as to deny that God had any feelings whatsoever. Among them was the great theologian, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). In Chapter 8 of his Proslogion, he declares that God has no compassion and adds that God is not merciful in Himself. God, according to Anselm, does not experience any emotion (emphases mine):
But how are you both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You have no compassion. And if You do not have compassion, You do not have a heart sorrowful out of compassion for the wretched – the very thing which being merciful is. And if You are not merciful, from where is there such great consolation for the wretched? How, then, are You and are You not merciful, 0 Lord, except because You are merciful from our point of view but are not merciful in Yourself? Indeed, You are [merciful] according to our experience but are not [merciful] according to Your experience. For when You behold us in our wretched condition, we experience the effect of Your mercy; but You do not experience any emotion. And so, You are merciful because You save [us] wretched [creatures] and spare [us] who have sinned against You; and You are not merciful, because You do not experience compassion for wretchedness.
The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas appeared to adopt a somewhat milder view, when he argued in his Suuma Contra Gentiles (Book I, chapters 90 and 91) that we can fittingly ascribe joy and delight to God (emphases mine):
 There are certain passions which, though they do not befit God as passions, do not signify anything by the nature of their species that is repugnant to the divine perfection.
 Among these passions are joy and delight. Delight is of a present good. Neither, therefore, by reason of its object, which is a good, nor by reason of its disposition towards its object, which is possessed in act, is joy, according to the nature of its species, repugnant to the divine perfection…
 Joy and delight, then, are properly in God. Now, joy and delight differ in notion. For delight arises from a really conjoined good, whereas joy does not require this, but the resting of the will in the object willed suffices for the nature of joy. Hence, delight is only of the conjoined good if it be taken properly, whereas joy is of a non-conjoined good. From this it is apparent that God properly delights in Himself, but He takes joy both in Himself and in other things.
 In the same way, there must be love in God according to the act of His will.
 For this belongs properly to the nature of love, that the lover will the good of the one he loves. Now, God wills His own good and that of others, as appears from what has been said. This means, therefore, that God loves Himself and other things.
Aquinas’ subsequent clarifying statement that God “loves without passion” (Summa Theologica I, q. 20, art. 1, ad. 1) makes God’s love sound rather bloodless. However, what Aquinas really meant to say here was that God’s love is an act of the will, rather than the sensitive appetites. And his statement that “Anger and the like are attributed to God on account of a similitude of effect” (Summa Theologica I, q. 3, art. 2, ad. 1) sounds very similar to Anselm’s position.
Notwithstanding Aquinas’ mitigation of St. Anselm’s very stark formulation of the doctrine of Divine impassibility, the theological difference between them was relatively small: both of these theologians denied that God had any subjective experiences whatsoever. For Aquinas, as for Anselm, God has no “inner life”; He is Pure Act, and in no way passive.
The emergence of an alternative view: God is capable of feeling affections, but not passions
By the eighteenth century, however, some leading Christian thinkers were claiming that God could experience feelings of His own, provided that they were entirely under His control. Among these was Jonathan Edwards, the most famous preacher in North America, who argued that affections could fittingly be ascribed to God, but that passions could not:
The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same; and yet, in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that, in its ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination; but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more overpowered, and less in its own command (Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961 reprint), pp. 26-27, italics added).
The doctrine of Divine impassibility came under sustained attack in the mid-twentieth century. After the horror of the Holocaust, many Christians decided that they wanted nothing to do with a God Who could not feel the sufferings of His creatures. However, defenders of Divine impassibility have fought back, and in our own times, Christian philosopher Paul Helm has emerged as one of the doctrine’s leading defenders. In his essay, Divine impassibility: Why is it suffering?, he maintains that God does have feelings, but that they are constant and not subject to fluctuations over time:
The key idea for any appreciation of the idea of divine impassibility, and of its reappropriation and defense, must be the Creator-creature distinction, and the biblical idea of divine fullness. In the case of emotions, we must focus on the idea of a divine life of unimaginable richness and constancy, not of fitfulness and spasm…. God’s immutability covers his will, his decrees, his promises and counsel, and of course, his emotional life. Its biblical basis is found in such passages as Jas. 1.17, Ps. 102.29, Is. 14.24, Rom. 11,.29, Heb. 6. 17: 13. 8, Is 46. 10, 2 Cor. 1 18-20.
But none of this means that God is devoid of (what we call) feelings. He loves his creation, he cares for his people, he hates unrighteousness, and so on?he is pure goodness…
… He has an emotional life – he cares and loves and judges and has compassion on his sinful world. But his life – unlike our own emotional lives – is not spasmodic and moody. God does not have a temper. He cannot be cowardly or vain. Rather his “emotional life” is an expression of his perfect goodness and knowledge. The life of God is not first passive and then reactive, as ours is, but it is wholly active.
In his excellent essay, God without Mood-Swings, Intelligent Design advocate Philip Johnson explicates the doctrine of Divine impassibility at greater length. Johnson carefully distinguishes between affections (which can be legitimately ascribed to God) and passions (which cannot). The former are active feelings which are completely under the control of the agent, while the latter are controlled by external factors. Clearly nothing can control the Creator, so we cannot speak of God as having passions. But our picture of God would be deficient if we did not acknowledge that He has genuine affections. As Johnson puts it:
God isn’t like a stone or an iceberg. His immutability is not inertia. The fact that He doesn’t change His mind certainly doesn’t mean He is devoid of thought. Likewise, the fact that He isn’t subject to involuntary passions doesn’t mean He is devoid of true affections. What it does mean is that God’s mind and God’s affections are not like human thoughts and passions. There’s never anything involuntary, irrational, or out of control about the divine affections…
God’s affections are never passive and involuntary, but rather always active and deliberate…
…God is the sovereign initiator and instigator of all His own affections ? which are never uncontrolled or arbitrary. He cannot be made to emote against His will, but is always the source and author of all His affective dispositions…
Given such a distinction, it seems perfectly appropriate to say that whereas God is “without passions,” He is surely not “without affections.” In fact, His joy, His wrath, His sorrow, His pity, His compassion, His delight, His love, his hatred?and all the other divine affections?epitomize the very perfection of all the heartfelt affections we know (albeit imperfectly) as humans. His affections are absent the ebb and flow of changeableness that we experience with human emotions, but they are real and powerful feelings nonetheless. To suggest that God is unfeeling is to mangle the intent of the doctrine of impassibility.
So a proper understanding of impassibility should not lead us to think God is unfeeling. But His “feelings” are never passive. They don’t come and go or change and fluctuate. They are active, sovereignly-directed dispositions rather than passive reactions to external stimuli. They differ in this way from human passions.
For my part, I find the modern-day reformulations of the doctrine of Divine impassibility by Helm and Johnson extremely helpful, theologically speaking. Nevertheless, they still leave us with two vital questions that need to be answered.
First, even if God’s feelings are entirely under His control rather than being under the control of His creatures, are they genuinely subjective experiences that God undergoes? In other words, does God have an “inner life”? If I read Helm and Johnson aright, then it seems that the answer they would give is “Yes.” Helm speaks of God’s “God’s impassioned attitudes of delighting in, and hating, and loving,” and Johnson speaks of God as having “true affections,” while adding that these affections are always instigated by God: “He cannot be made to emote against His will, but is always the source and author of all His affective dispositions.” Thus God’s life is not all outward-directed: He can have genuine subjective feelings, which are timelessly caused by His voluntary actions.
Second, is it proper to speak of creatures as making God (timelessly) aware of the various happenings in the world which He has feelings about, even if these creatures cannot be said to control His feelings as such? Helm and Johnson do not address this question in their essays, but in the light of my comments on Question 5 above, I would argue that there is no theological impropriety in God endowing His creatures with the capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of whatever befalls them. The causal power that creatures would have over their Creator is thus God-given, arising from a voluntary decision on God’s part.
14. Can we literally ascribe negative feelings to God, such as anger and hate?
My comment: According to classical theism, we can only ascribe anger and hatred to God in an analogical sense. As St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly puts it in his Summa Theologica (I, q. 19, art. 11, ad. 2), “anger is never attributed to God properly, since in its primary meaning it includes passion.” Aquinas elaborates:
When certain human passions are predicated of the Godhead metaphorically, this is done because of a likeness in the effect. Hence a thing that is in us a sign of some passion, is signified metaphorically in God under the name of that passion. Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God.
Aquinas adds that there is a legitimate sense in which God can be said to hate sinners, insofar as they fall short of what God demands of them (Summa Theologica I, q. 20, art. 2, ad. 4):
Nothing prevents one and the same thing being loved under one aspect, while it is hated under another. God loves the sinners in so far as they are existing natures; for they have existence, and have it from Him. In so far as they are sinners, they have not existence at all, but fall short of it; and this in them is not from God. Hence under this aspect, they are hated by Him.
For Aquinas, however, God’s hatred is not a feeling but an act of will.
An alternative Christian view: Lactantius on the anger of God
A very different view was taken by the fourth century Christian theologian, Lactantius, whose treatise, On the Anger of God, was written with the aim of refuting the Stoic view that in God, there is kindness but not anger (emphases mine):
For if God is not angry with the impious and the unrighteous, it is clear that He does not love the pious and the righteous. Therefore the error of those is more consistent who take away at once both anger and kindness. For in opposite matters it is necessary to be moved to both sides or to neither. Thus, he who loves the good also hates the wicked, and he who does not hate the wicked does not love the good; because the loving of the good arises from the hatred of the wicked, and the hating of the wicked has its rise from the love of the good. There is no one who loves life without a hatred of death, nor who is desirous of light, but he who avoids darkness. These things are so connected by nature, that the one cannot exist without the other… (Chapter 4)
… He, therefore, who loves also hates, and he who hates also loves; for there are those who ought to be loved, and there are those who ought to be hated. And as he who loves confers good things on those whom he loves, so he who hates inflicts evils upon those whom he hates; which argument, because it is true, can in no way be refuted. … Because God is moved by kindness, therefore He is also liable to anger… (Chapter 5)
…[N]o honor can be due to God, if He affords nothing to His worshipers; and no fear, if He is not angry with him who does not worship Him. (Chapter 6)
Divine anger in Protestant preaching, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries
In more recent times, Lactantius’ views have been echoed by many famous Protestant preachers. In the mid-nineteenth century, the American Presbyterian preacher Charles Finney (1792-1875) wrote a sermon titled, God’s Anger Against the Wicked, in which he argued eloquently for the view that God experiences feelings of anger and hatred towards the wicked. Reason itself tells us, he wrote, that God must be angry with the wicked: “If God were not opposed to the wicked, He would be wicked Himself for not opposing them. What would you think of a judge who did not hate and oppose law-breakers?” Finney then went on to explain what God’s anger is not: it is not malicious, it is not a passion which over-rides reason, and it is not selfish. Nevertheless, Finney was quite emphatic that God’s anger is a genuine feeling, which is directed not only against sin, but also against sinners, and he vividly depicted God’s anger in his sermon (emphases mine):
But positively his anger against the wicked implies,
1. An entire disapprobation of their conduct and character. He disapproves most intensely and utterly every thing in either their heart or their life. He loathes the wicked with infinite loathing.
2. He feels the strongest opposition of will to their character. It is so utterly opposed to his own character and to his own views of right that his will arrays itself in the strongest form of opposition against it.
3. God’s anger involves also strong opposition of feeling against sinners. Undoubtedly God must have feelings of anger against the wicked. We can not suppose it possible that God should behold sin without feelings of anger…
4. God is not angry merely against the sin abstracted from the sinner, but against the sinner himself. Some persons have labored hard to set up this ridiculous and absurd abstraction, and would fain make it appear that God is angry at the sin yet not at the sinner. He hates the theft, but loves the thief. He abhors adultery, but is pleased with the adulterer. Now this is supreme nonsense. The sin has no moral character apart from the sinner. The act is nothing apart from the actor. The very thing that God hates and disapproves is not the mere event–the thing done in distinction from the doer; but it is the doer himself. It grieves and displeases him that a rational moral agent, under his government, should array himself against his own God and Father, against all that is right and just in the universe. This is the thing that offends God. The sinner himself is the direct and the only object of his anger.
So the Bible shows. God is angry with the wicked–not with the abstract sin. If the wicked turn not, God will whet his sword;–he hath bent his bow and made it ready;–not to shoot the sin however, but the sinner–the wicked man who has done the abominable thing. This is the only doctrine of either the Bible or of common sense on this subject.
5. The anger of God against the wicked implies all that properly belongs to anger when it exists with good reason. We know by our own experience that when we are angry with good reason, we have strong opposition of will and also strong feelings of displeasure and disapprobation against the wrong-doers. Hence we may infer that the same is true of God under the same circumstances.
(Readers might also like to have a look at Phillip Johnson’s article, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement, which is fiercely critical of certain defective aspects of Finney’s theology.)
Finney was by no means the only Protestant preacher to espouse this view. As far back as the sixteenth century, John Calvin (1509-1564) argued that God both loves and hates sinners – He loves them because He made them, but He also hates them for their corruption:
God (as hath been touched not long since) did both hate us and love us before the reconciliation [was made.] And why loved he us? Because we be his creatures. And again, although he saw we were so wretched, and utterly forlorn and damned folk by reason of sin: yet notwithstanding he had pity upon us, and would not have mankind to perish utterly. Thus ye see how God loved us, notwithstanding that in the person of Adam we were fallen away from him and utterly corrupted. (Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, Sermon 2, 1:3-5, pp., 34-35/23-24.)
To those who found this view too harsh, Calvin responded by quoting the words of St. Augustine, commenting in his Tract 110 on John 17:21-23: “Accordingly in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, both to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.”
The renowned Biblical commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) also affirmed that God hates sinners, in his Commentary on Psalm 11, verse 5 of which declares that “The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” In his commentary, Matthew Henry explained how a loving God could hate the wicked:
That, however persecutors and oppressors may prosper and prevail awhile, they now lie under, and will for ever perish under, the wrath of God. He is a holy God, and therefore hates them, and cannot endure to look upon them: The wicked, and him that loveth violence, his soul hateth; for nothing is more contrary to the rectitude and goodness of his nature. Their prosperity is so far from being an evidence of God’s love that their abuse of it does certainly make them the objects of his hatred. He that hates nothing that he has made, yet hates those who have thus ill-made themselves.
The Methodist preacher John Wesley (1703-1791) echoed Matthew Henry’s contention that God hates the wicked, in his Commentary on Psalm 11, verse 5:
He chastens even righteous persons, yet still he loves them, and therefore will in due time deliver them. But as for the wicked, God hates them, and will severely punish them.
In his 1741 sermon, Sinners in the hands of an angry God, the American preacher Jonathan Edwards vividly depicted the wrath of God, directed at sinners:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the more hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Finally, in the nineteenth century, the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) declared that God hates the wicked in his commentary on Psalm 11 in his acclaimed work, the Treasury of David. Commenting on verse 5, he wrote:
Note the singular opposition of the two sentences. God hates the wicked, and therefore in contrast he loves the righteous; but it is here said that he tries them: therefore it follows that to try and to love are with God the same thing.
I was taught as a child that God loves the sinner, but hates the sin, and as a sinner myself, I am naturally reluctant to ascribe feelings of anger and hate to God. I have no theological qualifications; nevertheless, it seems to me that a strong Biblical case can be made for the view that God both loves and hates sinners. I also believe that the philosophical arguments which have been put forward by classical theists attempting to show that anger and hatred cannot be literally ascribed to God fail to establish what they set out to prove. To my mind, there appears to be nothing against reason in supposing that God does indeed feel a strong and constant opposition of will towards sinners, which can appropriately be described as anger.
15. Is God capable of empathizing with us? Does He know “what it’s like” to be me?
My comment: In her article, Omnisubjectivity, Catholic philosopher Linda Zagzebski defends the view that God fully empathizes with us (emphases mine):
I take for granted that if we could really “get” what it is like to feel what another feels, see what she sees, and know what she knows from her own viewpoint, we would have a deeper and better kind of knowledge of her than if we merely know that she sees grey, feels frustrated, and knows she made a mess in the market…. [I]t is not crucial for my point that the deeper kind of grasp be a form of knowledge. Perhaps it is understanding. In any case, it is an epistemic state, and it is epistemically better to have it than not to have it. If an omniscient being has perfect epistemic states, an omniscient being should have it. An omniscient being would have to have the deepest grasp of every object of knowledge, including the conscious states of every creature. The issue I want to address here is whether this is possible and what the state of grasping or knowing or understanding the consciousness of another being would be like.
My thesis is that omniscience entails a property I call omnisubjectivity. I will explain this property in more detail as the paper progresses, but briefly, it is the property of consciously grasping with perfect accuracy and completeness the first-person perspective of every conscious being. (PDF, pp. 1-2)
What I will call total empathy is the state of representing all of another person’s conscious states, including their beliefs, sensations, moods, desires, and choices, as well as their emotions…
I propose that an omniscient being must have perfect total empathy with you and with all conscious beings. This is the property I call omnisubjectivity. An omnisubjective being would know what it is like to be you, as well as what it is like to be your dog, the bats in the cave, the birds, the fish, the reptiles, and each human being yet to be born. An omnisubjective being would know everything you know or understand from living your life. (PDF, p. 7)
It seems to me that it is possible that there is an omnisubjective being, at least, I know of no reason to think it is impossible. And I also see no reason to think that the same being could not be both omniscient and omnisubjective. (PDF, p. 14)
Few of us dare to speculate on what the mind of God is like. If we think of God as like ourselves, only better, we fall into the error of thinking that the limits of human imagination are the limits of the possible. But it is very difficult to avoid this error if we also think of God as personal. Omnisubjectivity is an attribute that is distinctively personal, yet incomprehensibly immense. To me that is an advantage. I am speculating, of course, but I think omnisubjectivity makes more sense as a model of how an omniscient being knows his creatures than the model of the deity reading off all the propositions about the world in his mental encyclopedia. (PDF, pp. 20-21)
Objections to omnisubjectivity
As I see it, the most powerful objection to Professor Zagzebski’s position is that it seems to entail that God experiences the evil thrill felt by someone making a morally depraved choice (think of Hannibal the cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs), which is surely inappropriate for a morally perfect Deity. Zagzebski considers and in my opinion successfully rebuts this objection, by arguing that the sinner’s feelings are (inappropriately) directed at objects, whereas the corresponding feelings experienced by God differ from the sinner’s in not being directed at anything; hence they do not detract from God’s moral perfection. The philosopher and blogger Chad McIntosh discusses this objection to Zagzebski’snotion of omnisubjectivity at further length, in his sympathetic review of her 2013 Aquinas lecture, Omnisubjectivity: A Defense of a Divine Attribute. He also discusses another, related objection – namely, that omnisubjectivity would give God too much knowledge of our mental states:
Some might worry that omnisubjectivity implies too intimate a knowledge of creatures. For example, God might know what it’s like for me to feel sad, but does God know what it’s like for me to sin? Would this “contaminate” God’s perfect holiness and purity? Only if an empathetic representation of an immoral conscious state is itself immoral, answers Zagzebski. But when we empathize with evil people or fictional characters, it hardly follows that we are thereby immoral. Reading a biography of Hitler might enable us to empathize with his anti-Semitic attitudes and feelings, but we still respond to his attitudes and feelings as ourselves. Indeed, seeing things from a miscreant’s point of view facilitates fair judgment. For this reason Zagzebski thinks it not unlikely that God must empathize perfectly with sinners in order to exercise perfectly righteous judgment. Zagzebski does not address a related worry, however. Plausibly, some creaturely knowledge ought to be private. For instance, I know what it’s like to have intimate relations with my wife. And, intuitively, only I ought to know that. But omnisubjectivity implies that God also knows what it’s like for me to have intimate relations with my wife! At the risk of sounding crass, the example effectively captures a consequence some might find alarming, to say the least (Zagzebski’s response, relayed in personal communication: “get over it.”).
McIntosh raises a further objection to Zagzebski’s notion of Divine omnisubjectivity, relating to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:
Further, in addition to knowing what it’s like for me to see red, would the Father also know what it’s like for the Son to know what it’s like for me to see red? If so, we’re off on an infinite regress: if the Father knows what it’s like for the Son to know what it’s like for me to see red, then the Son must know what it’s like for the Father to know what it’s like for the Son to know what it’s like for me to see red, an so on.
However, this objection of McIntosh’s assumes that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit possess three distinct consciousnesses – a claim which I rebutted in my response to Question 2 above.
Finally, McIntosh argues that Zagzebski has failed to address an obvious reply that a classical theist (such as a Thomist) might make to her argument (emphases mine – VJT):
Finally, I would like to have seen Zagzebski interact with Yujin Nagasawa’s God and Phenomenal Consciousness (Cambridge, 2008), which presents a view of omniscience according to which omnisubjectivity is impossible. Nagasawa argues that if omniscience is understood in terms of epistemic powers, and if God does not ? as a matter of metaphysical necessity ? have the epistemic power to know what it’s like for me to see red, then this counts no more against God’s omniscience than the paradox of the stone counts against God’s omnipotence. In other words, cognitive perfection does not require God to be omnisubjective any more than being perfect in power requires universal possibilism [the ability to do literally anything – VJT], because what can be done delimits what can be known (Nagasawa’s account is especially relevant because it is consistent with thinking cognitive perfection entails having more than propositional knowledge). It is puzzling why Zagzebski doesn’t consider this view because it is ably represented in Thomistic and Anselmian traditions, with which she has much sympathy.
I think that Nagasawa makes a valid point with regard to Divine omniscience, when he claims there are certain epistemic powers which cannot coherently be ascribed to God. Perhaps, a classical theist might urge, the demand that God should be omnisubjective amounts to asking God to do that which is impossible for Him to do.
Or perhaps not. In my opinion, Zagzebski’s notion of omnisubjectivity has not been convincingly shown to be incoherent, and the notion is an appealing one. In any case, I think that Zagzebski’s article marks an outstanding contribution to theology as well as philosophy: if she is right, it means God is in a real sense with us, in the midst of our suffering, even though He cannot suffer, Himself.
16. Does God have any duties towards us?
My comment: In his work, Moral Philosophy (Book II, Chapter I), Fr. Charles Coppens S.J. articulates the traditional view that God has no duties towards His creatures:
Since God cannot be bound or limited, He has no duties towards His creatures, although He possesses sovereign rights over all creation. 3. Hence, man has no rights with regard to God; he has duties only. These duties, which God has imposed, confer upon him a right to the means required to attain the end of his existence. Thus man’s dependence upon God is a duty prior to all his rights, and, at the same time, it is the source of all his rights. Once God has deigned to bestow upon us the right of existence, He owes it to His own infinite attributes to perfect His gift by endowing us with all the rights necessary for our existence as men.
But this view seems to entail that no matter how much suffering God inflicts on an innocent human being (e.g. a newborn baby), and no matter how prolonged that suffering is, it is impossible for God to wrong that individual. The view that God has no duties towards His creatures also seems to entail that God could justly command one human being to inflict any harm whatsoever on another human being – murder, rape, torture or unnatural sex – without committing any injustice whatsoever. Defenders of Divine Sovereignty have a ready answer to these objections: God, they argue, is all-good, and could never inflict any harm on an innocent human being unless it was for the sake of their (or someone else’s) long-term good; nor could He order anyone to harm another human being unless it was for their (or someone else’s) long-term benefit. Additionally, God could never order any human being to perform an unnatural act, as that would run contrary to human nature, of which He is the Author. However, defenders of Divine Sovereignty concede that God may justly take the life of an innocent human being, and that He may even (in exceptional circumstances) command one human being to take the life of another, innocent human being.
As I see it, the main problem with this defense is that it makes God a utilitarian: it would, in principle, allow God to inflict an unlimited degree of suffering on a particular human being – or to order someone else to inflict the same suffering on the individual in question – provided that it was necessary for the ultimate good of that person, or for the “greater good” of the human race as a whole. Thus a defender of Divine Sovereignty would have to maintain that while utilitarianism is a bad ethical theory for human beings to follow (as they don’t have perfect knowledge of the long-term goods which will result from their actions), it is perfectly appropriate description of how God acts in the world. On the “Unlimited Divine Sovereignty” view, then, human beings possess a merely instrumental value vis-a-vis their Creator, as means whereby God realizes His ultimate plan.
Nevertheless, it is an historical fact that for the past two millennia, Christian theologians and teachers have consistently defended the view that since God is the sovereign Lord of life and death, He may with perfect justice take a man’s life, and He may also command one human being to take another human being’s life. Thus St. Augustine defended the slaughter of the Canaanites, on the grounds that “the abominations of the Canaanites merited the punishment which God, as Master of the world, meted out to them by the hand of Israel” (In Hept., III, 56; P.L., XXXIV, 702, 816). St. Thomas Aquinas is even more explicit, in his Summa Theologica II-II q. 64 art. 6 (reply to objection 1):
God is Lord of death and life, for by His decree both the sinful and the righteous die. Hence he who at God’s command kills an innocent man does not sin, as neither does God Whose behest he executes: indeed his obedience to God’s commands is a proof that he fears Him.
Aquinas elaborates his views in a discussion on whether the natural law can be changed. Like most Christian philosophers and unlike many of his Muslim contemporaries, Aquinas was not a voluntarist; he did not believe that God can command just anything. According to Aquinas, God can only will what is reasonable. Consequently, he believed that the primary precepts of the natural law were unchangeable, as the fundamental good of each kind of creature (including human beings) is determined by its nature. Natural law scholar Mark Murphy provides some illustrations of moral principles that cannot change, according to Aquinas:
[T]o direct oneself against a good – as in murder (ST IIaIIae 64, 6), and lying (ST IIaIIae 110, 3), and blasphemy (ST IIaIIae 13, 2) – is always to act in an unfitting way…
On Aquinas’s view, killing of the innocent is always wrong, as is lying, adultery, sodomy, and blasphemy; and that they are always wrong is a matter of natural law….
(Murphy, Mark, “The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta ed.)
However, it needs to be borne in mind that for Aquinas, murder, adultery and theft are defined as violation of a person’s legitimate claims to their life, their spouse or their property. And human beings have no such legitimate claim against God, according to Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica I-II q. 94 art. 5, (reply to objection 2), Aquinas applies the same logic to the Biblical commandments against adultery and theft: everything (including goods and spouses) ultimately belongs to God.
Reply to Objection 2. All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner adultery is intercourse with another’s wife; who is allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Consequently intercourse with any woman, by the command of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another’s property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists.
On Aquinas’ view, then, God could never command anyone to engage in sodomy, but He could command someone to kill or to have sexual intercourse with an adult of the opposite sex – presumably with or without that person’s consent. There has to be something wrong with an ethical view which states that homicide, extra-marital sex and even rape can be justified by God’s command, but that sodomy cannot.
Another unfortunate implication of the traditional view of God’s sovereignty is that God could (theoretically) command one person to torture another, innocent person, if it were necessary to promote that individual’s long-term good. As I wrote in a recent post, titled, On worshiping the right God: Jerry Coyne asks a sensible question:
“But surely,” it will be urged, “an all-loving God could never command the torture of innocent children?” Not so fast. What if God (by virtue of His infallible foreknowledge) foresees that if a certain degree of suffering is not inflicted on this child, he will grow up to become a bad person, and eventually be damned? Would it then be consistent with the character of an all-loving God to command a human being to inflict the torture on the child – perhaps because it would have a more salutary effect on the child if it is inflicted by a human authority figure (e.g. a parent or schoolmaster)? And where does one draw the line between corporal punishment and torture, anyway? It seems that someone acting with good intentions, and at the behest of a Being possessing unlimited foreknowledge could justly inflict any degree of pain on an innocent human being, provided they knew that it was necessary for that person’s ultimate good.
In response, Christian apoologist Matt Flanagan has argued that every theory about right and wrong is vulnerable to the charge that it would allow torture under certain circumstances:
…[I]n fact every meta-ethical and normative ethical theory has the implication you refer to Consider utilitarianism: the theory that an action is obligatory if it maximizes happiness and good. It follows from this that if torture maximizes happiness, torture is obligatory. Similar things apply with Kantianism: the view that an action is obligatory if and only if it is categorically prescribed by reason. It follows that if torture is categorically prescribed by reason then it is obligatory to torture. The same is true with virtue ethics, the view that an action is obligatory if and only if, it would be performed by a virtuous person. It follows that if a virtuous person would torture then torture is obligatory. The same is true with natural law theory, natural law theory entails that if it was in accord with natural law to torture then torture is ok.
To this argument, I made the following reply:
I’m afraid this doesn’t follow. If the antecedent is logically (or by definition) impossible, then the consequent doesn’t follow, and hence could never hold true in any possible world. That’s the kind of ethical theory I’m looking for: one which makes killing the innocent and torture wrong by definition. How? Well, if (i) human beings are ends in themselves, as many deontological ethical theories hold, and (ii) human beings have libertarian free will, so that it is impossible to say about what choices they would (freely) make in this or that set of circumstances, then it follows that killing the innocent cannot be justified by appealing to (i) the greater good (as utilitarians do) or (ii) the long-term well-being of the individual involved … by appealing to counterfactuals relating to the bad choices the individuals would have made had they lived. The same goes for torture.
The question of whether God has any duties towards us boils down to this: from a God’s-eye point of view, are human beings ends-in-themselves or merely means to God’s ultimate ends? Putting it another way: are we God’s chattels or God’s children? The witness of Scripture is clear: God is our Father, and we are His sons and daughters. And it would be utterly absurd to deny that a father has duties towards his own children.
But, it will be asked, if God has certain duties towards His human creatures, then what binds Him to perform these duties? Who could possibly bind God? I would reply that God can bind Himself, and in fact, He does so, by choosing to be our Father and Creator.
I maintain, then, that God may not harm one human being in a way that would make him or her merely a means (or instrument) for realizing the good of another human being (or for that matter, the good of the human race as a whole). Likewise, God may not justly command one human being to harm another human being in such a fashion.