Doodle: Euthyphro and the Freedom of God

J. I. Packer“Does omnipotence mean that God can do literally anything? No, that is not the meaning. There are many things God cannot do. He cannot do what is self-contradictory or nonsensical, like squaring a circle. Nor (and this is vital) can he act out of character. God has a perfect moral character, and it is not in him to deny it. He cannot be capricious, unloving, random, unjust, or inconsistent. Just as he cannot pardon sin without atonement, because that would not be right, so he cannot fail to be “faithful and just” in forgiving sins that are confessed in faith, and in keeping all the other promises he has made, for failure here would not be right either. Moral instability, vacillation, and unreliability are marks of weakness, not strength: but God’s omnipotence is supreme strength, making it impossible that he should lapse into imperfections of this sort.”

The above paragraph was penned by J. I. Packer (Affirming the Essentials), discussing what we mean by the adjective “almighty,” in the Apostles’ Creed. For most of my Christian life I have enthusiastically ingested every work I can get my hands on by Packer, always finding them agreeable and appetising. Therefore writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable. Admittedly, the uneasiness caused by Packer’s paragraph is mild, not mortally threatening; however – I feel – an important distinction needs to be made for the sake of theological health. “What is it?” I’m sure you are impatiently wondering. My issue is Packer’s use of the word: “Cannot.” While I am in agreement with Packer I would want to say this: There is nothing that God cannot do, but there are many things he will not do.

Silanion Musei CapitoliniSome readers will be familiar with the Euthyphro dilemma, found in Plato, which poses the question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Plato was asking if goodness is something that exists externally to the gods or whether whatever the gods declare to be good simply is. Packer skirts the dilemma by stating that God’s character is the measure of and motif behind all of his actions. But I cannot help feeling that we should avoid saying, ‘God cannot,’ and favour, ‘God will not.’ It might seem pedantic but – with Plato in mind – we should insist that God does not subscribe to any standard outside himself. Claiming that there are things God cannot do implies something less than omnipotence, divine freedom, and sovereignty. God is just, good, and loving; his actions express his character. But God is trustworthy because in his freedom he acts in accord with his character. Listen to A. W. Pink, in The Attributes of God: “So far from God being under any law of “right,” he is a law unto himself, so that whatsoever he does is right.”

Before closing I want to pick up on two doctrines that illustrate the distinction I have touched on. Firstly, creation was not necessary. When teaching Genesis 1-2 you are bound to hear the thought that God created humans because he was lonely. Wrong. Hear A. W. Pink again: “During a past eternity, God was alone: self-contained, self-sufficient, self-satisfied; in need of nothing. Had a universe, had angels, had human beings been necessary to him in any way, they also had been called into existence from all eternity…God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside of himself.” Secondly, God did not need act to redeem creation and rescue his creatures. Perhaps you have encountered this line of reasoning before: ‘Had God not acted to save sinful people he would not be loving.’ But that: (a) imposes an action from our expectation on God, implying he is not free, and (b) denies that the triune love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is perfect or complete without salvific action on God’s part. Commenting on God’s impassibility in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, D. A. Carson writes that God’s love is perfectly harmonious with his wisdom and will, clearly expressing his being, but we must assert that “If God loves, it is because he chooses to love.”

Hagia SophiaDrawing this post to a close I realise that my critique is both pedantic and imprecise. My hope, which is always the result of exploring God’s attributes, is that reflecting on God’s power and perfections you might praise him for his attitude towards us, the creation. God’s action towards us is not dictated by anything outside of himself. In both creation and redemption God decided to act, therefore we should rejoice that we are not products of necessity, nor are we pardoned by compulsion—it is all of grace.

Doodle: Hellenism, Ethics, and Old Testament Eschatology

Max Bemis, of the band Say Anything, sings: “God and death are none of my concerns / I’m no philosopher”. And these words have often struck an uneasy chord with me, provoking much reflection. Studying philosophy at college I noticed that from the pre-Socratics through to the Hellenistic philosophers, Greek philosophy gave little thought to god, except for when a godlike being was invoked to explain their philosophy, see Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But this is not to say that the Greeks did not believe in the gods, however anthropomorphic the Olympians were. Coming back to Bemis’ words, a difficult question to get one’s mind around is the difference between religion and philosophy, or perhaps faith and reason.

Antonio Verrio - OlympusIt seems to me, that the Greeks separated philosophy from their religious beliefs, as my lecturer Nathan Lovell said, ‘They no longer wanted to attribute the workings of their world to capricious gods seemingly little more than infantile projections of men.’ Philosophy came about to explain the world around us, what it is, why it changes, and where it comes from. And this was done with little reference to the Greek gods. Philosophy could provide epistemology and ontology, though both then and today it struggled to provide complete or consistent ethics. Furthermore the question of death, which, though running the risk of reductionism, we might call eschatology, fell largely by the way side. Perhaps these then are two distinguishing features between philosophy and religion. Only, they are not distinguishing features because philosophy does not deal with them, but because it lacks the depth to do so.

Generally, in Greek thought all the deceased went to Hades, but we must not assume that this the same as Sheol of Jewish thought. Without going into major detail, it is a well attested to fact that the Jews understood death very differently to their Greek counterparts. At the transfiguration we are shown that Elijah and Moses lived with God (Mark 9); in the Old Testament some believers did not die and went to be with God (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11); this was also asssumed of believers who died (Psalm 23:6; 16:10-11; 17:15). We are not given much explanation of it but, at the raising of Lazarus, an embryionic theology of resurrection is evident amongst the first century Jews (John 11). In Hebrew thought the great hope of a future when God would be with his people is hard to get ignore (Psalm 27:4; 73:25-26). A personal God, contrast with impersonal philosophy, offers eschatology, an answer in death. Whereas philosophy battles to provide any real answers about our future.

Raphael - AthensHow philosophers got around this is seen in the Hellenistic philosophies of the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. If we look at the Epicureans, their solution to this problem was extravagant and unchaste hedonism. Such an approach was (and is) not only exclusive and classist, since few could afford such an extravagent lifesytle, it was ultimately nothing more than hopeless distraction. Cynicism, on the other hand, radically devalued human life, reducing us to little more than stray dogs scrounging for scraps. But it is hard to think that the avoidance and abandonment of happiness is an argument proving that it cannot be lost. Lastly, Stoicism approached life rationally, excepting all that happened in a fatalistic manner, attempting to merely make the most of what is. This philosophy, not unlike existentialism, gives a bleak coating to life and denies questions of justice, while also leaving moral decisions to the aristocracy. It is therefore no wonder that most of these philosophies, at least in terms of their operating titles, did not last. But if we look beneath surface of how people think today we will discover more Hellenistic philosophy than we think.

When Jesus bursts onto the scene we see a major contrast to Hellenism, which was the fruition and expansion of Old Testamant eschatology. He promises a resurrection to new life, guaranteed by his own. He does not offer a pipe dream salvation or distract our eyes from the horizon, but gives us his Holy Spirit in the present who is a downpayment of our future, enabling us to live in light of it. Ethics, then, make sense, for we belong to a new kingdom; and they are not merely set forth by Scripture but are also engraved on our hearts by the Spirit who enables us to live as kingdom people. Does philosophy need god to make sense? I do not think it does. But does philosophy make sense of the burning questions that surround death? I do not think it can.

Doodle: “Isn’t Exclusivity Intolerant?”

Francisco Pradilla Ortiz - GranadFew Christian doctrines are more vehemently scorned than exclusivity. Not only does it presuppose that large swathes of people are, and have been, very wrong about who God is, but the intolerance dogmatic beliefs engender damages any hope of establishing peace on earth. I will risk losing your readership at this point by saying that I agree with these two statements: many people are wrong about whom God is and the existence of religion prevents peace on earth. As a Christian, however, I believe in exclusivity because I am convinced that there is one God, who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, see my post on cause versus revelation. In this post my aim is to prove that we cannot get away from exclusivity on matters of religion and God.

It is worth saying that your mounting distaste at this point is disagreement with Jesus, and not me, for he taught that he was the only true God and the exclusive means of attaining eternal life. I always marvel at history’s love for Jesus and the appreciation of this ideal itinerant preacher because it simply ignores what he taught; either, people are unaware of Jesus’ instruction or they prefer the repackaged and domesticated Jesus, happily remaining ignorant of what he really taught. So this post will also address the view of tolerance, which sees its role as rewriting history and redefining God in order to avoid arrogant exclusivity.

Most people today think that there are only two options when it comes to religion: the first is that all religions worship the same god and the second is that all religions worship different gods.

World ReligionsThe first view, a type of radical inclusivity, is extremely dismissive of the divine for it denies him/her/it the ability to clearly reveal itself to creation, unless of course it is part of creation. It asks us to imagine a god who either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making itself known. At the same time, this view says that all religions, with their widely divergent and distinctive theologies, are in fact wrong about who god is, owing to their specificity. The way this view would have us understand god is as some sort of ‘LCD god.’ More so, the problems that arise, over and above this view’s dummied down deity, is its arrogant claim to determine what God is like, and its illogical inclusion of contradicting theologies. For the sake of tolerance, this first view ignores the diverse richness of religion and replaces diverse beliefs with an inoffensive but vague god while making the offensive claim to define what that god is like, with the controlling attribute being transcendence. The second view – that there is in fact no god – has its own set of problematic assumptions. Essentially, and similarly to the first view, it concludes that every religion is wrong and therefore assumes itself to be the only right one. Since all belief about God is misled we are to conclude that disbelief has all the answers; proper knowledge, coming threateningly close to omniscience, is afforded to this select group of people, who we are meant to see as the possessors of exclusive truth. In my opinion, both of these views model proud exclusive claims, the type of claims that they set out to deny religion.

I hope you can see from my reasoning above that in many ways exclusivity is unavoidable. While the view of tolerance might be more palatable, it is not intellectually satisfying and is at many points quite offensive to or dismissive of more nuanced theology and religions.  The irony is that those who deny exclusivity in the name of tolerance do so from an intolerant and ultimately exclusive position.

Descartes’ Foundationalism: Presuppositions & Christianity

Descartes portraitUnlike the arguments for God that Aquinas bandied, which were a posteriori, relying upon inspection of the world, Anselm’s ontological argument is classed as an a priori argument. Studying Descartes one cannot help hear a clear resonance of Anselm’s ontological argument in Descartes’ perfect being. Descartes had arrived at the perfect being, by saying that it must exist; he tried to show that the perfect being gave the best explanation of our universe (McGrath, The Twighlight of Atheism, p32). But it is more how he got there, as well as the ramifications of that process, which I am interested in discussing. Descartes, though a confessed theist, has been rightly called a swing figure in the move towards naturalism. This is not obvious from the outset because Descartes was in fact a rationalist, and his philosophical Foundationalism relied solely upon thought, and not empirical examination of our world.

Firstly we will consider his process. His establishment of being by observing that he was thinking, even if that thinking was the act of doubting, was a brand new approach to epistemology. James Sire says it is here that we see the essence of the modern: the autonomy of human reason. Foundationalism meant liberation from all ancient authorities. It is important that we realize what was happening here; Descartes made the self primary in knowing. Truth was now available through human reason, nothing else was needed. So, even though Descartes next step was to invoke the perfect being as the reason that (a) our rationalism could be trusted and that (b) study of the world can proceed, it was too late; the repercussions of his rationalism, that was prior to the perfect being, would have results Descartes he never foresaw.

Secondly I will point out where Descartes’ approach took us, the ramifications of his philosophical system. It did not take long for the criticism that Descartes’ Foundationalism highlighted to conclude that this world does not really need a perfect being to explain anything, it is perfectly capable of running itself. The primacy of reason in explanation had replaced the primacy of God, Scripture or divine revelation. The next step was naturally to question whether the perfect being was needed at all. Surely, a system with human rationalism as primary did not need God at any point; a closed mechanical and material system removed Descartes’ second step, the perfect being, and shifted to trusting reason to explain reality. Another result was the accusation that this supposed perfect being cannot explain why our world is imperfect. With Descartes’ enthronement of reason and subsequent instalment of its prince, the perfect being, came difficult questions regarding pain and suffering and whether a perfect being sufficiently deals with them.

Finally, if we look at Descartes’ Foundationalism we see that there is in fact no such thing as ‘starting from nothing’; all systems are built on assumptions. Classic Foundationalism assumed that there are basis beliefs which guarantee their own truth. Descartes was that by thinking he knows that he exists. But why reach that conclusion? He assumed that thinking was proof of existence. It was from this basic assumption that he derived non-basic beliefs: first God and secondly that God’s existence means we can trust our senses and carry out inductive study of the world. But he constructed a system that assumed senses couldn’t be trusted in the first place, and reason could. The point is that all systems come with a preset of principles, or assumptions, which justify that system. Foundationalism, or rationalism, is no different.

Blake's Newton monotypeIn closing off I want to point out, drawing mostly from my last observation, that Christians need not fear philosophy. We have grounds to interact with and ask our own hard questions about other philosophical systems. Modernism, in whichever subcategory, firmly believes in the autonomy of human reason to carry out inductive and deductive study of our world. Most prominent atheists today, such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, are pulling the wool over the world’s eyes when they point out that theism is based on the false presupposition that God exists. I say this because they will not, for the sake of maintaining the strength of their own argument, acknowledge that they operate within a system based on assumptions about reality. They are working from the assumption that God does not exist, that he did not create the world. So there is strong rationalism. But what reason can they provide for the amount of trust that they place in the human mind alone? And there is strong empiricism. But, again, what reason do we have for trusting in our senses alone?

Because all systems are built on assumptions and beliefs are derived from them, our task is to examine the truth of both basic and the contingent beliefs as they relate to each other and to our world. People are in pursuit of a system that is consistent with itself and our experience. I believe that Christianity holds its own. The accusation that Christianity argues from a priori is misleading if the accuser fails to admit that they have their own basic beliefs. Christians believe that God created our world; he ordered it and gave us minds to study what has been made. In that statement alone we have grounds for inductive and deductive reasoning, the study of order installed by a Creator.

Jenson on Hegel: Philosophical and Trinitarian Principles for Relationships

Jenson, author of The Triune GodEarlier this year, for my systematics course, we discussed the modern issues surrounding Trinitarian theology I got to work on as essay dealing specifically with the difficulties regarding our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. While the readings – from luminaries such as T. F. Torrance, George Hunsinger, and Colin Gunton – were stimulating and helpful, it was the slightly unorthodox theology of Robert Jenson that grabbed my attention. And it is one particular point Jenson makes which I hope to draw out and apply in this post.

Jenson points out that one of Western theology’s major shortcomings is the trend (perhaps traceable to Augustine’s “bond of love”) to envelope the Holy Spirit within the other two Persons of the Godhead, reducing the Holy Spirit to the Personal Trinity’s capacity, void of any real personal capacity. Highlighting this problem in Karl Barth’s theology, Jenson notes that the Spirit is seen more prominently as the fellowship between Father and Son and not a partner of that fellowship. Similarly to Augustine’s phrase, Barth’s famous expression for the Spirit was, “the mediator of communion”. And according to Jenson, in practice we own an “I-thou” trinitarianism, which could more accurately be called binitarianism.

Jenson believes that the 20th century philosopher Hegel, whom he calls the greatest expositor of “I-thou” ontology, provides a helpful corrective for understanding relationships, both divine and human. Hegel was convinced that if persons are to be free for one another they must be both subject and object in their converse. But in a purely “I-thou” relationship a person can evade availability as an object, thus enslaving the other person. Relationships thus become open or hidden struggles for domination. Each person is vying to be the subject, or master, making the other party its object, or slave, intentionally or subconsciously.

Cover: Phenomenology of the SpiritHegel felt that mutually accepted objectifying and availability cannot happen without an intrusive third party who liberates the two parties and makes them free for one another. His solution to the “I-thou” impasse is that both subjects need to be objects of another. Otherwise each party can’t help but guard against increasingly becoming the object, by striving after ascendency as the subject. Jenson suggests that herein is the answer to many of the issues in modern trinitarian theology: Father and Son are free to love each other only when the Holy Spirit objectifies them, as subject the Spirit’s intention is mutual love between its objects.

Whether you fully understand Jenson’s pneumatological development based on Hegelian philosophy or not, let alone agree with it, it’s the corollary application I hope you’ll find helpful. You might think Jenson has overlooked significant answers the West does give, such as taxis in the Trinity and the monarchy of the Father, hierarchy without ontological inferiority. I remain unconvinced by process theology and the implications it has for trinitarian theology, such as the ontological derivation of the Son and Holy Spirit (a hallmark of Eastern theology). But that being said, Hegel and Jenson present us with a valuable principle for relationships, even if we have to limit it to the human sphere.

The principle that we can derive from Hegelian philosophy, which Jenson hints at, is the necessity of a third party in human relationships. Hegel argued that we see this in marriage, where a child (the intrusive third party and subject) objectifies its parents as well as serves as a mutual object of their love. Jenson goes a step further than Hegel in saying friendships that are too exclusive will wither or become destructive. Conflict and confrontation over hegemony is the destiny of relationships that don’t make room for a third party. To paraphrase Jenson, if I am to be your object, and you mine, there must be one for whom we are both objects, whose intention is our mutual love. That is accountability, friendship and God’s design for human relationships. It is also a warning that most of us need to hear today.

Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Volume 1Nearly all of what I’ve said above is a summary of Robert Jenson, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: The Triune God (1997), p153-156. If you are brave then you can find the relevant sections on p104-116 of A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1977).