Re: A freely choosing God? (was: Faith, Evolution, and Tax Dollars?)

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Apr 06 2004 - 15:28:40 EDT

Thomas Pearson wrote:
> On Tuesday, April 6, 2004, George Murphy wrote:
> >>>It is belief
> in creatio ex nihilo that makes it possible to say that God freely
> chooses for there to
> be an other with whom God will be in loving communion. This is why
> Athanasius can say:
> "For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of
> goodness: nor could
> one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence
> to none, He has
> made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our
> Lord."<<<
> I'm not sure I'm reading you correctly here, George, but isn't there an
> implicit contradiction between any claim that "God freely chooses," and
> the words of Athanasius? If Athanasius is right, then God is
> constrained by his own nature; specifically, by the goodness of his
> nature. In that sense, Athanasius is telling us what God can't do, not
> what God "freely chooses" to do.

        No, I don't think that's what A is saying. 1st - & I didn't realize this till
I checked the Greek - "niggardly" doesn't seem like the right translation, A's word is
/phthonos/, which is "envy" or "jealousy." To say that God is not "niggardly" might
suggest some kind of principle of plenitude according to which God would create
everything that could exist. To say that God is not "envious" or "jealous" means that
God would not resent the existence of things (however many or few) other than God.

        & A is saying that God would not deny existence to the "other" because of envy
or jealousy. That does not mean that God is compelled to grant existence to the other,
because there might be other reasons why God would choose not to create.

        That A is not talking about something God had to do (or couldn't do) is clearer
if one looks at the whole passage. (This is from Chapter 3 of _On the Incarnation of
the Word_.) "For it [godly teaching and Christian faith] knows that it [creation] was
not spontaneous because forethought was not absent; nor of existing matter, for God is
not weak, but that out of nothing, and without its having any previous existence, God
made the universe to exist through his word ...." [Then follow citations from Gen.1,
The Shepherd of Hermas, and Rom.1, and then the passage I quoted earlier.] To say
creation was "not spontaneous because forethought was not absent" and that it was ex
nihilo (ex ouk onton) seems to me to mean that creation was something that God chose.

> Ever since the voluntarist account of God began to emerge among figures
> like Abelard at the turn of the twelfth century, it seems to me that
> there has been a something profoundly incommensurate between that
> voluntarist portrayal of God, and the more traditional picture of God as
> defined by his attributes (including omnipotence and perfect goodness).
> If God is a "free chooser" in any meaningful sense, then it's hard to
> see how God can be limited by the demands of his nature, as described by
> his attributes.
> Perhaps this is exactly the point you were making, George; but I
> couldn't quite tell.
> One other, related thing. You quoted Emil Brunner as saying:
> >>>"This, however, means that God does not wish to occupy the whole of
> Space Himself, but that He wills to make room for other forms of
> existence. In doing so He limits Himself. . ."<<<
> I have never understood the concept that God "limits himself." I can
> understand the concept that God may be limited by circumstances outside
> of himself, or limited by his own given nature, but not that God is the
> freely acting agent that limits his own agency (unless Brunner is
> reiterating a dubious paradox, such as the familiar "Can God make a rock
> so heavy that he cannot lift it?"). What is it in God that can produce
> this "limit," and what is it that is being limited? The whole concept
> seems oxymoronic to me, given orthodox Christian teaching.
> George, were you offering this citation from Brunner because you agree
> with his argument here? Or for some other reason?

        I agree with Brunner - though I don't think one has to use the spatial metaphor
to express the idea.

        The kenosis B refers to is of course that of Phil.2:7, so however difficult it
may be to make sense of it, it's something we have to wrestle with theologically. It's
true that "to empty onself" is not synonomous with "to limit oneself," but the phrase
has generally been taken to mean some kind of self-limitation. I.e., Christ didn't
display all the attributes & power of God in the Incarnation.

        The simplest way to understand this is to say that in the Incarnation Christ did
not make use of distinctively divine power & attributes but "hid" them. This is the
position that the "cryptists" took in the 16th-17th century debates with the
"kenoticists" who said that in some way Christ actually divested himself of some aspects
of divinity. The latter view runs into some serious problems. OTOH the cryptist view
is IMHO weakened by the tendency of some who hold it to say that Christ's divine power
was _usually_ hidden but that he used it to work miracles. If you think that all the
miracle stories in the gospels actually happened & that divine power was required for
all of them then not much remained hidden!

        IMO one can interpret kenosis with a _consistent_ cryptist view - i.e., that the
Incarnation meant that in taking the form of a servant Christ renounced the use of
divine power. (Admittedly one still has to deal with miracles & the Transfiguration.)
& this is the sense in which people today talk about kenotic views of divine action -
i.e., God chooses to limit what he does to what is within the capabilities of created


George L. Murphy
Received on Tue Apr 6 15:32:05 2004

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