“God can do anything he wants!” (by David Opderbeck)

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School.  He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham. David’s post today is academic and complex, but he’s right in saying it is this distinction that was at work in the Rob Bell and hell debate with with Francis Chan. Chan’s appeal to submission to God at times sounded like nominalism. Read on, read slowly.

Nominalism, Voluntarism, and God’s Being and Will

“God can do ANYTHING he wants.”  So say Preston Sprinkle and Francis Chan in their book Erasing Hell.  It’s fair to say that this proposition is the cornerstone of Sprinkle and Chan’s theodicy of Hell.  “Won’t God get what he wants?”  So asks Rob Bell in his book Love Wins.  It’s also fair to say that this question, along with the belief that God wants everyone to be saved, is the cornerstone of Bell’s theodicy of Hell.

Both Sprinkle / Chan and Bell focus on God’s willBut is there something missing from their theodicies? Theologically, the question concerns the relation of God’s will to His nature.  Philosophically, the question relates to whether “universal” substances exist apart from their particular instantiations (“universals”), or whether substances are merely names for particular instances of things (“nominalism”).

Consider an apple.  What is an apple?  Is this particular apple on my kitchen table one instantiation of the substance “apple” – a substance with some sort of universal metaphysical  (“beyond-“ or “above-“ physical) properties that are shared by all apples?  Or is “apple” simply a name I apply to this object before me as a result of some observable similarities with other objects (other things we also call “apple”) that have no metaphysical connection to the “apple” on my table?

What do you think?  Do nominalism and voluntarism improperly  taint our conversations about ethics, justice and theodicy?  Or, does “realism” about universals compromise God’s sovereignty?  How can we avoid speaking about God in ways that seem either to compromise His sovereign freedom or to reduce His actions to the arbitrary exercise of power?

For many who claim a modern scientific worldview, there are only particular objects called “apple,” which are more or less related to other particular objects in morphology and chemical composition, all of which are categorized as “apples” for the sake of convenience.  What is “real,” in this view, is merely chemistry and physical laws, not any substance “apple.”  In contrast, for those who believe in universal properties, “apple” implies properties that are real and transcendent of any one apple.  This apple on my table has properties such as “red” in common with other apples because those common properties transcend any one particular apple.  (For a good overview of the problem of “universals,” see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The modern nominalist view of “nature” derives from and is related to nominalist and “voluntarist” views of God in late medieval philosophy.  The medieval scholastic philosophers wrestled with this question:  Is God’s will a product of God’s rational nature, such that God only calls things “good” that are substantively “good”?  Or is God’s will utterly unconstrained, such that God is free to call “good” whatever He desires to call “good,” without any limiting principle (referred to as “voluntarism”)?

One of the key figures in the development of these ideas was the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1288-1348).  Ockham took a strong – some would argue extreme – view of Divine sovereignty in relation to morality and ethics.  Here is an example of Ockham’s voluntarist approach:

I say that although hate, theft, adultery and the like have a bad circumstance annexed de communi  lege [“by the common law”] so far as they are done by someone who is obliged by divine precept to the contrary, nevertheless, in respect of everything absolute in those acts they could be done by God without any bad circumstance annexed. And they could be done by the wayfarer even meritoriously if they were to fall under a divine precept, just as now in fact their opposites fall under divine precept . . . But if they were thus done meritoriously by the wayfarer, then they would not be called or named theft, adultery, hate, etc., because those names signify such acts not absolutely but by connoting or giving to understand that one doing such acts is obliged to their opposites by divine precept.  (Ockham, Various Questions, Vol. 5 (emphasis added)).

For Ockham, then, there was no “absolute” notion of “the good.”  “Good” is just a word we apply to whatever God commands.  The parallels to both Sprinkle / Chan’s and Bell’s theodicies are obvious.

This sort of view sounds humble and pious.  Who are we to question God?  The problem, however, is that it begs the question of who “God” is.

Before the rise of nominalism, Christian theology generally held that God’s being and will are inseparable.   God is “simple” and does not have separate “parts” such as “being” and “will.”  This means that God wills and acts as He is.  If God acts in ways that are “loving,” it is because  in His Triune being “God is love” (1 John 4:8); and if God acts in ways that are “just” it is because in His Triune being God is just.

To be sure, Christian theology has always held that God’s essential nature is fundamentally unknowable by human beings, because God is radically other than His creation.  However, many of the Church’s great thinkers believed we could know about God either through His “energies” in creation (e.g., many of the Eastern Fathers) or by “analogy” to the being of creation (e.g., Thomas Aquinas).  At the very least, the apophatic theologians held that we can speak about what God is not like.

Nominalism and voluntarism, in contrast, divorced God’s will from His being, and thus drastically limited the role of theology for ethics.  As theologian John Milbank notes,

In the thought of the nominalists . . . the Trinity loses its significance as a prime location for discussing will and understanding in God and the relationship of God to the world.  No longer is the world participatorily enfolded within the divine expressive Logos, but instead a bare divine unity starkly confronts the other distinct unities which he has ordained. . . .  This dominance of logic and of the potential absoluta is finally brought to a peak by Hobbes:  ‘The right of Nature, whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his Lawes, is to be derived, not from his creating them, as if he required obedience as of gratitude for his benefits; but from his Irresistible Power.’” (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, at pp. 15-16 (quoting Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.))

Catholic philosopher Edward Feser recently summarized the fruits of Ockham’s reductionism as follows:

the Renaissance humanists’ revolution in culture, Luther’s revolution in theology, Descartes’ revolution in philosophy, and Hobbes’s revolution in politics also have their roots in Ockhamism.  With the humanists this was manifested in their emphasis on man as an individual, willing being rather than as a rational animal.  In Luther’s case, the prospect of judgment by the terrifying God of nominalism and voluntarism – an omnipotent and capricious will, ungoverned by any rational principle – was cause for despair.  Since reason is incapable of fathoming this God and good works incapable of appeasing Him, faith alone could be Luther’s refuge.  With Descartes, the God of nominalism and voluntarism opened the door to a radical doubt in which even the propositions of mathematics – the truth of which was in Descartes’ view subject to God’s will no less than the contingent truths of experience – were in principle uncertain.  And we see the moral and political implications of nominalism in the amoral, self-interested individuals of Hobbes’s so-called “state of nature,” and in the fearsome absolutist monarch of his Leviathan, whose relationship to his subjects parallels that of the nominalist God to the universe.

I might not agree completely with Feser’s hasty appraisal of Luther.  Note, however, Feser’s reference to judgment by “the terrifying God of nominalism and voluntarism – an omnipotent and capricious will, ungoverned by any rational principle….”  If the governing principle of a theodicy is that “God can do ANYTHING he wants,” how does that theodicy avoid the capricious, irrational god of nominalism and voluntarism?  How could even someone presently confident of his election to salvation have any reason to believe that his election will not be suddenly and arbitrarily revoked on the last day?  Why should God keep His promises?  At the same time, if the governing principle is that “God always gets what he wants,” how can human beings retain any moral freedom or responsibility?

Note also Feser’s linkage between nominalism, voluntarism, and ethics.  If law and ethics derive from God’s commands, and God’s commands are the product of pure, ungoverned power and will, then what principle can check the tyranny of earthly rulers who claim absolute and unquestionable power on the basis of Divine right?

Finally, note Feser’s reference to epistemology.  This relates to the broad question of universals versus nominalism, because a belief in metaphysical universals suggests that God first conceives of and then brings into existence by His commands a reality with stability and purpose.   For Augustine and Aquinas, universals were Ideas in the mind of God, and so to investigate the order of things was to learn something of God.  For Ockham, there was no reason for any similarity between things other than God’s choice.  This lead Ockham to conceive of “science” as a strictly empirical and logical investigation into particular things, a move that led to the sort of empiricism in which God is no longer a necessary “hypothesis” (ala Pierre Simon-Laplace and Richard Dawkins).

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  • This in many ways gets to the heart of Calvinist theology which is in the forefront of many theological discussions these days. Even my daughters, whom I homeschool, have picked up on the idea that God can do anything he wants. When I have expressed that God cannot act outside of his nature, they are incredulous.

    My problem with this thinking, as expressed by Ockham and even somewhat by Aquinas is that it ignores scripture and presents a God who resembles Allah more than Jesus. Lewis writes of God worthy of worship, not because of his power, but because of his goodness.

    We worship a God who lives in loving relation within the Trinity and with creation. While I can’t get to the point of all will be saved, as some don’t want to be, I also can’t accept that God is choosing who will go to Hell just because without him becoming a monster. If we are to trust God, then we must believe in his inherent goodness.

  • See, the reason I teach “God can do whatever He wants” is because I don’t care to teach “God can do anything” — anything, to me, implies an ungoverned, capricious omnipotence that doesn’t take into account God’s love-centered character. The corollary is that God doesn’t want to do what he can’t do, such as be evil.

    That said, some things about God do strike me as being nominalist. Take the kosher laws. (For now let’s set aside the Christian explanations for why we can now enjoy bacon.) God declares pork unclean. The scriptures don’t say why, although there are plenty of guesses, educated and not; God just said no, and expected His followers to trust Him and abstain. He declared it off-limits, and so it was; violating His command becomes evil, and following it becomes good. So… how is this command’s goodness not derived from His good nature, rather than the goodness of His nature deduced by the goodness of His commands?

  • Stephen W

    “Won’t God get what he wants?”…”is the cornerstone of Bell’s theodicy of Hell.” This is an inaccurate understanding of Bell, I feel. The cornerstone of his theodicy is that God, in love, has given free will to mankind to embrace him or reject him. God’s will is that all are saved, but God’s love mandates that we have freedom to choose. Which is why, either way, Love Wins.

    “To be sure, Christian theology has always held that God’s essential nature is fundamentally unknowable by human beings, because God is radically other than His creation.” Again, I disagree on two counts. First, God is not “radically other” than his creation. As a creative person myself, I recognise that what I make comes out of who I am – it expresses me and in a way is part of me. To create something radically other than myself is impossible. Now maybe for God it is possible but firstly I see no reason why he would and secondly I see no evidence to suggest that he has (effects of the fall not withstanding). Rather, the creation is an expression of who God is.

    On the second count, and connected, God’s nature is not fundamentally unknowable. It may be that with eternity to spend none of us will ever explore the full depths of God’s being, but what we do discover of God must be knowable, must be genuine and must be solid. If God genuinely wants relationship with us, we have to be able to know him (in a way that makes sense to us) otherwise there can be no foundation.

    Related to this, what God reveals of himself to us – and the terms he uses to reveal himself in – must relate to our understanding and, inasmuch as we can grasp, must be genuine in our understanding. Otherwise you simply cannot trust this God.

    Example: If I say I’m going to give you a cream cake and then smack you over the head with a baseball bat then, once you’ve recovered consciousness, you’ll probably want to understand what just happened. If I explain to you that to me “give you” means “hit you with” and “cream cake” means “baseball bat” then, whilst this may actually be true, it gives you no comfort and undermines your trust in me. If what I say is divorced from your understanding, it makes no difference how righteous I am or how entitled I am to have things my way, it leaves you without any firm foundation for trusting me or relating to me.

    If God says that he is love, then it HAS to be love as we understand it, otherwise the statement has no value to us. Furthermore, God must act in a way that is consistent with his claim to be love, otherwise we cannot trust him. To say that “God is love”, but that his kind of love is of a fundamentally different nature and unknowable to us makes the claim “God is love” worthless. If I don’t understand what “love” means to God, then “God is love” is a meaningless concept to me.

    Instead, God is what he has revealed himself to be – only infinitely more so. God is love as I understand love to be, only of a vastly greater quality and quantity than I understand. But what I understand still has to be true, still has to make sense to me, otherwise I cannot trust in or have relationship with this being. Both my reading of scripture and my experience of God himself prove this to be true; I CAN trust him, I CAN rely on him, I stand on solid ground. Using my previous example, my relationship with him has led me into a progressively greater understanding of love as I have come to understand his character better (and in turn has made me a more loving person). And I get to explore this, move deeper into this, for the rest of eternity because there is no end to his love.

  • I will confess that I find it hard to connect God’s will to talk of God’s “nature” in any literal sense that does not seem to involve pre-modern projection and an attempt to make literal things we cannot possibly understand or conceptualize apart from analogy and metaphor. I don’t think language of God’s nature makes sense except as a metaphor that helps us simplify what is incomprehensible to us. But this position need not imply that God will want something other than consistent ethical action of a particular revealed sort. What if God’s will is to act consistently in a certain way in this universe? Then we don’t have to get off on pre-modern discussions of “nature.” We can simply talk of good and evil as God has chosen to define them in this universe.

  • Bob

    I don’t believe in Divine Command theory, but what about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Would Abraham be charged with attempted murder? Does Kierkegaard work this out in Fear and Trembling?

  • “God can do anything he wants!”

    “Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be you name.
    Your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Am I giving God permission to act in that way if I stand in agreement with the statement?

    Am I telling God that he can’t, if I disagree?

    I believe that God has shown us the primary way to get to know him and his character and that is through his Son, Jesus Christ.

    I leave these debates to others, yet I am intrigued by them.

    I just go back and read 1 Corinthians 1:6-16, and I become more satisfied with my lack of understanding in certain matters.

    I may return to this later…

  • Taylor G

    Please explain how you are using the term theodicy.

  • Interesting. I never looked at it this way. But I too would basicly say that Gods will is inseparable from His nature, like the church fathers teach… And I also would affirm with them that Gods essence is unknowable, and therefore we cannot say that God is necesarily ‘rational’ in any human sense. It would be human hubris to think that we can figure Gods out completely…

    God can do anything He wants, sure, but He cannot want anything that contradict His being. And even then, God is love, and likewise the greatest of all laws Jesus, the fullest revelation of God, brought us is the double love of god and man.

    I don’t know if this actually is contradicting with Rob Bell, but it is surely not compatible with calvinism and a lot of Western Christianity, and Chan…

    (The universals is another question. Maybe there are common things that constitute the ‘appleness’ of all apples -like the DNA of Malus ssp.- and even that is quite vague, but both sides of the universals debate don’t resonate much with me either. [I’d choose Socrates if I have to choose between Plato and Aristotle!])

  • dopderbeck

    Good comments so far.

    Stephen W (#3) — God in esse is transcendent of creation and hence is unknowable. I take this to be basic teaching of Scripture and the Tradition. But when can know about God analogically. So, you are correct to say that we can have some reliable sense of what God’s “love” and “justice” are like, because we experience the phenomena of “love” and “justice” in creation and as created beings (and as you note, created beings who in a unique sense are sorts of co-creators). We can also have some reliable sense of what God’s “love” and “justice” are like because of the incarnation — in becoming man, Christ lived among us, died for us, and rose again precisely so that this transcendent God could be immanent — “God with us.” Finally, another aspect of God’s condescension to us to make Himself known is of course scripture. In the human words of scripture, God reveals His divine will and purposes.

    And so, through all the sources of theological authority — scripture, tradition, reason, and experience — we obtain reliable knowledge about what God is like. But, this is analogical — it is not knowledge of God in His essence, which remains transcendent.

    Gary (#6) — when we ask for God’s “kingdom” to come and for His “will” to be done, what does that mean? I suggest that the notions of God’s “kingdom” and “will” have substantive content and are not simply arbitrary and hence meaningless notions. The substantive content — the establishment of shalom in all of creation — is evident, I think, from the first page of scripture to the last.

  • dopderbeck

    Ken (#4) — I’m very, very surprised by your comment, give your commitment to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I don’t know what you mean by “pre-modern projection,” but it seems to me that “pre-modern” is exactly, precisely, 100% where we need to be here. Nominalism and voluntarism and the forerunners of modernity. You can trace a philosophical genealogy from nominalism and voluntarism to Kant to Mill to the modern death of God. The Tradition aspect of the Quadrilateral is vital to recover here, IMHO.

    Now, you also comment about making a “literal” connection between God’s will and nature. Who said anything about “literal?” For the Fathers, and for Aquinas, whatever we say here is necessarily “analogical,” not “literal.” Getting over the priority of the “literal” over the “analogical” is one of the principle reasons we need to recover pre-modern thought.

  • dopderbeck

    There’s another nice quote, BTW, that I left off the main post, which I’ll dump in here:

    As Protestant theologian Hans Boersma notes in his recent book Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, after voluntarism and nominalism, “nature, now separate from reason, became fundamentally unintelligible,” and “the link between divine will and divine knowledge, between God’s goodness and his truth” was severed. The result was skepticism about any ability to reason about truth claims and “an emphasis on predestination in which God appeared to take arbitrary decisions about the eternal salvation and damnation of human beings.”

  • Re Ken #4 and David’s rejoinder #10. Bonhoeffer made the comment in Ethics that the knowledge of good was just as much a part of the problem as the knowledge of evil. “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. We were meant to trust God (not understand Him or His choices) and let Him sort out good and evil.

    Seems that once you adopt these abstracted categories you inevitably are driven to our current confused state. What if ethics aren’t derived from anything, as if they are free floating principles anyone could comprehend? What if before ethics, there is a God and His trusting people? And you enter into that people and are trained into their distinctive way of life. Is learning “ethics” more like learning the trade of bricklaying than getting a degree in philosophy?

  • Stephen W

    dopderbeck – surely the point is to know God, not to know what he is like?

  • dopderbeck

    Dru (#12) — I confess I’m not a Bonhoeffer expert, but if that summary is correct, then I think he was wrong. I would argue that the lack of philosophical categories is what has led to our “confused state,” in which terms like “good” and “evil” are evacuated of any meaning.

    You mention that we were “meant to trust God….” Yes. But what does it mean to “trust” someone? “Trust” is always rooted in some confidence about a person’s inherent nature. If we cannot have any knowledge of God’s nature, not even analogical knowledge, then we simply cannot “trust” Him.

    “We love him because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). It seems to me basic to the Christian concept of grace that we come to “trust” God not because of His power, but because of his love. I may tremble and abase myself before a being of awesome, aribtrary power, but I can’t see how that could be called “trust,” “worship,” or “love.”

  • dopderbeck

    Stephen (#13) — how do you “know” someone without knowing what they are like? If I didn’t have some knowledge of the truth that my wife is loving, kind, faithful, intelligent, etc., there is no way I could claim to “know” her, nor is there any way that I could claim to “love” or “trust” her. Certainly I could not stand and make marriage vows with her without some knowledge of this sort.

    Again — analogical knowledge is not rationalistic knowledge — it is “ana,” above, logic. It is not illogical, but neither is it limited to cold, hard propositional syllogisms. It is, in Polanyi’s phrase, personal knowledge.

  • Zach Manis

    Bob (#5) — Kierkegaard does indeed have some interesting things so say about this issue, but I think you’re more apt to find his own view in _Works of Love_, not in _Fear and Trembling_. The main point of F&T, I take it, is that God’s commands could run counter to *social morality* (think Hegel), not that they could run counter to what is truly morally right. For an excellent treatment of these issues, see C. Stephen Evans, _Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Requirements_.

  • Zach Manis

    Here’s a simple way I present the problem to my students.
    If God can do ANYTHING, then God can make ANY proposition true. Here’s one to consider:

    P: God does not exist, and God has never existed in the past either.

    Do we really want to say that God can bring it about that P is true?

    Here’s a slightly more complicated — but I think equally important — way of putting the problem. Any plausible solution to the problem of evil will take this form: One will present some greater good (free will, perhaps, or soul-making, or love, or eternal communion with God) which is such that, God COULD NOT bring about this greater good in creation without (at least) permitting evil. Obviously, this solution requires that there are some things God cannot do. If there is no such greater good, then the problem of evil is unsolvable. There will be no justification for God’s allowance of evil, because there was no good thing that He would have forfeited by preventing/eliminating every bit of it.

  • I am usually raked over the coals for my line of thinking. But for a long time now, the way I make any sense of statements like “God is love” is to say that in specific situations where one might act to individual or corporate benefit, God consistently acts in that way. I cannot, on a technical level, make sense of any universal (positive) predicate of God without expressing it as a matter of collecting together particular actions he takes in specific situations and contexts.

    This of course applies to all other agents or general categories as well. I don’t know what it might mean to say that Ken is a generous guy other than to say that in contexts where a person might be generous, Ken is consistently generous. I don’t have generous “in” me or in some supposed “nature” I have. I have a predisposition to act in a certain way in certain specific, particular circumstances.

  • Michael Allen Gillespie has written a couple useful books in this arena also, The Theological Origins of Modernity and Nihilism Before Nietzsche. He draws the link between Nominalism/Voluntarism with reference to God, and the consequence magnification of human willing as a defense. The ever increasing power attributed to the human will led to the nihilism of Nietzsche and our age.

    One way I deal with this issue in my teaching/preaching is to argue against DEFINING God (often done in terms of abstract attributes like the Omni’s) in favor of IDENTIFYING God (in the histories of Israel & Jesus).

  • dopderbeck

    Ken (#16) — but to use a words like “act” and “benefit” implies some kind of ontology. “Act,” for example, implies some sort of intentionality, and intentionality implies being. “Benefit” implies that something is “good” with respect to something else, and that also implies being.

    It might be true that knowledge of particulars informs knowledge of universals. For example, I collect many observations of “apples,” and I can start to construct a phenomenology of the universal properties of “apples.” If you’re suggesting that only empirical knowledge of particulars counts, however, I’m not sure I would agree with that. In any event, the fact that we gain can gain empirical knowledge of properties doesn’t determine the question of whether they are universals or merely particulars.

    Regarding your example of generosity — aren’t you just begging the question? What does it mean for Ken to be consistently “generous?” If Ken consistently steals apples from his sister, would we call him “generous” in virtue of those consistent actions? Why not?

    Finally, with regard to an inherent “nature” — isn’t the question of inherent properties of Divine and human “nature” one of the fundamental themes of New Testament theology? It seems to me that a thick metaphysic of being is essential to Christology and soteriology, since salvation is characterized as participation in the life of Christ (e.g., John 15:1-7)

  • John W Frye

    Early Christian theism succumbed to Platonic universals, in particular, the perfect. This acquiescence created forms of Theology Proper that were/are alien to God of the Holy Scriptures; forms that come to focus on power (under the term sovereignty). When Theology Proper begins with the *perichoresis*-the Trinitarian love dance–we begin to marvel at and are drawn to the self-giving relationality of God rather than cower under God’s brute sovereignty.

  • dopderbeck

    John (#21)– well, I would argue that “early” Christian theology is where the idea of perichoresis develops, particularly through the Cappadocian Fathers as they employed but also transformed Platonic categories of being. “Later” Christian theology, particularly later Medieval theology, is when the metaphysics of being start to get abandoned in favor of nominalism, and *this* is when when theologies of raw power really becomes dominant — and this problem persists to this day, particularly in some Protestant theologies (such as many kinds of modern evangelicalism) that have taken nominalism and ran with it.

    You raise an important point, though, about Christian vs. “Platonic” understanding of universals. The brilliant (IMHO) move of Patristic theology was to locate universals in the being / mind of God. The abstract Platonic “forms” thereby were rendered in Trinitarian terms. Creation proceeds not from a cold, uncaring nous, but rather from the creative Logos that proceeds from the loving perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity. And so, the very nature of creation is love. This is why we can speak of an “analogy of being,” why “love” is not merely a function of arbitrary, unintelligible will.

  • All the best in your work! Appreciate your engagement…

  • Ryan Copeland

    There’s no room in Christianity for Philosophy, I only made it through the first 3 paragraphs and gave up. If you are going to enter a debate about God’s character, use scripture, since that is the only thing he’s given us.

  • Tom F.

    I don’t have too much to say, other than to comment that this discussion put in much clearer, more concise terms what has seemed to me to be a central issue in various theological debates, especially the debates around Hell and election. I very much appreciate the framing of the discussion and some of the other sources referenced here.

  • Amos Paul

    @19 Richard,

    I enjoyed your utilization of contrasting the rhetoric defining vs identifying, but what if the Tri-Omnis *are* a way of identifying God? Theologically speaking, that’s what many of the fathers and theologians of the past have done. They say that the Omni’s refer to God, but do not ‘define’ him. strictly speaking This is why they’re so open-ended. It’s merely knowing/loving God with our minds *indirectly*.

    @24 Ryan,

    I’m afraid that statement just doesn’t work. God gives you *first* your mind and your experience, then comes Scripture after you have already been formed directly in imitation of His image.

  • @David #9 – I agree with your comments, my concern, is that some are so overwhelmed by so much knowledge and are content to simply rest in the mystery that is God, not seeking to know him outside of the limited knowledge that they have become content with.

    I would love to see more seeking to know God more, and more seeking to join God in his ongoing work of reconciling all things to himself, the establishment of Shalom.

    “I believe that God has shown us the primary way to get to know him and his character and that is through his Son, Jesus Christ.” And I believe that the story of Christ is intricately woven throughout the entirety of scripture.

    I apologize if this steps out of aim of your original post.

  • Ryan #24, you say that there’s no room in Christianity for philosophy, and yet you are expressing a philosophy when you say, “If you are going to enter a debate about God’s character, use scripture, since that is the only thing he’s given us.” You are describing something of a worldview by which you operate and how you approach the nature of reality.

  • EricG

    Great post Dave. My reaction to Chan’s voluntarism was the same as yours — it creates a capricious god. This issue lies behind a lot of the theological debates — not just about hell — on this blog and elsewhere.

    My question, though, is this: By focusing your criticism of Chan and others on the second part of the Euthyphro dilemma, I’m not sure what your answer is to the first part of the dilemma.

    You say, for example: “If God acts in ways that are “loving,” it is because in His Triune being “God is love” (1 John 4:8); and if God acts in ways that are “just” it is because in His Triune being God is just.”
    What is defining just and love here?

    (Also, FWIW, my understanding of Bell’s question that you quote was that he was making a rhetorical point with his question, not suggesting that God’s will does dictate the result. But who knows, because his position isn’t all that clear).

  • dopderbeck

    Eric(#29) — I think locating “good” in God’s being answers the first part of the Euthyphro dilemma. “Good” is not something that stands beyond God and thereby dictates His will. Rather, God is good, and God always acts and commands as He is. Good is not then an arbitrary act of will – it is a relational truth, defined by the ontology of God’s Triune being. Being and relationality are key — the nominalist / voluntarist view of God tends towards a monarchianist position in which God is really nothing but the will of the Father.

  • Marc Swikull

    The greatest problem I see with the theology of folks like Francis Chan and Rob Bell is that they take one or two attributes of God and treat them as if they are unbound by other aspects of God’s nature–i.e., as if those other attributes are not truly essential.

    I would love to see an equally intelligent discussion on the issue of God permitting evil for the sake of His Glory, or even merely the role that God’s glory plays in His motivation for action, something that Francis Chan, John Piper, and some others, seem to treat as primary.

    In any case, great discussion.

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