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

“God can do anything he wants!” (by David Opderbeck) December 13, 2011

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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