God's self-limitations

God's self-limitations August 30, 2010

Several posters here seem to me to ignore an important presupposition of classical Arminian theology and of open theism.  (I could probably list some other theologies that also affirm God’s self-limitation, but our discussion has been mostly about these.)  That presupposition is that, in creation, as in incarnation (with important differences) God limits himself. 

All Calvinists that I know affirm some kind of divine self-limitation, although they are much less likely to promote it as a crucial theological idea than, say, open theists.  I argue that it functions as a “control datum” for classical Arminians, as well.  (Reformed scholar Richard Mueller has found this through his own archeology of Arminius’ theological influences and ideas.) 

The reason God is not the author of sin and evil is that he limits his power in relation to creation.  By his own choice he is not, in the inimitable words of Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper, a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.”  He COULD be because he is omnipotent, but he chooses not to be that kind of God.

Why?  For the sake of having real, rather than imaginary, relations with human persons.  (Perhaps also for the sake of having such relations with other kinds of persons, but we know little of that.)  We all believe that, in some way or other, God limited himself in the incarnation.  (Whether you are a kenoticist or not you have to believe in some kind of divine self-limitation in the incarnation.  Kenoticists just take it farther than, say, two minds or two consciousnesses Christologists.)  For example, he could not do miracles in certain times and places due to people’s lack of faith.

The idea of the “openness of God” to new experiences and to grief, etc., was proposed and promoted by Barthian theologian Thomas Torrance in Space, Time and Incarnation.  It was actually he, rather than Pinnock or any other open theist, who coined the phrase “openness of God.”  (See pp. 74-75 for the entire statement about God’s entering into time with us.)  Other non-open theist theologians who espouse a view of God limiting himself in relation to creation are Dallas Willard (see The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 245ff) and the previously mentioned E. Frank Tupper (see A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God, passim.) 

Why do these and many other theologians posit God’s self-limitation in relation to creation?  To make coherent belief in genuine personal relationships between God and persons and to avoid divine determinism which inevitably makes God the author of sin and evil. 

We don’t have to know all the “ins” and “outs” of God’s self-limitations to believe that he does limit himself and that his self-limitation is the reason for evil in the world.  That is, it is the indirect reason but not, of course, the effectual cause.  God allows evil without foreordaining it or rendering it certain.  Why does he intervene to prevent or stop it sometimes and not other times?  Well, we have no way of knowing that anymore than we can know why Jesus could sometimes do miracles and other times could not.  The reasons are hidden in God; he has not seen fit to tell us what they are.  We know faith sometimes plays a role.  Sometimes obedience does.  But we can’t know all the reasons.

I, for one, would rather believe God limits his power than believe that God’s power is the ulterior reason for whatever is happening.

For a powerful refutation of meticulous providence see theologian David Bentley Hart’s little book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans, 2005)  It’s a powerful critique of any theology that attributes all calamaties to God’s providence.  Hart doesn’t quote this adage (paraphrased), but his book is consistent with it: “Nobody should articulate a theology that cannot be spoken standing in front of burning children.”  Hart warns against any theology (such as he sees in consistent Calvinism) that makes God (however inadvertently) “morally loathsome.”  “[i]f indeed there were a God whose true nature–whose justice and sovereignty–were revealed in the death of a child or the dereliction of a soul or a predestined hell, then it would be no great transgression to think of him as a kind of malevolent or contemptible demiurge, and to hate him, and to deny him worship, and to seek a better God than he.”

The only way to avoid that (logically, in my opinion) is to affirm God’s voluntary self-limitations in relation to creation. 

Fortunately, most divine determinists (including most Calvinists and many Lutherans) DO NOT go so far as to attribute sin and evil to God.  In fact, most strongly deny that God is the author of sin and evil.  The point is, however, that logical consistency would seem to require that within their systems.  And we all know someone who has taken it that far. 

Calvinists often say that Armianians “can be” Christians by virtue of a “felicitous inconsistency.”  Well, I will say the same about Calvinists at this point.  Their theology requires, as a “good and necessary consequence,” that God be the author of sin and evil.  That they deny he is the author of sin and evil is a felicitous inconsistency.  I applaud them for not following the logic of their doctrines of providence and predestination to their natural conclusions.  However, I worry that many of the “young, restless, Reformed” people will carry it that far.  I have seen it done.

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  • John abcdarian

    John Calvin, and many of his followers, do not shirk from the logical of his system whereby God becomes responsible for all actions, whether willed or merely physical interactions:

    Calvin is quite unafraid to have a very meticulous God, down to personally directing the movements of atoms. Furthermore, Calvin wrote, “Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God?… The decree is
    horrible indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree…. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision. For it pertains to his wisdom to foreknow everything that is to happen, so it pertains to his might to rule and control everything by his hand. (3:23.7)

    A. W. Pink, – Clearly it was the divine will that sin should enter this world, or it would not have done so. God had the power to prevent it. Nothing ever comes to pass except what He decreed…God’s decree that sin should enter this world was a secret hid in Himself. —A. W. Pink, Gleanings from the Scriptures, (Chicago, IL, Moody Press, 1964), p. 207

    Dr. John MacArthur – Sin is something God meant to happen. He planned for it, ordained it—or in the words of the Westminster Confession, He decreed it. Evil and all it consequences were included in God’s eternal decree before the foundation of the world. —John MacArthur, Vanishing Conscience, (Waco, TX, WordPublishing, 1995), p.113

    “Even the fall of Adam, and through him the fall of the race, was not by chance or accident, but was so ordained in the secret councils
    of God.” Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination p. 234

    “All things that happen in all the world at any time and in all history—whether inorganic matter, vegetation, animal, man or angels (both
    good and evil ones– come to pass because God ordained them, Even sin- the fall of the devil from heaven, the fall of Adam, and every
    evil thought, word, and deed in all of history.” and “It is even biblical to say that God has foreordained sin.” Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, 1999.

    How different are those from Sproul jr.? no distance at al: “. . . God desired for man to fall into sin . . . God created sin . . .” R.C. Sproul, Jr., Almighty Over All, 1999.

    To the contrary, however, Justin Martyr- c. 100/114AD – c. 162/168 AD wrote, “Man acts by his own free will and not by fate.” (Second Apology, 7), “We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be . . . (First Apology chapter XLIII [43])

    Irenaeus (ca. 130-202), “Men are Possessed of Free Will, and Endowed with the Faculty of Making a Choice. It is Not True, Therefore, that Some are by Nature Good, and Others Bad.” Against Heresies (Adv. Haer.) III.3.4), and “Man is Endowed with the Faculty of Distinguishing Good and Evil; So That, Without Compulsion, He Has the Power, by His Own Will and Choice, to Perform God’s Commandments, by Doing Which He Avoids the Evils Prepared for the Rebellious. (Against Heresies Book IV Chapter XXXVII [37])

    Clement of Alexandria (190 AD), “Neither praise nor condemnation, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary.” (Miscellanies bk. 1, chap. 17).

    And what does God say?
    James 1:13: Let no man say when he tempted I am tempted of God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.

    1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father”

    John abc

    • JPC

      These are some real good quotes John, I am going to have to save them. Thanks

  • W B McCarty

    Dr. Olson, don’t you agree, against Hart, that the guilt resulting from original sin is a necessary part of an adequate Christian explanation of evil in the world?

  • One of the difficulties, though, is to figure out how this self-limitation works, especially if you reject open theism. For instance, I’ve recently been considering the kind of self-limitation required by Plantinga’s Free Will Defense (here and here), and it seems to me that on that view God ends up being limited prior to his decision to create. I haven’t yet figured out, to my own satisfaction, how bad this is, or whether having an atemporal God makes it better or worse.

  • Brandon Morgan

    What if sin and evil was defined as anti-ontological, in which case sin and evil is merely a regression toward nothingness? In this case, God could never be the author of evil or sin because there is nothing to become the author of. Sin and evil would then have more to do with a certain kind of movement and not an ontological reality. Wouldn’t this solve the problem of divine authorship by saying that God created in such a way as to allow for a movement of “de-creation?”

    I have always been interested by theologies of divine limitation, mainly because everybody means different things when they say it. Some mean a limitation of essence, characteristics, will, knowledge, power, or all of these or none of these. Some only mean it based on the choices God has made to create and to have a covenant relationship. But my hang up is more basic. I always thought ideas of self-limitation are innately contradictory because it claims that God is essentially the kind of God that such ideas of self-limitation are meant to solve. You have to affirm that God is what you don’t want God to be (the all determining reality) in order to affirm divine self-limitation. What you are trying to disavow by claims of self limitation is actually required for self limitation to make any sense. God as the all determining reality is covertly affirmed by the idea of self limitation because it is from that reality that God limits Godself. Of course this also requires a contrastive view of God.

    • Brandon,

      Regarding your first paragraph – it strikes me as a very Augustinian thought process, but one I’ve seen affirmed even by Arminians like Norm Geisler. I think this view has some very positive points to it. We tend to consider evil as a “thing” rather than as the mere negation of the good God made. If there was no command, there could be no trespass. If there was no trespass, there could be no forgiveness. Does this make the command blameworthy, or the trespass good? Certainly not. God directly causes only good, but allows (even ordains or decrees) the negation of it by His creatures. Why? Perhaps because the contrast helps us to truly appreciate the pure brightness of His goodness. Even the brightest light will create shadows when it falls across an object. Can we blame the Light for the darkness created by its negation? Can we blame the light bulb for the shadow under a chair, or should we just be thankful for the light revealing the food on the table? Depends how hungry we are, I suppose. Interesting issues raised here. I don’t have the answers to these speculations, but I like the direction you’re going.

      To the pure, all things are pure.


      • Brandon Morgan

        I would actually disagree with Augustine’s use of this doctrine as a way of justifying God’s secondary involvement in evil. (I’m not actually sure he would agree with your assessment here) I would definitely never say that God ordains or wills evil as a byproduct of God’s goodness. I would rather say that our situated freedom, to the extent that it moves toward grounding itself autonomously apart from God’s creative agency, gravitates toward nothingness, which is evil. Such nothingness is not ontological because it functions as the limitation of some ontological perfection. Evil cannot survive without the good. This would not require us to assume that evil exists only because there is good. This would, however, require us to say that evil does not exist–has no existent reality. This, of course, makes evil all the more deceptive in that we often scapegoat human evil on some purely evil being instead of recognizing it as nothing. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius often said that demons, to the extent that they exist, are good. If we are serious about creation ex nihilo, then it seems like we have to affirm this idea. But I would never say that God’s goodness necessarily creates an alternative “shadow” of evil. I would have to say that humanity’s will (which is, of course, a mystery of faith) turns in on itself and tries to fund its own existence. That funding is really nothing, which is why the philosopher Marion refers to it as vanity.

  • John abcdarian

    I am not convinced by the “evil is the absence of good” argument, and it is not a settled point of orthodoxy. Surely good and evil are not merely a disposition of a person, but operationalized or actualized through actions. A murder is an evil, and it is an action, not the negation of action or good, or else one ends up saying that the contrary is true, i.e., that good is the absence of evil.

    Furthermore, like Olson, I’m not convinced that statements about the nature of evil are of assistance in dealing with the “why”. The example of the light bulb does not share enough relevant points of correspondence to be a useful analogy and so does not through any light on the issue.

    If God creates a world in which gravity pulls rocks downhill, and he creates a boulder on the side of hill and near its top, is he not responsible for its rolling down hill even though he did not need to push it after its creation?

    I also find that discussions of such problems without grounding in the Biblical text results in abstruse discussions that frequently depart from God’s own perspective of morality and culpability. I would suggest that the two verses I cite above, as well as others, indicate that God would view as morally culpable one who “permits” evil to happen after setting up circumstances in which the performance of that evil is inevitable.

    John abc

  • This particular comment strikes me as particularly amusing.

    “Even the fall of Adam, and through him the fall of the race, was not by chance or accident, but was so ordained in the secret councils
    of God.” Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination p. 234

    How is it that Mr. Boettner was so informed about the decision making process in the secret councils of God?

    • W B McCarty

      A.M., I _do_ appreciate the humor apparent in the citation you offer. But the explanation is simple: The secret will of God is secret only as it pertains to the future. To the extent that we know the past, that part of the secret will that pertains to the past is no longer hidden from us.

  • Chris White

    Jesus, who is the exact representation of the Father (Heb.1) told Phillip: if you have seen me you have seen the Father (John 14) is how we should view God: one who limits himself because of his love for humanity. It seems that when one learns about God and his attributes, the primary and foremost attributes taught are the omni-‘s. We are taught that God has all power and is everywhere and knows everything–and this forms our view of God. What a difference could it make if we first described God not from his immutable and overwhelming attributes but from the attributes of Jesus, the God-man!!

  • John abcdarian

    How is evil nothingness? Is not love concrete actions toward God and others? Following and obeying Christ? Binding up the wounds of others?

    How is evil any less real in its actions? Telling lies like the father of lies. Inflicting wounds. Stealing. All very real, observable actions.

    Furthermore, the attitudes of evil have just as much reality as the attitudes of good and love. Lust in one’s heart is a particular attitude towards another person, just as forgiveness is.

    How can it make any sense to speak, as the Bible does, of cleansing if evil is nothingness. What is being cleansed? Nothing? One cleanses something of something else.

    Even if negation and nothingness is part of what evil is, it is not all of what evil is.

    John abc

  • Well, we have no way of knowing that anymore than we can know why Jesus could sometimes do miracles and other times could not.

    In actual fact, Jesus did not perform a single miracle, it was the Holy Spirit in him Who performed miracles, that’s why sometimes Jesus ‘could not do miracles’, so the Holy Ghost wanted to emphasize the importance of faith.

    I apologize for my English, so catalan is my mother tongue.

    God bless you all!