A Much Neglected Basic Choice in Theology

A Much Neglected Basic Choice in Theology December 26, 2010

Many evangelicals (and others) like to claim that their whole theology comes from the Bible, but there is at least one belief about God that every thinking person holds that is not at all directly addressed in Scripture.  And what one believes about this matters very much to much else in one’s thinking about God.  I sometimes wonder if this is really the underlying issue that gives rise to seemingly intractable debates about divine sovereignty.  It comes out clearly in Luther’s debate with Erasmus, but seems to be obscured in later debates between high Calvinists (and other deterministic versions of Reformed theology) and Arminians (and other synergists such as Anabaptists).

Recently someone posted a message here saying (I paraphrase) “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases.”  That’s a nice, colloquial expression of what philosophers of religion and theologians call “voluntarism.”  (Of course, like most good philosophical and theological words it has various meanings, but here I mean a particular one so hold–don’t assume anything yet.)  The roots and contours of philosophical-theological voluntarism are much debated by intellectual historians.  Some think it first appears in Christian intellectual history with Abelard; others date it back to William of Ockham and yet others think Duns Scotus is its first real formulator.  But there can be little doubt that Luther and Zwingli believed in it and simply assumed it as the correct view of God’s sovereignty.

Voluntarism is usually considered nominalism’s expression regarding God’s being and will.  Nominalism is a family of views that arose sometime during the Middle Ages in Europe.  Again, scholars trace it back to either Abelard or Ockham or Scotus.  It has many different expressions, but all have in common belief that universals such as “truth,” “beauty” and “goodness” are concepts or terms and have no ontological status.  The more traditional view, simply assumed by the medieval Catholic church, is usually labeled “realism.”  (Again, “realism” has many meanings and uses in intellectual history; here it is being used in this technical sense of the opposite of nominalism with regard to the status of universals.)  Realism says that universals are more than merely terms or concepts; they have some kind of ontological status–“beingness,” if you will.  They exist outside of any creatures’ mind.  (Whether they exist outside God’s mind is an argument among realists; strict Platonists would probably say they do while most Christians would agree with Augustine they do not.)

Voluntarism is the belief that God is not controlled or even guided in his decisions and actions by any eternal, structured nature.  Even God does not have a nature as such.  To a voluntarist, God is an eternal being of sheer power and freedom and is not limited by any eternal character.  (Most voluntarists would agree, however, that God is limited by logic.  Even Ockham thought so, although Luther did not seem to think so–at least in his debate with Erasmus.)

A non-voluntarist (theological realist) believes God has an eternal, immutable character that controls or at least guides his decisions and actions.  This was clearly assumed by (to the best of my knowledge) all the church fathers (including especially Augustine) and medieval theologians at least up to Abelard.  What Aquinas thought about this matter is much debated, but most scholars think he was a theological realist.

C. S. Lewis was a passionate advocate of theological realism who despised nominalism and voluntarism and traced most, if not all, maladies of modern thought (philosophical and theological) back to them.  His little book The Abolition of Man is a sustained polemic against nominalism.  Lewis put the litmus test question this way: Are things good because God says they are or does God say they are good because they are?”  A nominalist-voluntarist says things are good because God says they are.  A realist, non-voluntarist says God says things are good because they are.

Another way of putting the difference is this: a realist, non-voluntarist believes God has an eternal, immutable nature that is absolutely, purely good and even goodness itself and even God cannot violate that.  Even God cannot use his omnipotence and freedom of choice to do things that are evil (against his own goodness).  A nominalist-voluntarist says that God has no such limiting character and that whatever God decides to do is automatically good just because God decides to do it.

The clearest expression of nominalism-voluntarism that I have run across is Ulrich Zwingli who, in his book On Providence, argues again and again that whatever God does is good and that he cannot be held accountable to any law.  (And he clearly does not mean any merely human law; he means any law whatsoever.)  This can be found as well in Luther’s diatribe against Erasmus regarding freedom of the will.

In fact, when I read the Luther-Erasmus debate I have the feeling they are like two ships passing in the night.  They are not even communicating.  And the reason is that each one is assuming something totally different regarding God’s nature and sovereignty.  Erasmus, being a realist, non-voluntarist, believes God cannot do that which is evil.  And he believes that our best human ideas of good and evil are not totally incommensurable with God’s.  Luther, being a nominalist-voluntarist, believes God can do absolutely anything and that it is always wrong to say that “God cannot….”  (Whether Luther believed God can do that which is logically contradictory is not clear.)

When someone says “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases” I’m reminded of Luther and Zwingli.  Hearing that affirmed, they would be shouting “Amen!”  Erasmus and Arminius and others among both Catholics and Protestants would be shouting “No!”–meaning God can only do that which is consistent with his own nature (Barth).

Am I suggesting that all Calvinists have been and are nominalists-voluntarists?  Or that Arminians must be realists and non-voluntarists?  Not necessarily.  However, it seems to me that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians about God’s sovereignty often echoes older, more basic debates about whether God has an eternal, immutable nature or not.  Sometimes Calvin sounded like a voluntarist (like Zwingli) and other times he sounded like a non-voluntarist.  Scholars have lined up on both sides about whether he was one or the other.

Perhaps debates between Calvinists and Arminians could be clarified if the debaters would make clear their commitments about God’s nature.  I know I have much more in common and therefore more room for agreement and therefore meaningful discussion with a Calvinist who is clear about his or her realist/non-voluntarist commitments than with one who is either unclear about that or who is a committed nominalist/voluntarist.

This seems to me to be another one of those watershed issues in theology where the Bible isn’t as much help as we’d like it to be.  Perhaps the decision about being either a nominalist or realist takes place prior to interpretations of texts.  How, then, would one decide which to line up with?  Probably by considering the consequences of each and deciding with which set of consequences one can live.  For example, if God has no eternal, immutable character that controls or at least guides his decisions and if God can do absolutely anything without limit (except perhaps logic), why not believe that God could, and therefore might, renege on his promises?  Can such a God be trusted?

The fundamental issue, it seems to me, comes back to the meaningfulness of a statement like “God is a good God.”  Every Christian that I know affirms this.  But the statement would seem to mean something entirely different to a nominalist/voluntarist than to a realist/non-voluntarist.  To the former it can only mean either that absolute power such as God possesses is good or that whatever God does is automatically good or both.  To the latter it means that there exists in God himself a moral structure that prohibits even God from doing certain things–such as lying.

The issue of how we might know what “God’s goodness” means is a secondary issue to the primary one I’ve described above.  But a realist/non-voluntarist will argue that a nominalist/voluntarist cannot meaningfully know what it means except that whatever God does is good.  Then, of course, there is no connection between God’s goodness and the very best of goodness in our experience except God’s commands.  But God’s commands tell us nothing about God’s own being or nature.

I am often inclined to think that Calvinist-Arminian debates that get nowhere except a shouting match have much to do with this fundamental philosophical difference.  Of course, both sides think Scripture is on their side, but Scripture itself nowhere actually addresses the question as it is posed here.  Both nominalists and realists can read and interpret “God is love” as consistent with their view.  But when a Calvinist says that God’s “love” is different from our love and means qualitatively different and not merely quantitatively different I suspect he or she is showing nominalist-voluntarist colors whether he or she is aware of that or not.  Then I suspect we are using entirely different language games, so to speak.  I’m not sure, then, that we can even communicate meaningfully because while we are using the same words we don’t mean the same by them at all.

I am sometimes tempted to think that this is THE most basic difference between Christians–whether God has an eternal, immutable character that guides, if not controls, his decisions and actions or not.  C. S. Lewis thought it was the watershed issue in culture generally and attributed most, if not all, the ills of modern, Western culture (the “abolition of man”) to the influence of nominalism.

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  • Excellent article, Dr. Olson. This is helpful. I’ve had the same reaction to the Luther/Erasmus debate. And it often seems still today that Calvinists and Arminians are talking past each other. I think you’ve described a basic reason for this. Enlightening.

  • John Peckham

    Thank you for this thought provoking piece. I do see many determinist theologians following a form of voluntarism.

    It seems to me, at the same time, that realism fits quite well with determinism (as seen in much of classical theism). For instance, how does Augustine’s view of determinism fit into this discussion, however?

    I happen to think (tentatively) that a form of conceptualism coupled with a kind of divine voluntarism may best suit a view of creaturely libertarian freedom, while at the same time attributing libertarian freedom to God himself. However, I haven’t had the time yet to explore this with vigor.

    Thanks again for sharing your theological thinking with us. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  • Tom Montelauro

    The two theological positions of deterministic Calvinism and voluntarism (the idea that whatever God does is good by definition) seem to me to go so well together because both ignore basic intuitions of human nature. They both ignore the fact that as human beings created by God, for God, and in his image, we are constitutionally unable to comprehend God as a being who could do evil. God, as we must understand him, cannot take pleasure in gratuitous cruelty or command it. Voluntarism asks us to violate this intuition and believe, hypothetically, that if God commanded us to take pleasure in cruelty it would be good. This does such violence to our basic beliefs about morality that the possibility cannot be admitted.
    The same is true for a deterministic view of God. Our basic, inbuilt mental and moral structure requires us to believe that God cannot predetermine our choices, so that at each moment of decision only one thing is possible, and yet hold us accountable.
    I believe I am basing these comments on the common sense philosophy of Thomas Reid and perhaps the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga et al. The Bible, it seems to me, would make no sense to us humans if it did not assume these basic, non-deduced intuitions concerning God, man and morality. The unwillingness on the part of high Calvinists and voluntarists to acknowledge this makes them suitable bedfellows.

  • Matt Waldron


    I like the quote: ‘A nominalist-voluntarist says things are good because God says they are. A realist, non-voluntarist says God says things are good because they are.’ This quote and the whole blog post does put the Arminian-Calvinist debate into perspective.

    When you say, ‘Ulrich Zwingli who, in his book On Providence, argues again and again that whatever God does is good and that he cannot be held accountable to any law.’ Would the implications of that mean that atonement may not be completely necessary in the nominalist-voluntarist view?

    In terms of interpreting the Bible, it seems like issues like this (the nature of God, specifically) are the reason why the Early Church hammered out doctrines of the Trinity and issues of Christology – for the sake of correct interpretation of what is already in the Scripture. Is your phrase, ‘God is a good God’ a type of confession?

    I really thought I was going to spend this week watching football and being lazy on the couch, now I really have some food for thought to keep me preoccupied for this week and beyond. Thanks.

    • When I think about my most basic beliefs 2 come immediately to mind: God is God and I am not (James Sire) and God is a good God (with “good” having a meaning analogous to what I can think of as good based on revelation and not totally different than anything I mean by good in any other context).

  • Roger,

    You’re blog is an excellent “continuing education” site. When I was in college I had a double major: English Lit. and Religion & Philosophy. These were my areas of interest, and both are areas that cannot be fully grasped or properly appreciated within the confines of the college experience. It is only as we continue to live and to learn that we can grow into an appreciation of these things. Today I make my living in healthcare, but continue my love for literature and matters of faith in my personal reading, lay seminars and workshops, etc. You provide a wonderful opportunity for the continuation of academic exploration beyond the confines of college matriculation.

  • Thank you again for another clear explanation of an issue I’ve wondered a lot about!

  • Brandon Morgan

    I totally agree that this is a watershed event, especially with how Anglo and Roman Catholic theologians interpret alot of Protestant theology. As far as Aquinas goes, it seems that all of his recent interpreters contrast him overtly as an “intellectualist” (the belief that the intellect determines the will) over against voluntarism. His discussion of divine power in ST q 24 a 3 shows his overall denial of God being able to do the “absolutely impossible” which, by way of Aristotle, he means a contradictory act in which the predicate does not agree in any way with the subject. So God’s will is governed by all the possibilities of being and not by the absolute impossibilities of non-being (he uses the example of the statement “a man is a donkey” which is absolutely impossible, and so not consistent with the reality which God governs) So he says, “Whence, whatsoever has or can have the nature of being, is numbered among the absolutely possible things, in respect of which God is called
    omnipotent. Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is
    numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.” So in a way, Aquinas preemptively answers Luther’s statement that it is wrong to say “God cannot.” The word “cannot” should be predicated of the world God made and not necessarily of God Himself. This may sound kindof volutaristic, but Aquinas thinks that the will is an appetite of the intellect and never exists apart from it. So he is perhaps one of the best solutions to voluntarism/nominalism.

    One of the best examples of voluntarism that perhaps embodies the sentiments of God’s sovereignty as a strict deterministic autocracy is Thomas Hobbes. His political philosophy seems to look very similar to how many Calvinists (and others) talk about divine sovereignty. It is interesting to think how a voluntarist views of God’s sovereignty gets translated into a voluntarist view of state sovereignty and vice versa. But I am not convinced that certain versions of free-will theism don’t simply assume the same voluntarist metaphysic that new Calvinists have and simply invert it by defining human freedom as libertarian will and choice, thus forcing God to give up something of himself so the humans can be “free”. Is this not exactly what Nietzsche meant by the “will to power”? Pure human will unrestrained by intellect, reason, or God? By denying divine voluntarism, we also need to deny human voluntarism.

    • Have you ever thought about doing a Ph.D. in theology? 🙂

  • Isidore

    Thank you – excellent summary.

    This was a basic choice in Catholic theology too as well as a contemporary one in inter-faith dialogue.

    Although it is remembered for one particular quote, Pope Benedict’s Lecture at his old university of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html dealt largely with this subject.

    I think most Muslims take a voluntarist view of God.

  • Dr. Olson, this is a helpful post. Another way to think of this issue is rather God’s nature or God’s will is considered as primary.

    Roger, you wrote:

    –> But I am not convinced that certain versions of free-will theism don’t simply assume the same voluntarist metaphysic that new Calvinists have and simply invert it by defining human freedom as libertarian will and choice, thus forcing God to give up something of himself so the humans can be “free”. Is this not exactly what Nietzsche meant by the “will to power”? Pure human will unrestrained by intellect, reason, or God? By denying divine voluntarism, we also need to deny human voluntarism. <–

    I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you claiming that proponents of libertarian freedom imply that human beings make choices without any influence of their nature – beliefs, reasons, desires, and even God? You seem to be saying this is the position of proponents of free-will theism. This, however, is not what any theistic proponent of LFW claims (at least to my knowledge). The proponent of LFW claims that our nature, reasons, etc. *structure* our choices. We can't choose something that we don't have any reason for. What the libertarian denies is that our nature, reasons, etc. cause our choice.

    • Brandon Morgan

      Hi. My name is Brandon and you are not quoting Dr. Olson, but you are quoting me. But since you ask the question, I will respond without assuming that Dr. Olson agrees (because I don’t think he does.) Libertarian freedom of the kind that someone like John Sanders claims, is the ultimate inevitable conclusion to an already questionable view of human freedom entrenched into other versions of LFW. One weakness to LFW is that it makes “choice” the paradigm of freedom. I can then, choose to kill someone because I have really good reasons to do so. So my choice is structured by motives or reasons or whatever. But that choice cannot be said to be free in any Christian way. Killing someone is a choice that, according to LFW is a perfectly free act to do. (You may not be free after you do it, but you are nonetheless free as a human being to do it and still be considered a full human being. This is the logic of war actually) The result of making choice the paradigm of freedom is that one conflates the ability-to-choose AS freedom to be human. This is what Isaiah Berlin called a “negative view of freedom,” because it simply defines freedom according to what could possibly impinge upon it instead of also directing that freedom toward a specific telos. (This is also something the separates nominalists from realists. The direction of human nature and desire to a natural and supernatural telos is something Ockham had to deny in light of the denial of universals.) A positive view of freedom, like the one I think Christianity wants to promote, is more focused on how to “lure” human desire in a true and beautiful trajectory that ends in participation in the life of God. So, if LFW can only solidify my free right to make any choice without being impinged and then such a view of human choice as the paradigm of freedom is conflated with a Christian view freedom qua freedom, then it is inevitable that we will feel the need to fight for a negative view of human freedom in order to sustain the even more fundamental metaphysical and anthropological assumptions of LFW–that human are basically just choosing beings. If this is the basic anthropology of LFW (and I think I can prove that it is), then eventually humans will fight to make choices according to an already skewed view of what is meant by “nature.” If you believe that humans are “naturally” choosing beings, then LFW is consistent to claim that humans make choices according to that nature. But if humans are simply just free, rational choosers (the kind of choosers that the free market economists want to convince us that we are)–instead of certain kinds of choosers–then we will have to admit that humans can choose to kill and it be totally in line with their rationality and morality. (in texas it’s called the death penalty). Simply claiming that rationality and human “nature” governs choices is not enough if you believe in a human nature which claim that we are, at our most basic level, a thing that makes choices no matter what they are. This is a voluntarist view of human nature. The same view of human nature that Nietzsche had. The same view that free market capitalism has. The same view that many proponents of libertarian free will have. This is what happens in something like certain versions of open theism–it simply flips the Calvinist voluntarist metaphysic upside down and fights for a voluntarist view of human freedom unimpinged by outside forces or appetites. In this way it de-characterizes humans in a similar way that Calvinists de-characterize God. If one already has a voluntarist view of sovereignty at the expense of human agency, it is inevitable that the reverse can happen, which bolsters a voluntarist view of humans at the expense of God’s agency. That is why Nietzsche thought the way he did.
      The alternative is to give up the idea that freedom is simply “freedom from”, which is all LFW can gives us. And it cant really even give us that because it assumes from the outset a neutral space of human rational decision unmanipulated by what Aquinas called “appetitive desires.” The fact is, all advertisers know that humans choose through desire and impulse and not by “unimpinged rational, neutral choice.” But they want to make people think that they are performing the latter when in fact they are falling prey to the former. So Christians need to compete with those “secular liturgies” by constructing its own version of human desire that actually tries to conceive of a human nature that naturally desires God and not one that just naturally chooses. (in the Christian tradition we call this Worship, Liturgy etc.) This is, I think, the truly Christian start to a theological anthropology that does not see God and creations in competition, but more like what Barth called the “divine accompanying” where the more God is active the more human agency is active. (But of course, Barth is not a voluntarist, so he thinks God’s power is simply his love. ) Christianity is about establishing the freedom for humans to be humans–which is not simply to be able to make choices, but to be able to make virtuous choices.

      • I make a distinction between “freedom” and “free will.” True freedom is being what you are meant to be. To me that is an eschatological concept even if it can be partially realized by grace here and now. Free will is simply one tool given to us by God to move toward or away from true freedom. But it is not itself freedom.

        • Brandon Morgan

          You have never mentioned that distinction to me before. That makes a lot of sense. I wonder if perhaps the free will discussion has been cut off from the freedom discussion to such an extent that one gets forgotten or they both get conflated as the same.

      • John I.

        I disagree with much that B. Morgan has written. I do not agree that LFW, or open theism particularly, is correctly discribed by the phrase, “more fundamental metaphysical and anthropological assumptions of LFW–that human are basically just choosing beings.” I don’t agree that Sanders subscribes to anything like what Morgan implies. I don’t agree that human freedom to choose is analogically or otherwise like a voluntaristic view of God.

        Among other things, voluntarism with respect to God is coupled with omnipotence and with God’s defining of the nature of reality (including his). Anything such a God does is, if he so stipulates, “moral” or “good”, because such a God can define anything in anyway he/she/it pleases. Human freedom of choice and freedom of the will occurs within an existing framework of reality. We cannot, unlike God, create reality nor can we designate and define what is good. We act in relation to what God has already–before our choice–decided is good.

        It does not matter that Nietzsche, who became delusional because of his (most likely) syphillus, thoguht that humans could become supermen and define for themselves good and evil and what they will be and become. It is like a child believing she can fly. That they believed so does not make it so. The reality is that we cannot make or define good as evil and evil as good; God has done that for us. Consequently no adequate philosophy of human freedom will assert that humans are voluntaristic in the sense that God is.

        John I.

  • Owen

    Good thoughts Dr. Boyd. However, I think the dicohotmy presents some problems, in implying that a consistent God is the god of non-voluntarism realism. Nominalism can embrace the particular will of an individual beings that determines their actions as existing. I (who happens to have been a psychology major in college) recognize that I have a certain set of desires that determine what I do. It doesn’t determine my capacity/potential, but it does determine I will do, such as I am going to go murder someone tonight because it is against my particular nature (That doesn’t exist independent of myself). To put it in another way, my actions are constraining internally of myself which exist, but not externally. I am viewing my actions in nominal ideas since my will exists as part of me. Furthermore, given the relative lack of constraint, this is roughly analogous to voluntarism.

    Transferring that to talk about God, God does what is consistently good because He is internally constrained by His own will/nature/essence. Thus there is voluntarism. Nominalism doesn’t deny His nature, per se, but simply denies nature/essence as an independent entity part from God himself (actually, this also might fight well with Aristotelean Realism in which the universal exists in the particulars). God’s nature is God, and to separate the former as independent form the latter is much like myself introspectively looking at myself and declaring my desires are something separate from myself.

    In other words, voluntaristic nominalism (VN for short) *can* come to embrace something that is the practical equivalent of eternal immutable character of good of God present in non-voluntaristic realism (NR for short), without ascribing to good an objective independent existence from the very will of God. Put in a more generalized form, VN can emulate most anything from NR point of view (though I do not think the reverse is true). The former is free itself to accept most any construction of reality itself and God’s interaction with creation, whereas the latter is more constrained (I say this more intuitively, however, and may be wrong in that assertion).

    To conclude, these two metaphysical options need not lead to theology that diverges in the concrete discussion of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Certainly, Calvinists favor VN as it coheres well with the nation of God’s unrestrained sovereignty that need not respond to human will. And Arminianism tends move towards NR because of the restraint human free will places upon God, at least as a practical level. I think in the present day discussion the generalize metaphysical options are largely driven subconsciously by one’s very particular theological belief regarding the interaction of God’s will with humanity. In a more general statement, the conscious theology is driving the subconscious metaphysics.

    For the record, I am a VN, but I am Wesleyan *leaning.*

    • I simply disagree with your account of VN. True VN does deny any eternal, immutable character of God that in any way constrains his decisions and actions. Your version of VN certainly sounds more like realism/non-voluntarism to me. By “nominalism/voluntarism” I am talking about the doctrine of God clearly expressed by Luther in The Bondage of the Will (against Erasmus) and by Zwingli in On Providence. Both say that God is absolutely free of any law internal or external to himself. Both work with the distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata–the latter being God’s freely chosen power in relation to the world and the former being God’s ability to do absolutely anything unlimited by any moral law.

  • I followed your advice Brandon and had to check up on Dr. Olson’s most recent posts in light of the question I’m addressing on my own blog 🙂 Of course it seems you manage to provide the same substantial commentary here as you do on mine – only his gets plenty of other commentary, while mine basically depends on your remarks, despite the fact that I deliberately try to minimize any theological jargon!

    Dr. Olson, I’m excited about your blog, as I only recently learned of it, so I’ll definitely be doing my best to keep up with it when I can from now on.

    In response to your comment above Brandon, the example of Thomas is very helpful, and I’m with you up until the end, but when you say certain versions of free-will theism might be assuming the same voluntaristic metaphysics as new Calvinists, first just a question for clarification – are you referring to allegedly anthropomorphic versions of free-will theism like open theism or process? Secondly, if so, while I agree with you that God gives something up in these cases so that humans can be “free,” I’m not sure I understand why that would necessarily require that human freedom be constituted by a human voluntarism like Nietzsche’s will-to-power, as one example. Doesn’t the will-to-power in a sense imply the collapse of metaphysics itself, and wouldn’t human voluntarism in process theology for example rely significantly on what Derrida calls “the metaphysics of presence”? I guess I’m just not seeing how one (God’s involuntarism) is so easily exchanged for the other (our voluntarism) unless the notion of God is either “Kantianized” or deconstructed, in which case ultimately we’d still be left with some form of a voluntaristic “God” (noumena or “desire”). On the other hand, I think you make a good point in that, like Kierkegaard’s fideism for instance, Nietzsche’s move “beyond good and evil” typifies exactly what happens in existentialist/subjectivist philosophies where either God’s removal (Nietzsche) or God as absolute paradox (Kierkegaard) creates the same problem of voluntarism for humanity.

    • Brandon Morgan

      Firstly, yes I am thinking of theological anthropomorphic theologies like openness and process, but I could also include versions of theo or patripassionism like Moltmann as well. Refer to an above response to someone’s similar question of the same statement of mine that you mention here.

      Secondly, it is not necessary to adhere to Nietzsche’s extreme version of human voluntarism to already assume the same metaphysic that he assumes. In fact, his version is the logical conclusion to the metaphysical assumptions that I am critiquing. Extreme emphasis on divine voluntarism can and likely will continue to lead to some version of the death of God if the metaphysical relationship between God and the world are not reformulated. The logic can simply be reversed as Nietzsche showed. Despite his claim to pronounce the “end of metaphysics”, his human voluntarism and nominalism is based upon a number of strong metaphysical assumptions like 1) a univocal view of causality between God and the world, 2) a contrastive view of God and creation 3) and an anthropology of humanity as a purely willing being without telos. Derrida, in this sense, is perhaps just as nominalistic and “modern” as Nietzsche. All of these assumptions are required in order to pronounce the death of a god that is already voluntaristic and nominalistic in the first place. This is why his iconoclasm works so effectively. It portrays a view of God and God’s relationship to the world that Christians should deny.

      So my concern is not necessarily to refute the portrayal of God as “giving something up” to “make room” for human agency, but to discover the assumed metaphysical relationship between God and the world that forces such reactions to take place and make sense. The voluntarist God seemingly is only refuted by conceiving a certain view of a voluntarist self, which takes its form prominently in modern versions of libertarianism. My claim is that perhaps theologians feel the need to portray God as giving something up because they already perceive of God on the same ontological plane as creation and thus required to lessen his existence in a way that allows for human freedom to exist. The anthropology required for such a move already conceives in some form the idea that humans are basically choosing beings by nature. If humans are choosing beings, then to be truly human is to be able to choose in any way whatsoever, good or ill. An evil choice is perceived symmetrically as an equal effect of human natural choosing as a good choice. To choose evil is simply the working out, though negatively, of the fundamental nature of humans as choosing and willing beings. The will to power is the only thing that can truly compete with a God who is also pure willing power. But such a move simply reverses the metaphysic without actually questioning it. Such a view of human freedom is not only required for open theism, process theism and theopassionism to function, it fundamentally assumes it from the start. They are “middle grounds” between determinism and the death of God, but I cannot help but see it eventually leading to either one of these conclusions. They are already trying to make room for human being crowded by forms of totality. The problem is how such a divine totality is construed. If it is construed voluntaristically, then the overemphasis on human voluntarism will have to take place, which inevitably forces God to change or die. The alternative is to give way to divine voluntarism like the new Calvinism, which is what Olson is trying to argue. So the realist solution is to question the metaphysic from the start, which would require perceiving God as desiring his own goodness in a way that determines the actions that the divine will can perform; not, as Aquinas says, because God cannot do some things, but because some things are “absolute impossibilities” that are not within the potential of creation. Aquinas solves this problem by conceiving of God’s will as an appetite of the intellect that desires God’s own goodness. Such goodness is a universal telos that governs human instantiations of it and not “whatever God wants it to be.” It is God’s nature and thus pure goodness without evil. Such is the value of an analogical account of goodness between God and creation. The will cannot function without intellect, reason, and desire all working toward goodness as such.

      • Thanks, Brandon. That answers my question and clears things up for me. I agree now with what you are suggesting. The distinction between God “giving something up” and something simply being “not in God’s nature” or “absolutely impossible” is the key I think.

        • I’ve enjoyed following your conversation, Bill and Brandon. But I have never thought of God as “giving something up” when I talk about God’s self-limitation. By it I mean voluntary restriction of use of something analogous to a married couple who voluntarily restrict the use of their freedom to come and go as they please. It’s not as if they are amputating some part of themselves and discarding it; it is that they choose to limit their freedom of movement and action for a greater good–viz., to include in their community of love another person who requires constant attention. Then, when that third person reaches a certain level of maturity, the parents voluntarily limit themselves more. They could control the child (B. F. Skinner tried it with his daughter and partially succeeded but she grew up to despise him for it), but they choose not to for the sake of having a real, personal relationship with him or her. Nobody would call what they do in either case “giving something up” in the sense of amputating some part of themselves never to have it again, but most people would regard it as a voluntary self-limitation of freedom and power for a higher good. Again, I return to the issue of analogies. I prefer this way of thinking and talking partly because it has analogies. Saying that God’s relationship with creatures is non-contrastive leaves us with very little room for analogizing. What does that even mean? Yes, we can say that God’s activity and our activity are not competitive–especially when it comes to the good that we do (the paradox of grace). But what about the evil that people do? Do we not there have to speak of God’s relationship with creatures as contrastive–on the same plane but in competition, so to speak? Isn’t it then there a case of a zero-sum game? How is it possible to speak analogously of a situation where God and the creature are non-contrastive in their actions but the creature is doing evil and God is not? What human situation could be called upon to “picture” the possibility of this? If all that is meant is that the creature could not do evil without God’s permission and even support, well, that is the classical doctrine of divine concurrence–a part of the traditional doctrine of providence. And there are analogies to that in human experience. A student, for example, cannot fail my course without my “help” if by “help” is meant I create the exams and grade them. I provide the means, as it were, for him or her to fail and yet am not responsible for the failure. But there is still a contrastive relationship in that analogy. I am not the one who fails or even causes failure or “orders” or “governs” failure. What I’m fishing for is some analogy to a divine-creature non-contrastive relationship in the situation of creaturely evil. How can we deal with that without using contrastive imagery and metaphors? If you prefer, we can talk about it over lunch! It’s much easier to flesh these things out face-to-face, I think. But also feel free to respond here AND we’ll talk about it over lunch! 🙂

      • John I.

        ” If humans are choosing beings, then to be truly human is to be able to choose in any way whatsoever, good or ill. An evil choice is perceived symmetrically as an equal effect of human natural choosing as a good choice. ”

        Not so. And why would it be so? The assertion above is not grounded and I, as an open theist, question whether the statement even makes sense.

        It seems to me that much theology projects onto God maximal extensions of human abilities. That is, it assumes that God’s power “x” is the same as our power “x” except that it is unlimited. Thus we can lift 10 kilos, whereas God can lift an infinite number of kilos.

        However, though our abilities and God’s cannot be incommensurable, it does not seem correct to conceive of God’s abilities as differing from ours only in relation to scale.

        Further to my above Nietzsche comment, it’s not that Nietzsche is simply wrong, but that his thought is not relevant for current analyses of human free will, nor is either libertarian free will or open theism reliant upon his concepts.
        John I.

    • John I.

      In what way is open theism anthropomorphic? as in “anthropomorphic versions of free-will theism like open theism”. I don’t see that at all.

      John I.

  • Is something good because God does it, or does God do something because it is good? Seems like a false dichotomy, so I’d guess “yes” to the first and “yes” to the second – both/and. The question itself assumes there can be a separation between “God” and “good,” but this is impossible.

    The “Law” that God follows is neither over Him nor under Him. It’s IN Him. It’s merely a reflection of His character or an extension of His will. He follows the Law and the Law follows Him, in perfect eternal synchronicity. Or should I say eternal perfect non-chronicity? Answering that will send one in circles.

    Behind the question you are asking is the one about God’s freedom. “Is God free to do evil?” Augustine (and I think you have mentioned there were others before him) brilliantly addressed this by denying evil an ontological status except as negation of good. Thus, God only does good and can only do good, yet He is perfectly free to do anything He wants because He can only want to do good. Viewing evil as nothing more than the negation of God’s work makes it impossible for God to do evil because it would involve God in directly contracting His own God-ness and inherent goodness. This question quickly leads us in circles because it requires us to try to conceive of the impossible and separate the inseparable.

    Scripture seems to speak indirectly to these issues, if not addressing them directly. In the beginning, God created everything and called it good. It was good because He created it, and He created it because – in His mind, according to His eternal character – it was good. If we look at what that creation was, pre-fall, we can begin to define “good” as God defines it. This, of course, would not preclude a “better” or a higher good, which would also be an expression of His eternal, immutable character.

    There are also clear statements in Scripture that God “cannot disown Himself,” and that it is impossible for God to lie. So God reveals Himself as “good” in the sense of not going contrary to His own Words or His own Nature/Being.

    Believing in the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture, I would argue that any philosophical question which is really important for us to understand is somehow answered there if we are willing to search it out carefully. Philosophy leads us into logical corners, but “the unfolding of His Words brings light.”

    Derek Ashton

    • Here you sound like a realist/non-voluntarist. Elsewhere (if not you then some Calvinists who say the same) sound like nominalists/voluntarists–viz., when they appeal to God being above all law and free to do “whatever he jolly well pleases.” Realists believe there is a law within God–his character. Nominalists/voluntarists believe God is not subject to any law internal or external. At times and in places Calvin comes across as a nominalist/voluntarist and at other times as a realist/non-voluntarist. My suggestion for discussion here is that Calvinism, generally speaking, suffers from this lack of decisiveness. When defending God’s goodness, for example, most Calvinists will insist that God cannot be or do anything other than his nature allows–the perfectly good. When attempting to explain how his actions (as explained by Calvinism) are “good,” most Calvinists will insist that God’s goodness is not our goodness (or something to that effect) so that eventually the very idea of God’s “goodness” is emptied of content and what is ultimate is his sheer will.

      • I might sound like a realist, and I probably would lean that way if forced to choose, but I still think it’s a false dichotomy. It reminds me of the question, “Could God create a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?” The only answers are paradoxes because the question itself implies an impossibility. We can’t pit two genuine divine attributes against each other. All True propositions have to be compatible, no matter how contradictory they appear by the best human logic.

        Is it possible that Calvinists appear to contradict themselves on this issue, or sway back and forth inconsistently, because they are trying (perhaps unconsciously) to maintain a balance that affirms both sides of the equation? Because they don’t want to deny either side? Both angles seem undeniably true to me, though I can’t explain the mechanics.

        • SOME (not all) Calvinists admit their theology is absurd (in the logical sense of embracing sheer contradiction). An example is Edwin H. Palmer in The Five Points of Calvinism (Baker, 1972), p. 85: “the Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish.” The problem is that, like all Calvinists in my experience, Palmer uses logical to criticize Arminianism! So, yes, a person can simply abandon reason and embrace both realism and voluntarism (as I defined them in my posts), but then he or she must strictly avoid using logic to criticize other views.

          • I wasn’t saying anything about abandoning reason. But some questions – especially philosophical questions about the Being of God – defy our best logic. There is a huge difference between saying we aren’t equipped to answer certain questions and saying we should abandon logic altogether.

            What’s your logical answer to the question about the rock? 🙂

          • I’ve never seen a problem with the God and rock conundrum. It isn’t really a conundrum. No; God cannot create a rock so big he can’t lift it. So where is the logical problem? I don’t see it and never have. Nobody I know has ever claimed God can create a rock so big (or heavy) he can’t lift it. But even if they did it wouldn’t necessarily involve a sheer logical contradiction. A sheer logical contradiction takes the form (for example) that God both can and cannot, in the same sense and at the same time, create a rock so big he cannot lift it.

          • Doesn’t a Realist/Non-Voluntarist obligate you to say He can do it as long as it is consistent with His character?

            Moreover, your previously described views of God’s self-limitation would seem to suggest you believe He has indeed created things that are **voluntarily** beyond His control. When I was Arminian, I always thought the “God and rock” conundrum was a perfect illustration of free will – the “rock” He refuses to move without our **synergistic** cooperation.

            Interestingly enough, I recently heard D.A. Carson say the “God and rock” conundrum is genuinely difficult, but illustrates a limitation of human logic rather than a limitation of God’s power. I’ll take that over the idea that God is either somehow incapable of self-limiting, or is inherently limited.

            On the issue of contradiction . . . why can’t we theorize that God acts in the manner of realism (in certain senses, which He has not revealed) and also in the manner of voluntarism (in certain senses, which He has not revealed)? This way, we can affirm both angles as true, while acknowledging that the ways in which they are true remain mysterious and undefined. The whole issue reminds me of compatibilism, which seems remarkably similar.

            But going back to the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture . . . if Realism/Voluntarism truly isn’t addressed in Scripture it can hardly be important for us to make certain and definitive statements about it. It boils down to speculation about the mysterious.

            In short, to me the supposed dichotomy is too speculative to have any bearing on the validity of either Calvinism or Arminianism. But it’s fun to think about nonetheless.

          • No, being a realist/non-voluntarist does not require me to say God can do whatever is consistent with his character unless logic is built into God’s character (which is possible). Even most nominalists/voluntarists (such as William of Ockham) beleived God cannot do what is illogical. No realist/non-voluntarist I know would say God “can do” whatever we can put into words–e.g., make a married man a bachelor or make a three sided square, etc. All realism/non-voluntarism commits me to is that God cannot do what is contrary to his character–something a nominalist/voluntarist finds too limiting of God’s power. The issue between realism/non-voluntarism and nominalism/voluntarism isn’t revelation; it is ontology–what is true of God’s own being prior to revelation. Put most simply, realism/non-voluntarism says God has an eternal, immutable character that guides what he does so that he cannot do what is contrary to his eternal, immutable character (which is not chosen). Nominalism/voluntarism says God has no such character. How those two could be combined is beyond me. The problem with saying it is a speculative matter is that many, if not most, people lean one way or the other even before they are told what these views are and entail. Most people read Scripture through one lens or the other. I wouldn’t call it speculative; I’d call it basic–a matter of pre-reflexive perspective that largely determines everything else about one’s interpretation of Scripture and theology (especially with regard to the doctrine of God and God’s relationship with the world).

          • Dr. Olson,

            I get your point. I probably am a committed realist/non-voluntarist according to your definitions (I suppose you and I would both agree with St. Auggie on this one).

            From my observation, most Calvinists don’t tend to argue that God acts by nature, or ontologically, in the way of voluntarism, but that our sin-damaged apprehensions render us incapable of properly interpreting His actions. This fits with Reformed theology’s basic contention that man is deeply (fatally) flawed by the fall, and must rely entirely on the Word of God to correct his fallen ideas of truth, beauty and goodness.

          • Yes, I agree, but some Calvinists appeal to a “hidden will of God” and claim that God is “above all law” and say that God’s love is “different from our love” (meaning qualitatively different so that “love” becomes equivocal when attributed to God). These are nominalistic/voluntaristic moves. My argument is that often Calvinists (and certainly Lutherans who believe in monergism as Luther did) tend to fall back on assumptions that seem foreign to what they claim when defending their view of God’s character in light of reprobation.

  • Ben

    How would we even be having this discussion if not for Scripture? We have to have a foundation for building our opinion. Someone is really right and someone is really wrong by reading the text two different ways. Otherwise, all truth is relative and we really can’t know God or right from wrong. Personally, I believe that the Scripture is clear about God’s character and God always acting according to His character and I build my life on that. One day we’ll find out who was right and who was wrong but I don’t think it’s a good suggestion to form our opinion before coming to the text on anything or else we’re being our own gods and have to say truth is relative.

    • Where does Scripture say that God has an eternal, immutable character that is not chosen but identical with his essence? I believe it, but I haven’t found that elusive proof text.

  • Steve Noel

    \The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased.\ – John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 23.

    • Yes, this and other quotes like it from Calvin incline me to think he was a nominalist/voluntarist. Luther certainly was and so was Zwingli. So, when certain contemporary Calvinists claim that the doctrines of the magisterial Reformers constitute the essence of authentic evangelicalism I have to wonder if they include in that nominalism/voluntarism. That seems to be the foundation of much of the Reformers’ thinking about God’s sovereignty and their monergism of salvation. But I’m not sure most contemporary Calvinists like nominalism/voluntarism; it seems they would rather espouse realism/non-voluntarism. An example, I think, is Paul Helm. But can their view of God’s sovereignty really be detached from nominalism/voluntarism? That I’m not so sure about.

  • bdlaacmm

    “Shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?”
    (Genesis 18:25)
    There is your “proof text”.

    • Roger Olson

      But, of course, a nominalist/voluntarist will interpret that one way and a realist will interpret that in exactly the opposite way. It is open to either interpretation.