More about the basic choice in theology (voluntarism versus realism)

More about the basic choice in theology (voluntarism versus realism) December 26, 2010

Thanks to those of you who have responded already to the first installment of what may turn out to be a series of posts on this very important but often ignored issue in theology–an issue I call a continental divide in theology and suggest may lie at the bottom of many debates between Calvinists and Arminians.

Here I will assume you have read my previous post on this subject and proceed from where I left off.

It seems to me that this choice of belief about God’s nature very much influences how one interprets the Bible.  If one approaches the Bible with voluntaristic tendencies (thinking of God as sheer power and free will without any morally structuring, eternal, immutable character) he or she will probably tend to view the Bible as a revelation of God’s mighty acts and will but NOT as a revelation of God’s character.  After all, God does not have a character as such.  If one approaches the Bible with non-voluntaristic, realist tendencies, he or she will probably tend to view the Bible as a revelation of God’s character in addition to God’s mighty acts and will. 

It seems to me that this watershed in theology explains why in many theological debates the parties seem to be not communicating at all.  They are operating out of entirely different sets of assumptions about ultimate reality.  This would account for some Christians being able to say (as one did here) that God can do absolutely anything he jolly well pleases and other Christians recoiling in horror from that.  (Of course, we all agree that God can do anything he pleases, but realists MEAN by “whatever he pleases” “whatever is consistent with his eternal character” because, strictly speaking, God CANNOT “please” to do something inconsistent with his character.)

Now, it is possible for a realist to be a determinist; Augustine might be a case in point.  But I question whether Augustine believed that God determines everything including evil.  If he did, he would have been automatically anathematized by the Second Council of Orange in 529.  Right off hand I cannot think of any strict divine determinists who are also clearly non-voluntarist/realists.  Someone might want to make the case that Jonathan Edwards was a realist/non-voluntarist, but when I read him I get the impression of someone who is torn about this issue but ultimately comes down on the voluntarist side.  I am open to being convinced otherwise.  For example, Edwards discusses whether God has free will and ultimately says God always does what is wisest and fittest and leaves the impression that he does not think God could do otherwise than he does.  That might be an expression of a realist doctrine of God in which God’s eternal nature and character determine and do not only guide what God does.  However, this would still create severe problems for knowing what God’s eternal character is–in view of hell within a deterministic theology.

The ultimate problem for any Christian voluntarist view of God is hell.  Why would God choose a world that includes eternal suffering?  The only answer is that we have no right to question God as God is not subject to any law including one internal to himself.  But that makes God totally opaque.  So, when pushed on the issue of hell, many determinists shift from a seemingly voluntaristic account of God (“God can do anything he jolly well pleases”) to a realist/non-voluntarist account by saying that hell is necessary to manifest one of God’s attributes–justice.  But that just pits God’s love against God’s justice and the latter seems to override the former.  When challenged on this they often say that God’s love is totally different from our best notions of love.  But that seems to lead back to voluntarism. 

C. S. Lewis’ consistent realist/non-voluntarist account of God led him inexorably to his view of hell as the “painful refuge” that is actually a manifestation of God’s love as well as God’s justice–in such a way that there is no conflict between them.

I will suggest here that many Calvinists seem to be confused about nominalism/voluntarism and realism/non-voluntarism.  I have read many, many books by leading Calvinists from Calvin to Piper and I am often impressed by this apparent confusion.  When answering certain questions they express realist/non-voluntarist views of God, but when answering other questions they express nominalist/voluntarist views of God.  The problem is, these are two absolutely incommensurable views of God.  Conceptualism is really just a form of nominalism UNLESS it means that universals are eternal concepts in the mind of God in which conceptualism is simply Augustine’s realism!  Ockham’s conceptualism was not of this type.  Conceptualism may not be sheer nominalism, but it is a variety of nominalism and totally alien to realism.

My major point here is simply this: IF a Calvinist will stick to being a realist/non-voluntarist with regard to God, he or she will find it much easier to communicate with an Arminian and vice versa.  (To the best of my knowledge no Arminian has ever been a nominalist/voluntarist.)  IF a Calvinist will refuse to fall back on voluntarist exclamations like “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases” (which make God unknowable and not trustworthy), he or she will have a much more difficult time defending Calvinism than otherwise.  Calvinism’s best defense is voluntarism, but it raises severe problems with God that most Calvinists cannot live with consistently. 

I will compare this with Catholic theologian Hans Kueng’s argument against atheism.  (I am not comparing Calvinism to atheism!)  Kueng argues in Does God Exist? that atheism and theism are both basic, rational choices, but that atheism requires nihilism and most atheists aren’t willing to embrace that.  But he pushes atheism to the wall and forces atheists to admit that their worldview completely undermines basic trust in the meaningfulness of reality.  The fact that most won’t admit that constitutes an “indirect proof” of theism.

Similarly, Calvinism and Arminianism are perhaps basic, rational choices in theology.  But the high Calvinist of the meticulous providence, TULIP variety MUST embrace nominalism/voluntarism to be consistent.  The fact that most won’t embrace it consistently might constitute an indirect proof of Arminianism (or the same theology under a different label).  Of course, SOME Calvinists DO embrace nominalism/voluntarism consistently and then they must swallow its “good and necessary consequences” including that we cannot know that God will keep any of his promises because he has no eternal, immutable character that causes him to that and only that.  The only reasonable result of consistent voluntarism is Luther’s “deus absconditus”–the hidden God who is the cause of evil as well as of good.

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