Can God Make Himself Dependent on Us?

Can God Make Himself Dependent on Us? August 9, 2014

Can God Make Himself Dependent on Us?

My recent post about “stealth Calvinism” has stirred up some interesting debate about the appropriateness of saying that God is in any way dependent on humans (or any creature reality). If you did not read that post, it would be helpful to go back and read it, but it’s not absolutely necessary to understand the gist of what I am saying here.
The catalyst question was whether God’s knowledge of humans’ free decisions and actions is independent of them. I argue (and still believe) that to say so is to affirm Calvinism (whether intentionally or unintentionally) because the only way God could know humans’ decisions and actions independently of them is by decreeing them and rendering them certain (divine determinism). This raised even some Arminians’ protests. They don’t like any talk of God being in any way dependent on anything outside of himself.

I have said in response to some objections that I am not afraid of such talk—so long as we understand that God’s dependence on us is voluntary. Here I will add that God’s dependence does not affect his eternal nature or character. That is, God’s voluntary “making himself dependent” on us (a form of divine self-limitation) does not open him up to change in his being. He remains always who he is, always was and always will be.
However, I see no problem, if we conceive of God as personal in a way analogous to our own personness (because ours is created in his image and likeness), with saying that the eternal, unchanging (in nature and character) God opens himself up to change in relation with us.
I’ve quoted T. F. Torrance on this subject before. Here I’ll do it again simply because he expressed what I am saying so well:

“Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of his relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself? … If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable.” (Incarnation in Space and Time, 74-75)

One can find similar affirmations in Karl Barth and Hendrikus Berkhof. While they might not use the word “dependent” I think that word, if qualified rightly, is appropriate to what they say about the God of Jesus Christ and of the biblical story. God makes himself dependent in Jesus Christ—not for his existence or being or character or attributes but for a part of his experience.
A whole line of biblically-serious Christian theologians of the past 150 years have finally shaken off the philosophical ideas of God that became part and parcel of the “Christian classical theism” over the centuries and have dared to condition and qualify God’s immutability and impassibility, simplicity and aseity. My own study of historical theology leads me to believe the first among them were Horace Bushnell (d. 1876) and I. A. Dorner (d. 1884). Both were “mediating theologians” (as I describe that category in The Journey of Modern Theology), not liberal theologians. Among 20th century theologians who affirmed, in one way or another, God’s voluntary dependence on creatures without falling into sheer panentheism (in its original sense of making God eternally and essentially dependent on the world) are Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jüngel, Adrio König, Hendrikus Berkhof, Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Donald Bloesch, and Paul Fiddes. Of course add T. F. Torrance to that list.

Now, just to be clear, I am not saying any of them used the word “dependent,” but I am saying that they all developed doctrines of God from Scripture (as opposed to philosophy) that strongly implied that God voluntarily chooses not to be strictly independent of the world in every way. And I would argue that classical Arminian theology, even if it rarely has gone so far as to say God is dependent on the world for anything, requires that God not be thought of as strictly independent of the world in every possible sense. God’s knowledge of libertarian free decisions and actions of human persons cannot be strictly independent of those persons’ decisions and actions.
If the theologians I have mentioned above hesitate to say that God is in any sense, even voluntarily, dependent on the world I think that is because they were/are wary of people’s natural tendency to misunderstand that to mean panentheism (in the original sense)—something I have made crystal clear here and elsewhere I do not mean. Let me be clear: I believe the God of the Bible could have remained God in every essential way, having all his attributes, fulfilled in himself, without any creation. However, once God decided to created the world (I realize that language is philosophically problematic but it is biblically faithful nonetheless) he voluntarily became dependent on the world for some parts of his life experience. To put it poetically he “made room for the world in himself.” If there was no creation, God would still be God. But since there is creation and covenant, God experiences the world which alters his experience from what it was and would have been apart from creation. That is what I mean by “dependent” when I say that some of God’s knowledge and experience is dependent on human decisions and actions.

I understand that this language sends shivers down some Christians’ (and others’) spines and raises their hackles, but it doesn’t do that to me. I find this language perfectly consistent with the biblical narrative that identifies God—once its interpretation is stripped of the overlay of philosophical theism that began with the Christian “Apologists” in the second century.

And a P.S.: I don’t see the difference between “logical dependence” and “causal dependence” when we are talking about personal relationships. The former is only independent of causal dependence in matters solely analytical (e.g., mathematics).

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