God free—to be or not to be?

YaniI’m intrigued when Orthodox friends tell me I’m getting too philosophical or analytical when I explore what it might mean to say God is three ‘persons’ or that God is ‘loving’ and ‘personal’ existence. Then I run into the likes of Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras who provides some pretty philosophical heavy lifting. Here (and in pdf below) is an address he gave to St. Vladimir’s in 2010 that captures one very interesting claim regarding divine freedom about which I’m still looking for clarification and over which I notice not all Orthodox seem to be in agreement. The question has to do with the nature of God’s freedom as it relates to his existence as triune.

Yannaras (and Zizioulas, and even David Hart at times) appears to claim God’s very existence and triune relations are ‘free’ in the sense of ‘freely chosen’ in contrast to being necessitated or ‘given’. The Father freely chooses to beget the Son. The Son freely chooses to affirm his personal existence in love to the Father, and thus with the Spirit.

Now, if all Yannaras means is that God’s existence (including the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit) isn’t subject to necessity in the sense of conforming to or ontologically obliging some objective standard of logic or meaning, then I don’t know any who would disagree. God doesn’t exist because he ‘has’ to, nor is the Father under some ‘constraint’ to beget the Son, etc. We agree that in fact God can’t be said to exist “because of” anything. His existence is not a reply to or conformity to necessity. There is no metaphysical ‘deep magic’ which might be said to supervene upon God’s being in or which prescribes for God that he is to exist or that the Father is to beget the Son, etc.

However, both Yannaras and Zizioulas seem to be saying much more than this, namely, that God chooses freely to exist, chooses freely to be triune, etc. But I don’t have any idea of what choice or freedom means in this case. God chooses to exist? Only what exists can choose. Or, as existing, the Father chooses freely to beget the Son? God chooses to be triune? In that case, what becomes of Zizioulas’ “being is communion” or Yanarras’ “relational ontology”?

Aristotle Papanikolaou discusses (Being with God, pp. 148-161) this very point in evaluating Zizioulas, qualifying him to a point but essentially agreeing:

“[The reason] Zizioulas does not ‘conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is’ is, quite simply, Zizioulas’s rejection of linking the divine life to any form of necessity. For Zizioulas, the price for making the intra-divine communion the primordial concept is the negation of absolute freedom. God’s existence is not absolutely free if it is necessarily one of intra-divine communion.”

And again:

“Freedom, according to Zizioulas, is precisely freedom from the given. ‘Givenness’ is what constitutes ‘the greatest provocation to freedom’.”

Metroop-Zizioulas1But this seems to me to undo the very thesis Zizioulas argues, namely, that to be is to be in communion. Alan Torrance (Persons in Communion) levels the same criticism against this notion of divine freedom as well, asking “Is the freedom of the Father to be conceived as qualitatively distinct from that of the Son and the Spirit?” and “Does the ontological freedom of the arche vis-à-vis the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit parallel the cosmological freedom of the Father vis-à-vis the created order as a whole?” Torrance wonders how, if creation is the result of a freedom from the given, is divine freedom in the act of creation different from that of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit if the divine persons are also free from all relational givenness as Zizioulas argues, or indeed if God is free from the givenness of his own existence?

If as Zizioulas says “being is communion,” then you don’t get any more primordial than than being-in-relation. But Yanarras and Zizioulas both insist upon extending divine freedom to the Father’s begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit (and the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal freedom to affirm or reject their own being begotten and proceeding), threatening the very claim that “being is communion.” If communion is freely chosen, then being is not communion, it is rather absolute freedom to be or not to be in communion, which is not what either Zizioulas or Yannaras seems to want to say.

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6 comments on “God free—to be or not to be?

  1. Rob Parris says:

    Yep, they’ve got quite a pickle there. It seems that they want to say both things. Without any definitive statement that one pole governs the other, what do we do with it?

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    • tgbelt says:

      Zizioulas just cautions people not to think of God’s freedom (the Father’s to beget, the Son and the Spirit’s to affirm) along the lines of temporal causation, as a choice that’s first made which is followed temporally by the consequence of relational existence. For him they’re coincidental and beyond time, and that’s when my hold on his entire argument is lost. He and Yannaras make a lot of their understanding of divine freedom as the answer to humanity’s existential angst. We cry out for freedom from the given, for freedom to transcend the givens of our context and the inevitability of death, etc. Well, says Zizioulas, God can’t give what God doesn’t have.

      That strikes me as mistaken. In some respects I can see it. But in this case it just doesn’t strike me as convincing. Can God really not give what he doesn’t have? That’s a metaphysical rule? He “gives” created being its contingent existence without being himself either created or contingent. Why can’t God be non-contingent, loving relationality (i.e., not be free to will himself out of existence or even out of triune existence) and yet grant us freedom from our falleness? I don’t get it.

      Besides, depending on how one defines “nature” and “givenness,” who wants to be free of his God-given nature? To become what? Zizioulas talks as if the giveness of our finite natures is a curse. That always seemed very unorthodox of him, so I’ve assumed I just don’t understand his point. But I don’t want to transcend or be free from my given nature. I want to fulfill it, which is how I’ve always understood theosis anyhow; the fulfillment of our natures. Why can’t God give us freedom to choose our way into that without having also to choose his way into it?

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  2. Nelson says:

    Contingency is incidental in humans; it’s a function of its being given. Because it’s given to us, existence is contingent.

    However, there are contingencies in God; for example, God’s answers to prayers are contingent on the prayer being asked. And if the prayer asks for a good that God wants to give someone, but that He cannot give unless asked for (a person must accept a gift in order for it to be a gift), then in that case, God’s will is contingent. At least in the open view of God. God’s contingencies are contingent on God’s relation to contingent beings. But only because that’s what God has chosen to be.

    Anyway, I think I might agree with Yannaras and (maybe) Zizioulas. They’re not saying God is not logically necessary. They’re saying God is existentially free, not subject to any existential necessity. In other words, God doesn’t owe it to anybody to be who God is. God chooses Himself. The Father is the Father because He chooses to generate the Son and send the Spirit. The Son is the Son because He chooses to know and reveal the Father in the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit because He chooses to proceed from the Father and inhabit the Son.

    Maybe Yannaras and Zizioulas have a kenotic understanding of God’s triune relationship and God’s relationship with His creation.

    Also, if existential freedom is a good thing, then it makes sense to say that God is existentially free. All good gifts come from Him. If it doesn’t come from Him, then it’s not a gift but an emergent property, like contingency. However, the purpose of apotheosis is to make humanity eternal and not contingent, by participating in the life of the Trinity, which is love. That’s what I believe Yannaras means when he says that God makes us transcend our mode of existence. When we truly love as God (Father, Son and Spirit) loves, we become part of God’s eternal community/family.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Thanks Nelson. I agree on the prayer portion. Great point!

      Good points on Yannaras/Zizy too. If all we mean is that God isn’t under obligation to some necessity, I’m on board. I guess when it gets expressed as God’s [libertarian] freedom to beget the Son, etc., one is then being asked to imagine God in terms of both options (triune or not-triune), and that’s what I can hardly imagine they’re saying. But the more I check them out the more it seems that that’s what they’re saying: THAT God exists is not a contingent matter. He exists necessarily (apaphatic qualifiers taken into account). But HOW God exists (unitarianly, trinitarianly, etc.) is his free choice. I’m like, Wow. Really?

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  3. […] I missed Tom Belt’s article last month on divine freedom and the trinitarian identity of God: God free—to be or not to be? While I have not read much Yannaras (I’ve tried but he hasn’t clicked yet), I have read […]

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  4. William says:

    I suspect that when discussing God’s freedom, these Orthodox thinkers have in mind the distinction made by Maximus the Confessor between natural will and gnomic will. I would not be able to apply this distinction to the present discussion right now and do it anything close to justice, but I’m certain that an exploration into this would be pertinent to some of the questions you raise.

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