Actus Purus: Act 1 Scene 1

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We’ve agreed that CEN (creation ex nihilo) ought to be understood in relationship to divine transcendence. Many open theists affirm CEN without, we suspect, thinking through what CEN implies. One might grant that it entails God’s freedom from creation (on the one hand) and creation’s utter and complete gratuity (on the other) without exploring what must be the case with God if his is this free, or the case with us if we are that contingent. So a good place to begin would be to grant that ‘divine transcendence’ is that about God which constitutes his freedom from creation and creation’s consequent gratuity (and even then we are not sitting inside transcendence taking notes). And this is something open theists can (and ought) to heartily affirm with the Orthodox. Disagreements emerge when we start to describe just what “that about God which…” is.

Fr Aidan did a great job of summarizing a core Orthodox commitment to divine transcendence centered upon God as actus purus (pure act). Last year we observed that this defines the core belief of ‘classical theism’. What’s the fundamental point of actus purus? It is the denial of all potentiality in God, all movement within God from ‘possibly this’ to ‘actually this’. Such “movement” is believed by the Orthodox to be equivalent to saying “God becomes God” which cannot be possible if it’s true (per CEN) that the fullness of God’s life/existence is utterly free from the world and God is self-existent. It is the world in its finitude which is essentially defined as temporal becoming, as the movement from ‘what it is not but could be possibly be’ to ‘actually being what it can possibly be’. If God is the ground of all contingent temporal becoming, it would seem to follow that this ground cannot “become” in any temporal sense. On the contrary, God is always-already all God can possibly be.

If ‘classical theism’ advances a view of divine transcendence as actus purus, ‘Process theism’, we’ve also noted, can be described as processu operis (a “work in progress” for those addicted to Latin phrases). What other alternative is there, right? Here God is “temporal becoming” par excellence, the One whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe.

The vision and burden of this site is to challenge this either/or and to suggest (to the Orthodox on the one hand) that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute Gods’ freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity (which are what CEN is essentially about and what actus purus aims to protect) are absolutely to be maintained but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se, and (to open theists on the other hand) that these traditional perfections do not threaten or undermine the sense which open theists view God as engaged in the temporal processes and relations which define creation.

The question then becomes just what are those divine perfections which constitute God’s transcendence of the world? Well, there’s no apprehending the transcendent directly by the transcended. That goes without saying (pun intended). But created being can reflect upon itself (as bearing the divine image, as divine artistry, as divine playfulness [perLila’ in Hinduism] in terms of ‘divine vestigia’ within the created order) and therein perceive the ‘character’ or ‘image’ of those transcendent realities. It is certainly the legacy of the classical reflection upon these that they entail actus purus and thus preclude all possibility of temporal experience in God, for temporal experience is defined as “becoming” which is a movement from ‘unrealized potency’ to ‘realized actuality’, while the Process reflection has, as we noted, led to quite opposite conclusions. Our reflections land us in the middle. So it’s our challenge to identify those ‘transcendental’ perfections (of beauty, goodness, will, etc.) as the ground of all creaturely becoming and argue that they can subsist necessarily, fully and unchangingly in God without categorically precluding the possibility of all temporal experience; i.e., actus purus is false, but what it essentially seeks to protect is not false.

(Picture here.)

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5 comments on “Actus Purus: Act 1 Scene 1

  1. Tom Torbeyns says:

    It seems to be actus purus at the expense of Open Theism or Open Theism at the expense of actus purus.

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    • Tom says:

      Certain versions of each are incompatible with the other, yes.

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        Do you have an exhaustive list on this? 🙂

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      • Tom says:

        No list, Tom. Sorry. Just my sense from discussions. There are understandings of actus purus that make all conceivable change within God impossible. But others (Bulgakov, Balthasar) take very nuanced views on what they think it means to say God is not subject to ‘temporal becoming’, and I can (as an open theist) agree. So actus purus would apply to God’s ‘self-constituting’ perfections (the beatitude and fullness of the divine relations). God doesn’t “take time” to “become” God in this sense. He’s pure act with respect to these relations, their fullness and their beatitude. But I agree with Bulgakov and Balthasar that this doesn’t make temporal relations with the a temporal creation impossible, though we should be careful not to understand God has being just another temporal being on the inventory of “becoming” things.

        Tom

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      • Tom Torbeyns says:

        Oh, I see what you mean. I still can use some more study on the matter, to find my way. Glad it’s not a salvific issue :’D

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