I downloaded this lecture of David Hart’s(back in 2002 I believe) but did not note its venue. If anyone knows the details on it, feel free to let me know. It’s one of my favorite lectures of his by the way. It addresses the change in worldview within the Church’s Hellenistic context wrought by the Christological debates surrounding Nicaea. Enjoy.
In light of our preceding post I decided to revisit Athanasius. I started by browsing Frances Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon and this caught my eye from her summary of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation (OTI). She writes:
“God had given humanity a share in the Logos, and had also given human beings free will. So God tried to safeguard this gift by making it conditional upon obedience to a particular law. If that law were broken, humankind would be turned out of paradise and left to inevitable submergence under the forces of death and corruption; returning to the nothingness from which it came. Humanity disobeyed, and forfeited the principle of life, the Logos. For Athanasius, this left God in an intolerable position. It was unthinkable that God should go back on his word; humanity having transgressed must die; God could not falsify the divine self. But it was not worthy of God’s goodness that the divine work should perish, especially in the case of beings which had been endowed with the nature of the Logos himself; it would have been better never to have created them. This has been described as the ‘divine dilemma’; somehow God’s integrity had to be salvaged while the demands of divine love were met. The answer was the incarnation.”
We might say Athanasius was infralapsarian in his Christology. The relevant passages in OTI are clear enough:
“…because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon his word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom he had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being good, to do?…It was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon his word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify himself; what, then, was God to do?”
Indeed, what was God to do? The divine dilemma as it’s been named. It’s precisely this dilemma which I want to question, for it assumes the incarnation is God’s answer or response to human sinfulness. Athanasius elsewhere contemplates the possibility of humankind’s not falling and thus (presumably) not needing the incarnation. It is human sinfulness, Athanasius argues, which occasions the need and motivation for divine incarnation. Athanasius explains:
“You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out his love for us, so that he made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of his taking human form…”
This order seems to us incorrect in terms of later patristic thought (ala Maximus, but more on that later). We previously suggested that incarnation is not in fact caused by humanity’s failure and sinfulness, but rather, quite the opposite; God creates for the sake of incarnation, the latter occasioning the former. Had everything gone fine (if we may speculate counter-factually for a moment) and humanity progressed without sinful departure, incarnation would have remained God’s intent and humanity’s perfection would have required it nonetheless.
It is not our fallen sinfulness that makes us need God or require the grace of incarnation. It is our finitude per se which stands in such need. We are incomplete ‘as such’, not made so by any ‘fall’.
We suggest an ‘incarnation-anyway’ point of departure, a supralapsarian Christology in which the rationale for incarnation is taken out of the sphere of human salvation from sin. God does not incarnate in response to human sinfulness even if incarnation is in fact the means of our salvation. Thus incarnation is not reducible to our sinful state as its occasion. On the contrary, creation as such is reducible to incarnation as its occasion. As such, sin opposes but does not occasion or call incarnation to be. Rather, incarnation (the intent) calls for creation of a certain kind. Our departure into sin is but a detour teleologically speaking. It makes no positive contribution to the fulfillment of God’s intentions per se, however seamlessly divine grace incorporates our fallen state into the final form of our perfected existence in him. Sin is in the end little more than a speed bump.
Dwayne found this note of mine from a few years ago, tucked away hidden somewhere. It represents where he and I have been on this road together, and God knows I wouldn’t be here thinking these thoughts or living this life had God not brought our journeys together.
Let’s conceive of creation as an intra-trinitarian gift. Take the rationale for incarnation out of the sphere of human salvation. Instead of finding a place for the incarnation within the larger act of creation, let’s turn it around and locate the rationale for creation within incarnation. In other words, creation occurs to make incarnation possible. Creation really is about God celebrating Godself. Creation is God’s gift to Godself. The cosmos is just the means by which God creatively expresses himself to himself for his own enjoyment. One might conclude that we humans are an afterthought, and in a qualified sense, yes, that’s exactly right.
This views the incarnation not as a necessary means to a prior and independent project of human fulfillment. That would make incarnation subservient to humanity and elevate humanity unduly. What if we turn this all on its head and say God creates first to incarnate for Godself (viz., to express God to himself in a new and contingent way) and then to pursue relations with us as a consequence? We exist for him. Novel thought.
This would remove any need to understand the incarnation as intended for or in the service of human perfection in the sense traditionally believed. It means human perfection becomes necessary to God’s larger intentions for incarnation, not vice versa. To inset it just for the sake of emphasis:
Human perfection and glorification become implicated in incarnation in precisely the opposite direction we usually think. So human perfection doesn’t require the incarnation as much as the incarnation entails the perfecting of creation.
What I’m suggesting is that the reason for the incarnation be sought within the trinitarian relations (i.e., God re-expresses himself to himself via creation) and not within human perfection per se. Why should the Son desire to incarnate within the constraints of finitude as an end in itself? Perhaps because it is in the nature of God to personalize gift-giving. One puts one’s self into a gift, one becomes the gift. Thus the finite cosmos becomes intra-trinitarian gift as it is personalized by being united personally to the Son incarnationally. Creation is just the stage upon which the divine persons personalize their love as creative expression.
I think it was Bulgakov who said that a precondition for the incarnation is a certain identity between the divine “I” of the Logos and the human “I.” If creation is the place/means by which God re-expresses Godself ad extra and personally, there must be within creation some created sphere of personal capacities sufficiently adequate for personal existence. The Son isn’t personally incarnate as a rock or a tree, and the point is not finitude per se either. Some created entity must sufficiently bear the image of the Logos and thus be that created arrangement whereby the fully personal existence of the Logos can be manifest in created finitude. Humanity is that space. We are God’s gift to himself.
(Picture from here.)
This post will be a bit different from our standard posts. I’d like to bring part of our conversation with Richard Beck out of the comments section of Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. So I’m addressing this post to Richard personally. The continued clarification via comments really helps, but I think this is worth bringing to the front page. To keep the length down I can’t reproduce all Richard’s comments, so you’ll have to go to the comments section on Parts 1 and 2 for that. That said, thanks so much Richard for taking this up. I hope we keep the exchange open (no pun intended!). My thoughts—
First, the part of this conversation that has to do with nomenclature (whether what you’re describing really qualifies as “open theism” or not) is in the end less important than hearing and engaging each other. Though “open theism” can’t be uncommitted regarding objective indeterminacy and determinism about the future, I still love the conversation and the clarity it brings.
Second, I agree that increased knowledge of my wife makes it possible for me to creatively represent her within my own first-person perspective (i.e., to live “from her point of view” as you say) and thus act as her (and predict a good deal about her behavior based on her likes, dislikes, character, etc.). I think where we differ on this is the way you apply this to God and exclude God from the intimate knowledge of our innermost subjectivity and dispositions. But so far as the future is concerned, for open theists, the “relational dynamic” you want to affirm can’t be had if the God-world relationship is causally closed. It’s not enough, for example, to suppose that since God was “surprised” by what Israel did (as we have it in OT texts) that this alone is enough to secure the relational dynamic you’re looking for. For if we find out (or worse, if we begin by assuming) that God was surprised simply because he didn’t know the causally closed nature of some outcome, then the relational dynamic is (open theists would argue) lost. The relational dynamic can’t be just phenomenological.
Third, as Dwayne has said, there really is an asymmetrical feature to divine-human relations. And here we may just be too far apart in our core philosophical/theological worldview to agree. We don’t assume in any straightforward or simplistic manner that God’s got to be an immeasurably large version of what we are such that every aspect of human becoming and relationality *has* to have a univocal counterpart in God *or else* the whole relationship is a charade. There may be a lot transpiring in these deeper currents that’s carrying you toward traditional process (Whiteheadian) hermeneutics (i.e., God is not an exception to our metaphysical principles, but their chief exemplification).
Fourth, I agree with Dwayne regarding Loder. Dude, you’d love him!
Fifth, re: the weak vs strong volitionalism, Dwayne and I use ‘weak’ to describe the circumscribed and contextualized nature of embodied human choice. There’s no choosing that can occur outside the constraints of that context. We use ‘strong’ to describe versions of free will that tend to ignore or minimize the contextualized nature of our freedom. So it’s not that we’re using ‘weak’ to smuggle in a bit of freedom. We’re above board and up front in insisting upon freedom. ‘Weak’ vs ‘strong’ are just terms to express the nature of the contextual constraints and limits upon the ‘scope’ of its exercise and the objective nature of the ‘possibilities’ which our context offers for our ‘becoming’. By freedom we just mean to say (a) it is at least sometimes the case that the ‘scope of possibilities’ really describes what is objectively the case about the options we may choose, not just options we perceive because of our ignorance of how ‘closed’ things really are. Again, this objective future contingency isn’t incidental to the relational dynamic open theists advocate for. When you said on your blog that relationality (etc) is the “heart and soul” of open theism which you admire, this (the objective nature of future contingency) is what that heart and soul is. You can say the heart and soul of its relational dynamic doesn’t explicitly entail a commitment to future indeterminacy and freedom, but I don’t know any open theist who would agree.
Here’s the sticky point. You say:
“But from there—choices have been narrowed—you insert an account of ‘free will’. That is, maybe you don’t have ten choices but only two, but at least those two choices are “free.” Let me just say, this doesn’t solve the problem. That is not weak volitionalism as I posit it. I’m agnostic about if any of the choices—ten or two—are ‘free’.”
To this Dwayne and I (and others like Boyd and Alan Rhoda and other open theistic thinkers and authors) would say, to the extent you’re agnostic about the freedom at play when there are multiple options, then (a) you’re not doing ‘open theism’ any more, and (b) the heart and soul of the relational dynamic you’re after is gone. The dynamic can’t (for open theists, philosophically speaking) obtain in an ultimately deterministic world.
To illustrate your point, you comment:
“Say I have weak volition: I face only two choices, A or B. For the choice to be self-determined I need to feel that the choice I make flows out of my selfhood, that this choice has a coherent connection with my prior self. That’s where the sense of authorship and ownership come from. By contrast, if the choice is a radical break from my prior self we enter into psychopathology. Symptoms of disassociation and depersonalization, even hallucination. The self and the choice, in these instances, are not harmonious but strange and alien. This is why free will undermines self-determination. Self-determination has the current choosing self coherently connected to the prior self. These selves are not ‘free’ from each other. Now, does a ‘coherent connection’ between my choosing and prior self mean that the prior self causally ‘determines’ the choices of the choosing self? Again, I have no idea.”
I appreciate this a lot. What we’d say is that open theism does have an idea about the ‘determinism’ part, and that this idea is its heart and soul to the extent that we’re committed to the thesis that for human beings, mutually loving relationality evaporates in the event “the freedom I feel” (when I deliberate between perceived options) is merely phenomenological.
We’d totally agree that what you’re describing as ‘self-determining’ (i.e. resolving the will with respect to perceived options) involves coherently integrating prior self with present self. Absolutely. That is, present choice is circumscribed by a diverse mix of data (past self, present embodied constraints, present brain states, etc.) which have to be coherently integrated. We’ve already agreed that there’s no choosing outside this context that could be the ground for truly loving relations. What we’re saying is that (to borrow process lingo) “divine subjective aims” are by definition always a part of the mix that defines the scope of the possibilities we resolve and which we also integrate in the present moment. The “I” that deliberates among the options is self-transcendent because as the human ‘spirit’, this “I” is the God-given capacity to rest my ‘self’ in God’s transcendent “I” which is present within me extending to me my truest self as an option among options). This transcendent divine “I” mediates God’s subjective aims as the ground of our being and freedom.
Paul describes it (2Cor 10.4-5), “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” In dynamic relationship to Christ, I’m empowered to perceive, identify and choose to dissociate with lies (strongholds, arguments, etc.) that present themselves to me for consideration. But for this to be true, the “I” doing the ‘fighting’, ‘demolishing’, and ‘taking captive’ has to be more than just the sum total of the false narratives being adjudicated. And this is where Dwayne and I would suggest our freedom to transcend our own past narratives comes in. The “I” is the self-transcendent spirit of human being, and though it can never resolve the possibilities it’s faced with outside coherently integrating the past into its present, we can say that God (as the human being’s divine subjective aim) is an irreducible part of the context which defines the scope of our future possibilities. We’re not suggesting the embodied context and history be radically denied to smuggle in freedom; we’re suggesting that this context be understood to include God and what he transcendently is and provides us.
Sixth, in other words, we really are more than our past, not in the sense that we can ‘radically break’ from our past in some dissociative way—but in the sense that in perceiving the transcendent love and presence of God as the abiding definitive context of even our past, we’re empowered to coherently integrate our past selves with our present self in Christ (Rom 815!). We don’t have to radically break from the truth of our past to be free. Rather, we come to see the radical truth of God as the truest thing about our past (and present, and future). That, we suggest, is how divine transcendence heals us—not by trapping or limiting God to the constraints the define us, but by increasingly conforming the truth of who we are to the truth of who God is (again, Rom 8.15, et. al.).
Seventh, even when our futures are locked into a single path, we can (as I think you say) choose that path and not let it just happen to us. This is a form of self-transcendence, and it’s possible because we know our truest self is integrated with our past self not *merely* in terms of the finite, embodied limitations and pain of the past, but with something transcendently present (transcendent in the sense that it is God ‘asymmetrically’ present—defining not defined by), i.e., the space in which we integrate past and present coherently. For example, Viktor Frankl tells of observing Jews in concentration camps. As they stood in line and observed the arbitrary division ahead of them and realized that some of them were chosen to die and others chosen to live, Frankl said he could observe overwhelming horror reducing some to the conditions ‘given them’ by the Nazis. They were defined by the Nazis. But he observed also that others were not so overcome. They chose not to be defined by what the Nazis were attempting to reduce them to. That they would die was determined for them, yes. But how they died would be their choice. They transformed Nazi determination through their own transcendent determination. And so Frankl remembers the affirmation and tenderness with which the latter individuals chose to face their deaths, comforting one another, being tender and unafraid and not reduced to the circumstances of their deaths by the Nazis.
Lastly, you comment:
“Libertarian accounts of free will—even if limited to only two choices—undermine this entire account. To be very, very clear, I’m not saying this means we are determined or that the system is closed. Again, I’m agnostic about all that. What I’m saying—please here this—is that libertarian free will is incoherent.”
If we define libertarian freedom as a kind of radical break or dissociation with our past selves, an incoherent failure to integrate past and present, then yes, we agree—LFW would be incoherent. But free will need not be understood in this sense. As Dwayne has pointed out in the comments section, the view of freedom we hold to is what you describe as weak volitionalism. So free will isn’t standing in your way here. All that’s left is to get clear on indeterminism vs determinism re: the exercise of that freedom.
I hope this helps.
I’ve rewritten this Part 2 several times trying to track with the ongoing conversation with Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology regarding open theism. Most recently he and Dwayne have made headway regarding weak vs strong voluntarism. Beck seems to have (incorrectly) believed the latter to be the kind of freedom open theism required. With that correction in place, we can exchange much of what we were ready to post in the way of criticism for some reflections and observations of a more general nature.
There are aspects of Beck’s “Empathetic Open Theism” we definitely want to affirm:
- that consciousness is not reducible to physical states or scientific accounts,
- that the first-person subjective is unique and irreducible,
- that consciousness has causal power,
- that knowledge is gained experientially,
- that via incarnation the Son comes into novel personal experiences of the world,
- and in general that Beck is right on about what ‘open theism’ is; especially that libertarian freedom need not entail strong voluntarism.
There are other aspects of his original post and earlier comments that render his view not discernibly “open theistic” (because it commits Beck to indifference regarding freedom and future contingency). That being said, if Beck’s most recent conversation with Dwayne suggests an embrace of weak voluntarism and the objective nature of future contingency, then his view is discernibly ‘open theism’ and we can go from there. So in the hope of clarifying the issues, we offer the following observations.
First, we’d still argue that what’s “open” about the future cannot simply describe a merely phenomenological openness (i.e., the experience of the future as open because one is ignorant of the manner in which it is in fact closed). The dynamic-relational aspect open theism advocates for rests in the claim that openness is the truth about the way the world is. To deny this much and to be indifferent on the objective reality of future contingency would undermine the very dynamic we believe exists.
Second, when Beck does discuss foreknowledge, he grounds the inability to predict someone’s future in the failure to indwell their perspective intimately/emphathetically. God doesn’t know what we shall do because he doesn’t sufficiently know us. Likewise, he says, if one knew another well enough and emphathized with them intimately enough, their future choices would be predictable.
This remains a problem because it actually entails a “closed” future. Our future choices are in this case causally entailed in antecedent states. We simply don’t know those states intimately enough. Hence we experience the future as ‘open’ which it in fact is not. But in this case openness is just ignorance of what is in fact closed. Beck didn’t find this a problem (at first):
“I don’t have an opinion about if the future is open or closed, if there is free will or not. I’m agnostic about all those questions…My view leaves that question open. Basically, if you want to tack on free will to this vision please feel free. It doesn’t change anything.”
But how can Beck not have an opinion on whether the future is open or closed or whether there is free will or not if, as he says, he set out to develop his view precisely because he does not believe in LFW and wants a way to affirm the same relational dynamic without having to embrace LFW? He also has a position on whether the future is open or closed (viz., it’s ‘closed’) since the future of our choosing is predictable (on the basis of a perfect knowledge of past states). However, if what Beck wants to maintain (and perhaps thinks he cannot maintain within an open theism’s libertarian freedom and future indeterminacy) is a weak rather than a strong voluntarism, then he doesn’t need to construct an alternative model that jettisons freedom and contingency. Freedom and contingency can be ‘weak’; that is, libertarian freedom need not be conceived as freedom from all contextual constraints or the history of socializing events or the relative brain chemistry. All these define the constraints within which we are free and there is no choosing one’s way out of them. At the same time, however, they don’t reduce our future to their history. More on this below.
Third, initially Beck supposed that a person’s future choices are predictable through a sufficiently empathetic apprehension of that person. It would be interesting to know if accommodating himself to a weak voluntarism helps him along this line, because Beck already argued the predictability of the future based on increasing knowledge of another. Where personal-empathetic intimacy increases, predictability increases. The more intimate we become, the more causal entailment is apprehended and the closed nature of the future revealed. But this just means that one isn’t free in an ‘open’ or ‘contingent’ sense at all. Weak voluntarism aside, the belief that the future is causally contained in present states entails a closed future. That would be a problem.
Fourth, viewing God as “outside” us, as observing us “from outside,” looks to us to be a typical two-storied worldview. But God, we’ve argued at length here, cannot be thought of as “an observer” among observers, watching us as one observing subjectivity among others. Pneumatology is a good place to explore this. God is fully present to subjects as the ground and precondition of their own interiority. As Augustine says, “God is higher than my utmost, more inward than my inmost” (cf. Paul’s Mars Hill speech in Acts 17). It might be that Beck fails to understand his “I” as continually gifted directly by the Spirit as part of the Creator-created relationship itself. He may imagine that our inmost self can be hidden from God. But as deeply as one can plunge into the reality of one’s own personal subjectivity—God as subject is already there waiting for us to receive us and to make the moment even possible. You might say that while God never adopts are first-person perspectives as definitive of his own (which would be impossible), it remains the case that God’s subjectivity is the space where we may know ourselves as subjects.
Fifth, we agree that the incarnation introduces novelty into God’s experience of the world. If the person of the Son is truly united to created existence, we can’t suppose this brings no new knowledge to the Son, no personal knowledge of the human experience, of what it’s like to be tempted, hungry, thirsty, tired, etc. Hebrews 4 says as much. But where our Orthodox friends may feel that saying this compromises the needed sense in which we need to say God is immutable and free from the world, it’s our vision here to argue this fear is unwarranted. God can indeed be transcendently and immutably full, essentially and necessarily, and thus be actually free from the world (and experience this God-defining freedom without cessation) while also being engaged in the temporal processes of the world as a contingent expression of who he is.
Sixth, Dwayne and I will be alone in agreeing with the spirit of Fr Aidan’s comment on Beck’s post. Fr Aidan writes:
“I respectfully suggest that the God you are proposing here is but an anthropomorphic-therapeutic projection. It is not the infinite, radically transcendent and radically immanent God whom Christians came to confess during the patristic period and subsequently. None of what you are proposing is necessary to the achievement of personhood in Jesus Christ.”
It would take several posts to express the sense in which we agree with Fr Aidan. But no doubt about it, very much of Protestant, evangelical doctrine of God is mere projection onto God of what we believe we need. Much of the reasoning behind divine passibilism amounts to no more than such projection. That doesn’t mean a view is entirely false because it reflects what’s going on in us or what we in our finitude think we need God to be. We’re just agreeing that it would be naive in the extreme for us to pretend such projection never occurs or that we’re immune to it (which begs a very legitimate question—Just how do we spot the illegitimate projection onto God of our experience and categories? This is not a question to which open theists have generally given much though). We here are on the record as believing that open theism doesn’t really know what to do with divine transcendence and, perhaps more disconcerting, doesn’t seem that concerned (at least not for a concept of transcendence which is anything more than God just being immeasurably more of what we’re already decided he is or, more to the point, just immeasurably more of what we are). In short, to Beck we’d say, be prepared for some surprises; that dynamic-relational and healing way of living that you want to advocate? More of it is in Orthodoxy than you know.
Lastly, to return to a weak vs a strong voluntarism, we’ve already gone on record here as agreeing with Marilyn McCord-Adams’ on the inevitability of horrors within the human condition, and volition is part of the fallen human condition. So we want to avoid the impression that we think the will isn’t shaped, contextualized, even trapped to a great degree within the fallen conditions of human socialization with its embodied context (i.e., the brain). The question is whether or not there remains within all human beings, however fallen, however contextualized, a place of freedom, however minimal in its scope, where trapped people remain free to yield themselves to God via the Spirit, free to take ‘some measure’ of a step in God’s direction and in that step increase the scope of their options.
“Wherever the Spirit is, there is freedom.” (2Cor 3.17) This is no mere policy for Pentecostal management of the gifts. Rather, it’s that about God which makes giftedness and growth and grace an irrevocable constituent of all human relationality. In the end, its simply not possible for personal subjectivity to become irrevocably closed in by, or reduced without remainder to, the constraints of fallen contexts because God as subject is what makes all of subjective experience possible. In other words, all created “I”’s are already the God-given grace of self-reflection and personal meaning. We cannot socialize our way out of that, however contextualized or damaged we may be. And this is why, in our view, increasing union with God really does increase the ‘openness’ of the future in terms of widening the scope of possible choices we may make. God as love is the greatest conceivably creative expressiveness. To be one with God is to step into a host of possible choices which all equally express love’s passion.
It’s great to see Richard Beck of Experimental Theology talking about open theism and related topics. He articulates what he describes as an “empathetic open theism” and invites constructive critique. Beck agrees that the attraction of open theism is “its dynamic and relational view of God and humanity” and wants to keep that vision but “doesn’t agree with how open theism gets us there” (i.e., libertarian freedom). We’d like to explore Beck’s points and argue that what he describes cannot be a version of “open theism” since Beck is in the end quite indifferent to the realities of freedom and future openness.
Beck’s objection to how open theists articulate their relational/dynamic view of God has to do with their embrace of a libertarian view of free will (LFW). He “finds libertarian visions of free will to be psychologically implausible” and isn’t sure “how free will would operate psychologically.” In light of that, he has in mind to “build a different sort of model to create a different sort of open theism” (i.e., one that doesn’t rely upon LFW). And he goes on to begin building this new model “on the disjoint between consciousness and science,” that is, on the observation that knowledge/data is irreducibly subjective and that consciousness cannot be reduced to a scientific account (his non-reductionism hypothesis).
Upon this foundation come a few other building blocks:
- The non-reductionism hypothesis (stating that consciousness is not reducible to a scientific account).
- The causation hypothesis (stating that consciousness is not only not reducible to physics, but it has causal potency), from which it follows that “a reductive scientific account of the cosmos is impossible.”
- The experiential-epistemology hypothesis (stating that knowledge of consciousness can only be gained experientially [directly] or empathetically [imaginatively]).
- The incarnational hypothesis (i.e., the experiential-epistemology hypothesis applies to God).
Based on these hypotheses, Beck concludes that we “cannot know or predict what any given human being will do unless I have perfect knowledge of his or her subject experience” and that since “we can only know any given person’s subjective experience approximately (empathically or imaginatively), [we] can only make imperfect predictions about what any given person may or may not do.” The counterpart, he argues, is also true: “the more…intimate I get with a person, the greater… my ability to understand and empathize with him or her… the greater my predictive knowledge.”
Given the incarnational hypothesis, God cannot know “what it feels like to be me ‘from the outside’” and thus “cannot compute or simulate the future.” God can only gain predictive knowledge of the future the way we do—i.e., by experiential participation and/or emphathetic imagination. Thus Beck grounds an unknown future in the limitations of the “empathic gap.” “God’s ability to know and predict my future is limited by God’s ability (or inability) to know exactly what it feels like to be me, privately, subjectively and experientially).”
The incarnation, however, increases God’s empathetic capacities via participation in the human experience (Heb 4.14-16), though “even after the Incarnation God’s empathic capacities [are] limited in certain ways.” God was incarnate as a Jewish man (and thus cannot know what it’s like to be a woman, for example). The incarnation created the capacity for a generalized empathy but after the Incarnation there remained the need for particular empathy, i.e., the narrowing of the empathy gap between God’s Jesus-experience and your particular life experience. How is this gap closed? Pneumatologically, via the Spirit’s presence in us who believe (men and women), God can “do the particular individualized work of relational intimacy.” At present, Beck says, God and I see each other but dimly, as in a mirror, but one day we will see each other face to face, at which time the experiential gap will be finally and fully overcome in the process of uniting the human and the divine.
For those new who may not have wandered back into our earlier posts, let me just share this link to our first Defining claim and core convictions. It may resurface in upcoming conversations.
Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology has just posted some interesting (and we think at points flawed) thoughts re: open theism. We’ll definitely be engaging.
In Part 1 we argued that a Christ-centered, incarnational approach to understanding God is not a matter of simply reducing divinity to what we see Jesus’ doing. There are clearly attributes we hold to be definitive of divine being which are not derived from any observation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Nobody derives their doctrine of God exclusively in terms of what can be gleaned from observing Jesus, however central and authoritative God’s self-disclosure in Christ is. We also argued that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically throughout the NT and not any single event in Christ’s life. And lastly we recalled that the incarnation begins with Christ’s conception, thus asking any Christology that seeks to understand God in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ to do so not only on the basis of the freely chosen actions of a responsible adult, but also on the basis of the less observed and less discussed fact of God’s being fully present and fully divine as a zygote in Mary’s womb.
In Part 2 here we’d like to reflect upon the “life-inherency” of the Son from Jesus’ declaration in Jn 5.26 that “just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Related passages include “In him was life and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1.4), “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11.25; 14.6), “…this we proclaim concerning the Word of life; the life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1Jn 1:2), and Peter’s declaration to his fellow countrymen that “[they] killed the prince/author of life but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3.15).
Ought we to think that possession of “life-in-oneself” is self-existent, divine life? That’s precisely our view. Possession of life-in-oneself isn’t the contingent life of created beings but the vitality of God’s own eternal life. The triune God is “the living God.” No one gives the Father this life. He possesses the fullness of his existence in himself. The Son too has this life-in-himself. In spite of possessing created, finite human being, the Son also possesses uncreated, eternal life-in-himself just as the Father does. The former (possession of finite, created life) cannot bring the latter (possession of eternal, divine self-existence) to an end or qualify the vitality of its actuality as eternal, divine, unending, relational, self-existent, etc. Possessing life-in-oneself (just as the Father possesses such life) cannot mean the Son acquires such life-in-himself as a contingent act within the created order. The Prologue (Jn 1.4) clearly attributes life-in-himself to the pre-incarnate Logos constitutive of the relationship between Father and Son. This is why John can say (1Jn 1.2) the Son is “the eternal life who was with the Father and has appeared to us.”
What happens when we consider the debate over the kenotic claim that the Son sets the possession of such life aside in becoming constrained without remainder to the natural limitations of created finitude in Mary’s womb, say, as a zygote? We ask it this way because the debate over kentoicism typically proceeds along lines of asking whether the rational, responsible and benevolent humanity of the adult Jesus can be conceived of as fulfilling “whatever it takes” to be God. But a Christ-centered, incarnational methodology cannot rest with asking the question of just the adult Jesus. The zygote must also qualify. Here the Son is incarnate. Here “whatever it takes” to be divine must obtain. Here, in and as the zygote, the Logos possesses life-in-himself just as the Father possesses life-in-himself.
Not long ago Dwayne discussed these issues with C. Stephen Evans when Evans visited the University of Minnesota on a speaking engagement. He also discussed it with Tom McCall. Both agreed that the essential God-defining benevolence and relational dimension of divinity defined Jesus’ relationship with God. Jesus loved others without fail, he forgave the sinful, he served others and eventually gave his life for us and he related obediently to his Father at all times. And when asked “You agree the incarnation of the Son begins with his conception in Mary’s womb, right?” both heartily agreed, for to suggest otherwise was in effect to deny the incarnation and to embrace Adoptionism. So yes, incarnation begins with conception. But when next asked, “What about the Son as a zygote? Does the zygote, in its created finitude, void of all subjectivity, consciousness and volition, instantiate benevolent relationship?” Evans lowered his gaze , stared at the floor silently for a spell, and finally shook his head and said, “No. There’s no relationship whatsoever between Father and Son at that point.” And when asked about the status of the eternal, God-defining relations in the womb, McCall sat quietly on the phone. After an awkward silence, finally an “Ahh, right…” came back from the other end as McCall (who completed a PhD on kenoticism mind you) apparently for the first time ever stopped to consider incarnate divinity outside the boundaries of Jesus’ adult. conscious, self-reflecting responsible agency and to contemplate instead how the Son might actually be God if all there was to him was the created, embodied finitude of a zygote.
We have no delusions about the popularity of kenoticism within Evangelical churches. It is the reigning Christology after all. If Father and Son agree the Son should just stop relating to one another, take a break from their perichoretic God-defining experience, God just carries on as a functional binaty. “What’s the big deal? You and your wife are still married when one of you is asleep,” is the oft repeated rebuttal. That the Son just ceases personal existence altogether simply poses no problem. But if eternal life is the Son’s life-in-himself, and if the Son possesses this just as the Father does, then on what grounds are we to suppose it even possible for the Son to set aside the living relationship with Father and Spirit whose actual lived vitality is divine, eternal life-in-oneself? On the basis that my wife and I remain a loving, married couple even when she’s asleep and I’m awake? That’s what doing theology has come to?
- First, if the Son possesses life-in-himself and this life as such is not possessed intermittently or contingently but is in the case of the Son as it is with the Father eternal life as self-existent vitality, then Jesus is unlike every other human being in a fundamentally transcendent way even if he is like every other human being at every development stage of his human life. This is just what it means for the Son’s person to be homoousion (‘consubstantial’) with the Father and homoousion with us. It is not human nature as such which is consubstantial with the divine nature as such (as kenoticists suppose).
- Second, one cannot separate having such life-in-oneself from other aspects of being uncreated. We can’t exclude the Son, for example, from other transcendent qualities (of ‘knowing’, ‘relating’, or ‘presence’) shared by the Father. Being the “author of life” is not a part-time job. The idea that the Son can lateral off to the Father and the Spirit the life-giving functions of his life-in-himself is nonsensical.
- Lastly, consider approaching other similar passages that describe God’s life-giving effects and reflect upon them in terms of God’s “life-in-himself” as inhering and active in/through the Son. Genesis’ description of God breathing the breath of life into human being; Jesus’ impartation of the Spirit to his disciples in Jn 20; the exercise of God’s life-giving prerogative in Ps 104 and many other passages; God as the source of “living water” (Jer 2.13; 17.13; Jn 4.10; 7.38; Rev 7.17); and of course (a point we never tire of making), the Son’s universal life-sustaining relationship to all created things (Jn 1.1-4; 1Cor 8.6; Col 1.16-17; Heb 1.3-4).
There he is — God incarnate. That zygote right there. And the Logos became flesh. We’ve discussed the whole zygote thing before. While debates about divine incarnation in the womb might appear fantastic or as uselessly speculative as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not God really took the human journey in its entirety certainly bears on the integrity of the incarnation and with it the salvation Christians suppose is therein provided.
One possible line of inquiry which might shed light on recent discussions regarding kenoticism was suggested to me by Dwayne. It asks us to consider what it means for the Son to “have life in himself just as the Father has life in himself” (Jn 5.26; cf. Jn 1.4; 1Jn 1.1-2) and explore what the consequences of this would be for the kenotic claim that this same Son relinquished all attributes not compatible with the natural constraints of a created, embodied human nature. A couple of obvious questions might include:
(a) What would “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself” entail?
(b) Is the answer to (a) instantiable exclusively in terms of the constraints of embodied human nature?
Additionally, an important methodological question might be:
(c) What ought to be the proper order in answering (a) and (b)?
This last question (c) is unavoidably important. We recently finished up discussing Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 on Barth & open theism, and we noted McCormack’s complaint that open theists fail to make Christology the proper starting point for their doctrine of God. We are to start, he argues, with Christ and, not stepping outside the event of God’s own self-revelation in Christ, determine our understanding of God from there. Greg Boyd, not a Barthain by any means, is nevertheless equally passionate in advocating for a Christ-centered understanding of divine being. Jesus is God incarnate, and that should provide us a straightforward strategy for knowing just what being God really/essentially amounts to. Whatever supposedly essential divine attributes fail to be instantiated by Christ within the constraints of his embodied human experience can summarily be dismissed as not necessary or definitive of what it means to be God. Greg argues the point:
“If we allow the incarnate and crucified Christ to define God for us while embracing the Kenotic understanding of how the Son became a human, it becomes clear that the only attribute that defines God’s divinity is his love. That is, if Jesus was ‘fully God’ without exercising his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, then clearly God need not exercise omnipotence, omniscience and/or omnipresence to be God. One might of course argue that God must at least have the potential to exercise these attributes to be God. But it nevertheless remains true that….”
Thus kenoticism follows from a Christ-centered methodology for determining truth about God. If God’s essential attributes are to be understood as instantiated exclusively in terms of the boundaries of Jesus’ human experience, then what you see in Christ is all God is essentially and necessarily, “all that it takes” to be God. And, so the logic goes, since Jesus isn’t omnipresent and omniscient (among other things), these attributes aren’t essential to being divine. What is the only essential, God-defining attribute that can be gleaned from Christ’s life? What nevertheless remains true? Greg explains:
“…it nevertheless remains true that Jesus’ self-emptying entails that the only thing God cannot stop exercising and yet be considered God is his essence-defining love.”
Unfailing love. That and that alone is God’s self-defining essence and necessary actuality. Jesus loves without fail, therefore Jesus is God (never mind for the moment that we also shall one day love without fail without being God). And certainly no Christian wants to say God isn’t personally present in Christ or that God isn’t personally and authoritatively revealed in Christ, or that God doesn’t love without fail, so non-kenoticists like Dwayne and me are in the apparently disadvantaged position of having either to:
Answer (a) (i.e., what “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself”) prior to answering (b) (and thus be guilty of constructing our doctrine of God independently of Christology)
Somehow argue on biblical/Christological grounds that there’s more to the Son’s being divine than there is to the embodied experience of Jesus.
We take the latter route, in view of which let us offer three suggestions for this Part 1 which have to do with the scope of the Christology at play in (b) and also with the nature of the apostolic testimony regarding God.
First, we’d like to suggest that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is not simply any single event in Christ’s life described in the gospels (as is the case, for example, with Greg Boyd who via a ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ argues that it is not the entirety of Christ’s incarnate career which finally and authoritatively determines our understanding of God but only the cross), nor Christ’s life as reconstructed on the basis of the gospel accounts only, but rather the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically. It is theologically illegitimate to pretend to have access to Christ independent of the whole range of apostolic authority and voice. The voice of the entire New Testament is equally authoritative for Christians in understanding Christ — who he was, what he accomplished, what his life means, in what sense he is God and in what sense he is human.
Second, it seems equally misguided to suppose that a description of Jesus’s life and career by Luke or Matthew is more definitive of our understanding of God than a description of God by, say, Paul which is not explicitly a reflection upon any aspect of Christ’s life. For example, Paul affirms (1Tm 6:16) that God is “immortal and lives in unapproachable light.” Where did Paul get this idea? Certainly not from any observation of the events of Jesus’ actual life. It doesn’t obviously follow from Jesus’ life, or his pre-eminent role in defining our understanding of God, that God should be thought of as immortal. It would seem Paul’s belief in God’s immortality was not derived Christologically but from the wider witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not to say Christ’s life does not in fact render much of Israel’s understanding of God false. But it certainly means our doctrine of God is not simply the end product of looking at Jesus, writing down what we see and calling it ‘all that it takes to be God’.
If we have grounds on statements made by the apostles outside the gospel texts (Eph 2.20) for thinking God to be of a certain nature, then it would seem to follow that the Son, being divine, exemplifies this same nature though incarnate. Point is, statements made in the NT about God which are not obviously Christologically derived nevertheless have implications for what it means for us to say that the “fullness of deity” indwells Christ bodily (Col 2.9).
Third, unless one wishes to advocate an adoptionist Christology in which the Son descends upon or personally assumes an already existing human individual at some point (childhood, adulthood), we must understand incarnation to begin with Jesus’ conception. This means that whatever one wishes to believe God is on the basis of Christology, the scope of that Christology should embrace Jesus not just as a mature adult in responsible relationship with his Father or suffering in love on the cross, but also as a newly conceived zygote. The womb, not the Cross, is the least common denominator which kenoticists are obliged to reduce divinity to.
Problem is zygotes are neither personally consciousness nor self-aware, neither volitional nor relational nor subjects of a benevolent disposition or character — nothing that might fulfill that unfailing choice to love which Boyd supposes is the only necessary self-defining feature of God’s actuality. At this point we don’t wish to argue there are other self-defining features of God’s necessary actuality (although we believe there must be). We simply want to insist that whatever one supposes constitutes God’s self-defining necessary actuality, one must equally hold that the person of the Son instantiates this through the entirety of his incarnate career beginning with being a zygote. If the self-defining essence of divine being is unfailing love, then the Son must instantiate this unfailing love and do so exclusively in terms of a zygote’s created, embodied natural capacities (not just as a mature and responsible adult rationally exercising his freedom). It’s one thing to limit your Christology to the adult Jesus choosing the cross in the garden, or to his mature identity as the Father’s Son asking the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do and so conclude that “full divinity” is just the unfailing disposition to love at cost to one’s self. It is an entirely different thing to account for a zygote’s being divine exclusively in such terms.
Where is the Son qua zygote doing what any of us thinks is necessarily involved in “being God”? Some kenotic answers we’ve met in conversation include, “Well, you’re still a person when you sleep, so the Logos is just sleeping in the womb,” or “You still love your wife when you’re asleep, right?” or “The Father and Spirit just agree to cover for the Logos during his absence.” I guess that must be what’s going on in that zygote there — the eternal Logos, the Father’s own Image, the author of life who possesses life in himself “just as the Father possesses life in himself” is taking a nap while the Father and Spirit cover for him.
In Part 2 we’d like to explore what it means for “the Father to possess life in himself” and then ask what it means to do Christology from this point of view on the assumption that the Son possesses life in himself “just as the father does.”