God’s duration is without loss

glass2I’ve been reading and listening to reflections on God and time. I get such headaches when I dwell on this question, but four core convictions come to mind as I consider these conversations again.

(1) Creation as irreducible becoming or processu operis (a work in progress). We exist entirely as an act of “becoming,” an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we wish to be. We are a perpetual hourglass that negotiates between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

(2) God’s self-constituting triune perfections and beatitude are actus purus. In our view, God cannot be reduced to the “becoming” described in (1) above, even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” God’s self-constituting triune act (the Father’s begetting of the Son, the proceeding of the Spirit, the triune fullness and beatitude of this knowing and loving) cannot itself be subject to temporal becoming; it cannot supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which God’s ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not ‘now’. To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it), we suggest that God’s essential triune act is the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity,” an infinite specious present, an indivisible occasion of plenitude not composed of successive temporal moments upon whose unending process it supervenes (i.e., it has neither past which it remembers nor future changes it anticipates).

(3) God’s free self-expression in creation is contingent and involves duration. If God cannot be reduced to a processu operis, neither can he be reduced to actus purus as a totum simul. If God’s self-constituting, triune fullness is the living immediacy of an infinite ‘specious present’, it is not on that account intolerant of contingent self-expressive modes of willing and knowing. Thus we believe God’s free self-expression in creation (the creating, sustaining, and knowledge of the world in its contingent temporal actualities) involves temporal duration for God. Time flows from God as we “live and move and have our being in God.”

(4) God’s duration is without loss. The phrase is Robert Jenson’s. I don’t include in it all that he does. I employ it only to say that God’s duration as expressed in (3) is without loss (because it’s asymmetrically related) to the triune fullness expressed in (2). God’s self-expressive act in creation, with its duration and change, is purely expressive of his triune identity. God does not constitute himself dialectically within the economy of creation, though his knowledge of and relation to the world involve change and reciprocal relations such as prayer within an open horizon whose precise unfolding even God does not immutably (fore)know. This openness (for free, creaturely becoming in love) just is God’s free, creative self-expression. Free creaturely self-expression (ultimately in unfailing love and union with God) perfectly manifests free divine self-expression because the latter grounds and guarantees the former. But the entire economy of creation, even the Incarnation itself, only expresses or manifests (rather than determines or alters) God’s self-constituting triune fullness.

The disposition to be divine

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Pardon a second post from the comments section of Classical Theism where Malcolm and I are batting ideas back and forth. I’m pretty sure no one else is in there, so I wanted to post more publicly a reference to Greg Boyd’s appropriation of the concept of dispositions or dispositional ontology and how it might provide an analogy for understanding how God’s triune identity remains unchanged through relations with the temporal world. Chase down Greg’s Redux if you’re more interested.

Malcolm: If God has a certain state of existence ad intra and also a certain state of existence ad extra, then it seems that in transitioning from the one to the other God changes in his essential properties, in which case he doesn’t maintain identity. For instance, if God ad intra is independent but then becomes dependent, it seems to me either (a) his independence ad intra is not an essential property, or (b) God ceases being God afterwards.

Tom: If you get Greg’s Redux (pp. 16-21), check out what he says about the category of dispositions, including two kinds of disposition: (1) definitional dispositions that are exercised invariantly and whose exercise constitutes the definitional or necessary properties of a thing (Note: I don’t think God is a “thing”), and (2) constitutive dispositions (‘constitutive’ is what Greg calls them but that’s probably not a good word to use), i.e., powers which a thing essentially possesses but which it may or may not exercise and remain the essential thing it is.

God’s infinite specious present is God’s essential and necessary disposition to be the triune God of infinite beauty and beatitude. This dispositional essence cannot (I don’t think) be the product or outcome of “temporal becoming” (as I try to describe in that post on the specious present). But when we move to ad extra self-expressive divine acts, these are not (as your comment seems to suppose, I’m not sure) a “transition from the one” (i.e., from the necessary-essential disposition to be triune fullness) “to the other” (i.e., to a freely exercised disposition for creative self-expression). God doesn’t shut down the exercise of his definitional disposition to be the God he is so he can rewire or re-constitute that disposition to become someone or something else. The latter disposition (for freely creative self-expression) is possessed necessarily. It’s only exercised contingently.

God’s ‘identity’ then is the abiding, unchanging, disposition to be the loving triune God of infinite beauty and beatitude (his ‘specious present’ I would say). This ‘identity’ gets “expressed” (not “constituted”) through the ad extra work of creation, but only (and this is important to our passibilism question) through the world’s ‘being’ (i.e., the extent to which created natures conform to their logoi), not through its ‘failure to be’ (i.e., its sinful misrelation and suffering).

From my view, changing states of mind in God with respect to the changing actualities of the world, even if they are intrinsic in the sense that all knowing is intrinsic to the knower, don’t constitute an intolerable divine “becoming” or reconstitute God’s identity ad intra. Why not? Because all the forms of the good which are the being of created things are already present in the divine Logos (and so definitive of the divine identity). Their ‘becoming actual’ as non-divine entities ad extra is merely expressive of this One’s disposition for free, creative self-expression. But though created things merely reflect as images the Logos in whom their possibilities are grounded (they’re not ‘new’ in that sense, obviously), their actual temporal becoming does constitute something new ‘to know’ even for God (since their contingent, temporal ‘actuality’ as such cannot be eternally pre-contained in the Logos). As Bulgakov said (Bride of the Lamb – thank you God for this passage):

If God created man in freedom, in His own image, as a son of God and a friend of God, a god according to grace, then the reality of this creation includes his freedom as creative self-determination not only in relation to the world but also in relation to God…

[A]ll the possibilities of creaturely being, having their roots in the Creator’s knowledge, are open to [his] knowledge, since they belong to the world created by Him and are included in this world’s composition, not only in the form of “integral wisdom” but also in the form of a distributed multiplicity. In this sense, creation – in both the spiritual and the human world – cannot bring anything ontologically new into this world; it cannot surprise or enrich the Creator Himself. But the very choice and creative actualization of these possibilities, that is, the domain of modal freedom, remain entrusted to creation and to this extent are its creative contribution. Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens…

Veiling His face, God remains ignorant of the actions of human freedom. Otherwise, these actions would not have their own reality, but would only be a function of a certain divine mechanism of things.

Classical theism

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On and offline I’ve been following discussions for and against classical theism. Some of these discussions proceed without having established precisely what counts as classical theism. Some make the wild claim that Dwayne and I are classical theists. So if it helps those interested in the question, I’d like to clarify. It’s not that difficult a vision of God to state.

Back a while ago I stated (hear and hear are examples) what seemed to me to be the sine qua non of “classical” theism, and engaging the questions surrounding this has only confirmed things as we’ve focused on understanding and appreciating the classical tradition as best we could. The fundamental conviction of classical theism is:

  • God is actus purus (“pure act,” by which is meant, among other things, that there is no conceivable unrealized potential in God).

Certain things follow from this, most importantly:

  • God is simple (that God is not composed of parts, spatial, temporal, or metaphysical, which any attempt at qualifying would need to be expressed with extreme caution, since no sane theist can suppose God to be assembled from more fundamental parts).

From these of course other traditional affirmations follow:

  • God is absolutely immutable (unchanging in every conceivable way, possessing no accidents).
  • God is impassible (which for the Orthodox, by whom I mean the tradition that produced the Creeds and Fathers, means firstly that God is never passive with respect to knowledge or emotion in relation to the world; i.e. he is never acted upon or determined by creation in any conceivable sense. Typically debates about divine passibility/impassibility proceed as if what is at stake is whether or not God has feelings or emotions at all, but the issue is bigger than that.)

More could be said (about omniscience, essential benevolence, etc.) but not much that a non-classical theist need disagree with. As one pushes beyond these to what is thought to be implied by them the opinions become diverse. But at classical theism’s defining center is the commitment to God as actus purus, admitting no accidents, no experience of temporal sequence whatsoever, and never in any conceivable way being acted upon or determined by creation.

To any working intelligence, Dwayne and I aren’t classical theists. We deny actus purus and its entailments as classically held.

Far on the other end of the theistic spectrum of beliefs is Process theism. If classical theism’s defining center is actus purus (pure act), Process theism can be reduced to the opposite metaphysical claim, namely, that God is processu operis (a “work in progress”). God is “temporal becoming” par excellence. He is the One whose existence and perfections are without remainder historicized, constituted in and as the ever-changing process of ongoing relations with creation, relations which are as consequential and self-constituting for God as they are for the world.

There are theists in both these camps who see these two options as jointly exhaustive of the theistic options. But the vision and burden of this site is to challenge the claim that our theological options are exhausted by these two visions and to suggest that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute God’s freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity, are absolutely to be maintained, but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se (if carefully stated), but then also to suggest that these traditional perfections needn’t per se threaten or undermine the sense in which open theists view God as knowing and engaging the temporal world.

Moore misunderstanding

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I need to follow up on my previous clarification of Chalcedon. In that post I responded to TC Moore’s use of a 2012 blog post by Robin Phillips in which Robin expressed his reasons for leaving Calvinism in terms of problems he believed Calvinists have affirming the synergy of divine and human wills (entailed in the Sixth Ecumenical Council). Robin unpacks this in relationship to comments of Calvinist R. C. Sproul. But none of Robin’s criticisms of Sproul apply to Dwayne and me. TC remains unconvinced however, and insists that Dwayne and I are every bit as guilty as Robin believed R. C. Sproul was of denying the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s conclusion regarding Christ’s ‘two wills’, and more importantly (and very strangely), of denying the—hold on folks—passibilism of the divine nature which TC believes is established by the Sixth Ecumenical Council as well as by other Orthodox Fathers (like Maximus and Cyril of Alexandria).

In his latest post on this, TC returns to accusing Dwayne and me of Nestorianism because we limit the sufferings of the person of the Son to his human nature. He supposes this to be a resurrected version of Nestorius’ heresy. In addition, Dwayne and I “lust for the exotic faith of the Eastern church,” a lust which has “degenerated into self-righteous doctrinal certitude” and an “arrogance that has left [us] blind to [our] radically unfaithful views of Jesus’s life and work.” In the end, the God we worship is no longer “God” but merely “[our] god.” Previously, TC has described us as “returning to the classical theism of tradition the way a dog returns to its vomit,” having been “re-infected by the virus” (of classical theism) and of “attempting to infect others.”

We’ve addressed all this before and the ridiculous nature of TC’s accusations are on record. If you doubt our Christology on these points, ask any Orthodox. TC simply is not interested in understanding what we believe or why we believe it and how we distinguish ourselves from “classical” theism. He just knows that Dwayne and I don’t agree that God is ad intra rent asunder and reduced to agony by the sufferings of the Cross and that this must mean (a) we are no longer admissibly ‘open theists’ and (b) we are Nestorian heretics because holds the Son to have suffered only in his humanity and not in his divinity. (Hint: Even Cyril and the entire assembly of bishops at 431 AD who condemned Nestorius all agreed Christ suffered in his humane nature and not in his divine nature.)

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I wish I was making this up. TC understands Orthodox Christology so poorly he’s essentially written himself out of the conversation. In believing in God’s essential abiding, undiminished beatitude we have abandoned “open theism” and embraced “classical theism.” But if he thinks Dwayne and I are classical theists, then he doesn’t understand classical theism. In the end, I don’t think TC can be taken seriously in this conversation at all. For conscientious thinkers who are interested, Dwayne and I have never suggested that Jesus’ sufferings are merely his human nature suffering independently of his person. Of course the ‘person’ of the eternal Logos suffers on the Cross. I can only guess that for TC that this ‘person’ suffers must mean both ‘natures’ suffer since both ‘natures’ are united in the one ‘person’, i.e., whatever the ‘person’ suffers, both ‘natures’ suffer. But while it’s true that no ‘person’ suffers apart from ‘nature’, and no ‘nature’ suffers apart from its ‘person’, it doesn’t follow that a person with two natures cannot have experiences unique to a single of his natures.

As for the Sixth Ecumenical Council and Maximus (which Robin draws on), does TC really believe that the Orthodox gathered at these councils were passibilists with respect to the divine nature? Does TC think Maximus believed the divine ‘nature’ suffers? One can disagree with the Orthodox positions, sure. But at least state them accurately. Synergy of wills? Of course, yes. But attributing to the divine nature the sufferings of the human nature because both natures are the natures of a single person? Neither the Sixth Ecumenical Council nor Maximus, nor any Orthodox Father does that.

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NB This will be our final response of any kind to TC on any subject. We have a history with TC and have been friends. For that reason, as well as wanting to clarify for interested readers the orthodoxy of our position on this, I’ve posted these comments. But this will bring our engagement with TC here to an end.

Clarifying two natures

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Anyone who knows the themes and passions we like to pursue here will know that Dwayne and I hold to an open view of the future and to divine epistemic openness regarding creaturely free choice. I won’t rehearse the open view here, but the chief reason we started this blog was to see what could be gained from a conversation between these beliefs and Orthodoxy. We’ve never had any pretensions about becoming Orthodox or about the Orthodox approving our positions. We’ve always assumed these beliefs were not compatibly Orthodox. We simply thought early on that as open theism grew and came into wider conversations to shape its future, a more extended, unrushed conversation with Orthodoxy might help. Some open theists felt, and continue to feel, threatened by any such openness (Oh the irony!) to this particular conversation.

Several years into it now a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. We’ve made some Orthodox friends, learned a good deal, and have come to appreciate much about Orthodoxy. I think the biggest gain for us has come from navigating the bumpy terrain surrounding the doctrine of divine apatheia and, in our case, integrating this vision of God with Greg’s Trinity & Process. Existentially speaking, doing life within the truth of God’s abiding peace and triune delight has had far greater effect upon our lives than has embracing divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, though the latter belief has had practical consequences as well.

That said, Dwayne and I no longer self-identify as “open theists.” After prolonged debate it wasn’t clear to us what open theism essentially stood for. And we’ve remained out of intra-Openness conversations and debates for some time now. As I argued a while back, open theism is defunct as a social-religious movement anyway, but it’s interesting now and then to run across veiled criticisms of positions we’ve taken here on the basis of a threat we presumably pose to open theism. This past week I ran into concern from one open theist that a certain group of open theists (a veiled reference principally to Dwayne and me) were denying Orthodox Christology along monothelite lines, a concern that was expressed in response to a favorable reading of a 2012 post by Robin Phillips over on Fr Damick’s blog at Ancient Faith (Radio). Robin was exploring his reasons for leaving Calvinism, and in this particular post he explains why he thinks theological determinism makes affirming Orthodoxy’s dyothelitism (the “two wills” of Christ) problematic. It’s a good post (never mind needing a few points of clarity), and it was cheered on as a must read for open theists by one concerned open theist who saw it as championing synergism between God and humanity (which is does), a synergism we affirm, as well as the passibilism of the divine nature (which it does not argue and which couldn’t possibly be assumed in Orthodoxy’s condemnation of monothelitism).

I won’t bore you with details, but I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to clarify our position and encourage open theists who might be interested in maintaining continuity with what Orthodox Christians have historically believed about Christ’s two natures. Dwayne and I, this concerned open theist has said, “have mistakenly claimed that only Jesus’ human nature died on the cross” (my emphasis). Of lesser interest is the statement that we make this claim, among other reasons, “in a vain attempt to remain orthodox.” He then warns open theists not to “sacrifice an orthodox Christology for their own desire to be accepted by classical theists who reject synergism between God and humanity and who reject divine suffering.”

Oh my. Where to begin?

Robin is all about R. C. Sproul’s comments about the two natures of Christ. I couldn’t be less interested in Sproul, but none of Robin’s criticisms of Sproul apply to us. As Robin rightly notes in his piece, ‘natures’ don’t have experiences independently of their subjects. It is ‘persons’ who suffer (or who are delighted, or what have you), not stand-alone ‘natures’.

This is obviously true. Natures don’t have experiences independent of their subjects. Of course it’s also true that ‘persons’ possess ‘natures’ in terms of which they have their experiences. But certainly there’s no way to avoid attributing to ‘persons’ what they experience in terms of their ‘natures’. Dwayne and I have never suggested, as this concerned open theist falsely supposes of us, that it was merely Jesus’ human ‘nature’ and not the ‘person’ of the Son/Logos that suffered. On the contrary, the Logos is the sole subject having all the very human experiences of his incarnate life. Mary is theotokos, God-bearer, she who gave birth to God. God was born. God grew in stature and wisdom personally. God suffered personally. God was crucified personally. God died personally. We’ve never denied any of this. In fact, we hold the Christian faith to be inseparable from these affirmations.

But the Son/Logos of God has two natures—one divine and one human, the he is subject of both natures, or (if you’re interested in the Sixth Ecumenical Council) two wills, and these natures are not (implores Chalcedon) to be separated (into two persons) nor confused or combined into a tertium quid, a blending of essential divine attributes and essential human attributes into a single nature, a kind of divine-human mixed drink. So the question is not whether the birth, life, ignorance, suffering, and dying of Jesus constitute personal experiences of the Son/Logos of God who is the sole subject of these experiences. The question is whether these human experiences are attributable not only to this ‘person’ (all Orthodox agree they are) but also to this person’s divine nature, which the Orthodox do not do. If  the Son suffers humanly (in terms of his human nature), does it follow that he suffers in his divinity? If God dies in and as Christ, does the divine nature die? Does the unity of the person as subject of both natures require that we attribute to the divine nature all the experiences had by the Son in terms of his human nature (i.e., coming into existence, being nothing more than a zygote in gestation, being ignorant, suffering, dying, etc.)? No Orthodox would think so, and to accuse those who believe the person of the Son has divine experiences (in terms of his divine nature) transcendent of and so not reducible to his human experiences of asserting that ‘only his human nature and not his person’ is having these experiences is such a grievous misunderstanding of Orthodoxy it pretty much writes you out of the conversation.

Open theists rushing to Robin’s post to find confirmation of their belief in the full passibilism of the divine nature because they suppose it to be entailed in the Orthodox belief that God was truly (personally) born, hung on the Cross, and died, may want to explore things a bit more responsibly. No Orthodox person thinks the divine nature died, and neither the Sixth Ecumenical Council nor the two-wills doctrine implies such a thing.

The disappearing open theist

disappear-from-search-enginesOK, look, I embrace the open view of the future. Let me get that out of the way. I embrace it because I think it makes best sense of things existentially, philosophically, and yes, overall biblically speaking. But I gotta tell ya, I don’t think any of the biblical authors were open theists in the sense that they held to the sine qua non of the view today, that is, divine epistemic openness (regarding future contingencies). Let’s abbreviate that as DEO to save me typing.

When I say there’s biblical evidence for the open view, I mean I think there are examples of biblical authors conceiving of the future in open terms, that is, they believed human beings were responsibly free, faced genuine options, weren’t victims of fate, and that their lives, choices and prayers made a genuine difference to the course the world took. And they believed God truly related to them and engaged the world in such terms, all convictions which form the basis upon which modern-day open theists argue for DEO. And yes, I do agree that DEO makes better sense of these convictions, just the way I think the doctrines of the Trinity (later conceived) and of Christ’s two-natures (later conceived) best explain the Bible’s overall narratives.

But the more I ponder things, the idea that the biblical authors, Old or New Testament, actually espoused DEO seems nearly impossible to imagine. In the end I think they were all substantially Arminian (obviously an older term, but let me use it here) on these questions. That is, they believed in pre-recorded open theism, you might say. They affirmed freedom and contingency, the genuine relatedness of God and the world, and the consequential nature of prayer that motivate open theists to adopt their unique view in the first place.

Yes, the biblical texts do sometimes describe God as contemplating an open future. I don’t at all think these are explainable either as God accommodating himself to our ignorance by presenting himself as contemplating an open future or as human authors presenting God in such terms while actually believing otherwise. If biblical authors very occasionally stumbled into a way of thinking about God’s knowledge and engagement of creaturely affairs in terms of DEO (and I can hardly imagine it) it is far from being the established “biblical” view of things. I simply think the biblical authors never reflected philosophically along the lines of the particular questions (compatibilism/incompatibilism) that overwhelm the conversation today.

If cornered on the specific question of DEO, I think Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul or any other biblical figures would’ve said, “Well, of course God knows what’s going to happen.” Perhaps—perhaps—Paul, given some of his arguments and his philosophical training and disposition, might have cared enough about the matter to contemplate the problem.

Here’s the thing. I simply don’t know how to account for the absolute disappearance of DEO from biblical faith on the assumption that it was an intentional, studied, contemplated belief of biblical authors. If as open theist authors have argued, the Old Testament authors, and Jesus, and all the Apostles and the Apostolic church all held to the core open view doctrine of DEO, then the obvious question is ‘What happened?’ because in no time at all the Church and its leading thinkers had no abiding commitment to such a belief, not even the memory of anything like DEO having been the belief of former generations. Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciples of St. John himself) holds to the traditional (Arminian) view and never even hints that St. John taught DEO to Polycarp. Come on. That doesn’t seem remotely suspicious to my open theist friends? True, by Origen’s day the question of prayer’s relevancy in light of divine foreknowledge had become enough of a philosophical-existential issue that Origen wrote a book on it. But he shows zero awareness that anything like DEO was ever believed by any Christian, anywhere, of any generation. There’s just no good explanation for the disappearance of DEO on the assumption that the Apostles and their churches explicitly held such a belief.

disappearing-cycleway2It will be claimed (by Greg Boyd and other key open theist writers) that Hellenism is to blame, that in virtually no time at all pagan Greek philosophy corrupted biblical faith and DEO was among the first beliefs to go. All this damage occurred within St. John’s lifetime  and his supposed belief in DEO never makes it to Irenaeus, not even as an academic interest in what former generations believed. And the effects of Greek philosophy upon Christian belief were so thorough and universal that not a single mention by any Christian thinker of even the memory of previous Christians having held a view on foreknowledge different than the traditional view, appears anywhere on the horizon even though the problem of foreknowledge does appear early (in Origen). This strains credibility.

I’m open to seeing the evidence for the universal disappearance of DEO and its very memory from Christian thought by the opening of the 2nd century under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy, but this better bey good (Greg). My own sense is that DEO does cohere best with the biblical themes of personal freedom, responsibility, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, divine-human synergy, etc., but that it simply was not explicitly held to by any biblical authors, though their texts make perfect sense in light of DEO. They were less than consistent. So what? But—to anticipate a certain reply—wouldn’t the actual beliefs of biblical authors be normative for us today? The short answer, for me anyhow, is ‘No’. I think it’s obvious that their beliefs—as they held them—are not all automatically normative for us simply because those beliefs appear in the text. But that’s another subject.

Just to be clear, and to forestall misunderstandings—I do hold to DEO, and I do believe it makes best sense of things. But I don’t believe any biblical author held to it. That is, I don’t think any biblical author was an ‘open theist’.