Divine Freedom

Saturday, 30 April 2016 01:55 pm
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Let me take a break, for a moment, from talking about human free will to touch upon the freedom of God. It is probably natural that my views on the former--my rejection of libertarian free will, in particular--influences my understanding of the latter. This does not mean, of course, that I think any of God's actions are caused by anything outside of Godself. If that were the case, God would not be God. But the fact that I don't understand human freedom as consisting of the ability to have done other than what one has done in some sort of absolute sense (i.e., a sense that is incompatible with the causally deterministic nature of the universe as we understand it) almost certainly does influence the way I talk and write about God's freedom, which must in some sense be analagous to human freedom for the phrase to have any meaning.

One of the classic questions about God's freedom is whether God could have chosen not to create a world dependent upon Godself, yet outside Godself such that God is not dependent upon it. Many Christians would claim that the only possible orthodox answer to that question is "Yes." Insofar as that is the case, however, I can only accept it as a paradox, a divine mystery. Certainly God cannot act against God's own nature, and so I cannot imagine God, in "the free, overflowing rapture" (Moltmann) of perichoretic love which is the Trinity, doing other than creating a world separate from Godself. Perhaps that is due to the finite nature of my own human mind. Perhaps.

A human analogy might be my "ability" to rob a bank. Clearly I am physically capable of attempting to rob a bank in the sense we usually use that term. Yet my unique blend of moral courage (I know robbing banks is wrong) and moral cowardice (I'm afraid of getting caught) is such that it is inconceivable I could ever rob a bank because it is contrary to my nature. We could say perhaps that I have a "hypothetical" ability to rob a bank, and God has a hypothetical ability to not create the world. But there is no possible world in which those hypotheses could take place without first rendering either God or I unrecognizable. (And while my nature is mutable across possible worlds, God's is not.)

The above is something of a preamble to another question I encountered in Roger Olson's Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith, which I am currently listening to on audiobook. The question was, "Can God change the past?" and Olson seems to imply he thinks the question ought to be, "No."

But why? Unless we are to become open theists, then God is eternal, and the difference between future and past is as meaningful to God as the difference between left and right is to us. We might as well ask if we are able to make changes to our left as well as to our right. Unless one is a character in a side-scrolling video game from the 1980's, such a question is either absurd or meaningless.

Of course, one might well question the use of "change" at all. From God's perspective, viewing all of time and space as a unity, any intervention God might make would not be a "change" at all but a seamless element of God's creation as executed according to God's divine plan. After all, every element of the world is a consequence of either God's deliberation action or else our own human free will, which is itself a gift from God, being the exceptional sign of the image of God within us. So the very idea of God desiring to "change" anything which exists is revealed to be contradictory, and certainly God cannot act against God's own desires.

Some will argue that this understanding of divine freedom renders prayer meaningless, but such an argument misunderstands the place and purpose of prayer. As I preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in my 2012 sermon on the prayers of Hannah and Penninah, the revealed purpose of petitionary prayer is not "to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want" but to enter into relationship with the Triune God, to put our hopes and fears before the Lord that God's will may be done.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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