Archives For Nominalism

Yesterday I spoke to Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.

His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.

First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.

“God has a plan” they told him.

“There’s a reason for everything.”

“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”

For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him.

Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.

Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.

Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.

Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.

Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.

Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.

The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions. God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character. If God wants to will the death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.

To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.

Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’

I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.

In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.

Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.

As Hart writes:

“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”

“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

In other words,

if there is indeed a reason for everything,

if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,

then there is no reason to worship God.

Not because God does not exist

but because he is not worthy of our worship.

I asked Jacob’s Dad what he wanted to hear God say to him when he arrived in heaven. He paused, hedging against the hint of sacrilege, and said “I’m sorry.” Far from sacrilege, it struck me as the most faithful of responses.
Jacob’s Dad, Jason, wrote a book about his loss. You can find it here.
Look for our podcast with him soon.

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #1: Nominalism

What Is It?

In a nutshell:

Nominalism-

God is free to do whatever God wants

As with anything in philosophy that assertion comes with a corollary:

I am free to do whatever I want, including lying to myself that that’s ‘freedom.’

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Nominalism.

But odds are even better that once you understand what is nominalism, you’ll discover it everywhere. On your lips, on the other end of your prayers. In your mind’s depiction of the ‘man upstairs.’ You’ll hear nominalism preached from pulpits and you’ll see politicos toting its logical baggage.

If money is the root of all evil, then trailing right behind it and just hitting stride is nominalism, the heresy at the root of all theological evil.

Like a parasite that feeds unnoticed until its host is left wasted, nominalist thinking preys unseen on believers and unbelievers alike, leaving the eviscera of Christian orthodoxy in its wake.

While it’s true nominalism is not a heresy in the sense of having been declared anathema by any of the ancient ecumenical councils, nominalism escaped such indictment only because its way of construing God and God’s works was thoroughly foreign to the ancient Christian mind.

Though it didn’t fall under Nicea’s ire, nominalism remains a ‘heresy’ in the strictest sense of the word: ‘choice.’ Nominalism is bad choice made in Christian belief, which begets many more bad choices and beliefs.

In ancient philosophy, nominalism refers generally to the metaphysical view that denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, that is, objects that exist outside of space and time.

For the layman, here’s a for instance:

According to nominalism, words such as ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ are finite concepts that are determined by culture and language and history. They are words we apply to things in this world of space and time, but they do not correlate to any universal, eternal reality or ground of being.

In the Christian theological tradition, nominalism has been applied to construals of God’s Being and God’s Will. Actually, nominalism has confused God’s Being and God’s Will. Or rather, nominalism pits God’s Being and God’s Will in contradiction to each other.

If ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no ontological status (no being-ness in and of themselves outside space and time), then truth, goodness and beauty do not correlate to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.

Truth, Beauty and Goodness are relative terms, to use the parlance of today.

Here’s where the matter gets, if not less theological at least more urgent.

If Truth, Beauty and Goodness do not correlate to any universal, eternal nature within God, then God is neither guided by nor controlled by (in a non-pejorative sense) his eternal nature.

Indeed it’s no longer clear, according to nominalism’s logic, that God even has an eternal, unchanging nature and character.

Instead God is a Being of absolute power and freedom.

Nominalism is the rival to the ancient Christian view known as ‘Realism.’

Realism holds that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness ‘really’ do exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

According to Realism Truth, Beauty and Goodness derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ then derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness.

And what we call ‘Love’ is but the finite manifestation of Absolute Love that is God’s eternal nature.

Now- pay attention- if God’s nature is so understood and God is Absolute, Perfect Goodness then God is immutable.

Unchanging.

For, if God were to change this would imply a deficiency within God.

God, the church fathers believed, was immutable precisely because in God Perfect Love is actual not potential.

As 1 John 4 puts it with such a deceptive simplicity that it eludes most who read it: ‘God is love.’

With a capital, eternal-sized L.

This is where the s#$% hits the fan, in a good way:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature. As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

In contradiction to the ancient tradition of realism, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A realist answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

According to nominalism, however, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature.

Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will.

To want. To choose.

Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God.

Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Who Screwed Up First

Nominalism is a crime whose first commission has many possible suspects.

There’s William of Ockham, the English Franciscan whose nominalist renderings of God should make you less sure of the simple logic behind his Razor.

Then there’s Duns Scotus, a Christian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, whose arguments for the existence of God were every bit as brilliant as his defense of the Immaculate Conception was not. Ditto his nominalism.

Peter Abelard meanwhile was a 12th century French Medieval theologian, who infamously shared God’s incarnate love by getting carnal with the flesh of Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

Heloise’s family predictably got her to a nunnery and, for good measure, broke into Peter’s home in the middle of the night and cut off his peter.

His dating career thus ended, Abelard took up a monastic one and traded romanticizing for theologizing.

Unfortunately, his nominalist thought leaves Abelard with a God every bit as neutered and impotent as him.

While the lineup of suspects is long and who first committed the crime in the name of Christ unknown, the true damage was done by Martin Luther.

If you finger Martin Luther as the trigger man, then Ulrich Zwingli  is an accessory after the fact.

In his debates with Erasmus, who, as a realist, believed God could not will that which is evil) Martin Luther countered that its verboten to ever say ‘God can’t…’

God, Luther fervently maintained, can do whatever God wants.

That’s what it means, Luther dumped into the previously clear stream of Christian belief, to call God ‘Sovereign.’

Of course, you can’t blame Luther too harshly.

Martin, after all, was a teacher of the Old Testament; he wasn’t a philosopher or a theologian. And so Luther probably could not deduce the logical consequences of his stress on Sovereignty as Will.

I’m sure Luther would’ve changed his tune had he foreseen how the God so conceived is not a God worth believing in.

No longer is God Being and Existence itself, the ground of Absolute Goodness and Love, who is beyond space and time but saturates every cranny of space and time at the same time.

Who always acts in accord with his eternal nature and whose creation, if mysteriously so, is a perfect expression of his eternal nature.

God- as Luther’s crude assertion ‘God can do whatever he wants’ makes clear- is instead just another being.

A god, a demiurge the Greeks called them, sitting upstairs throwing down lightening bolts or serving up magic genie blessings.

Not Being itself but a being believed to be the direct and efficient cause of everything under the sun.

A god so conceived is not even a god worth disbelieving, for the god it rejects is not the immutable God named by 1 John: ‘God is Love.’

But be easy on Luther.

I’m sure if you told him that his emphasis on God’s Sovereignty would lead 21st century Christians A) excuse, justify and rationalize morally repugnant prejuices in the name of Divine Sovereignty and B) to define their own freedom merely in terms of freedom for its own sake (choice, personal liberty), irrespective of the needs of the common good or the moral constraints of the Absolute Good…I’m sure Luther would’ve recanted.

After all, if our wants and wills are not directed to and participating in God, who is Goodness and Being, then they are literally nothing.

And I’m sure the last thing Luther would’ve wanted was for nominalism to lead, as it inevitably has, to nihilism.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God can break God’s word, his promise, and that the Church has now replaced Israel as God’s Chosen People, then you are a nominalist who should keep his fingers crossed God doesn’t up and decide to change his disposition towards you.

FYI: You’re probably a Marcionite too. Or an anti-semite.

If you leave the doctor’s office wondering ‘Why has God done this me?’ then you’re slipping into understandable but nonetheless nominalist thinking.

If you think God, who is Absolute Immutable Goodness and Love, requires the torture and death of an innocent person as a catharsis for his own Wrath then you are a nominalist.

Ditto to the Nth Degree if you explain how God’s Wrath is really the outworking of Love; you’re defining ‘good’ according to what you think God does rather than trusting that our concepts of ‘good’ correlate to the Absolute Goodness of God.

If you believe all moral categories are relative and thus its up to each person to define what’s moral for themselves, then most likely you think that makes logical sense (it doesn’t) and most definitely you’re a nominalist (it also doesn’t make logical sense).

If you think God is the direct cause behind every event, good, bad or tragic, in the world, then someone should lock you away wherever they stowed Heloise. Because your Christianity is too bad an advertisement to the rest of the world.

Likewise, if you’re an atheist because modern science tells you there’s no such thing as ‘God’ who is the direct, efficient cause behind everything in the world then you’re a particularly pathetic version of a nominalist, one who doesn’t realize the god you don’t believe in isn’t God.

If your politics absolutizes personal freedom (whether its demarcated with ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘personal liberty’) regardless of how the exercise of that freedom impacts another neighbor, born or not, or society at large or how it contributes to the Absolute Good, then your politics hangs on a nominalist understanding of the Almighty.

*Christians be warned, in this way most of the Bill of Rights depends upon a nominalist neutering of the concept of God.

If you consume and shop and purchase and earn, thinking that will make you happy, you’re the victim not only of Mammon and Madison Ave but nominalism’s lie that freedom is found in willing and wanting and choosing in and of itself.

If you mistakenly think it’s morally just to ___________ ‘in the name of freedom’ you, my friend, are a nominalist. Freedom, freedom worth having, is acting in harmony with the Absolute Goodness of God. For Christians, the End (God) alone determines whether means are good.

If you do not believe that God is like Jesus, has always been like Jesus and will always be so- and if you don’t see how this is logically necessary- then you’re a nominalist through and through.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

Stephen Hawking

Daniel Dennett

Richard Dawkins

The New Atheists

Secularists

Evangelicals

Christians

Joel Osteen

Wiccans et al

Muslims

Millennials

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Home Remedies 

Read John 1.4, over and over.

Watch the news and practice repeating: ‘God didn’t do that.’

Watch Joel Osteen and practice repeating: ‘God won’t do that.’

Watch John Piper and practice repeating: ‘God isn’t like that.’

Read Richard Dawkins’ and rejoice: the god he doesn’t believe in doesn’t exist.

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

heresy_GMSI’ve had funerals and death on the brain this past week. It comes with the job. I’m just happy that for the first time in over a year it’s not my own death and funeral that’s lingering on the brain. It’s most often in the context of death that I hear some hackneyed version (‘God has a plan for everything’ or ‘There’s a reason for everything’ or ‘I know it was a horrific life-altering loss for you but God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven.’) of what I’ve concluded is the most common heresy among Americans, Christian and Non- the fraught, turns-God-into-a-prick-that-his-Son-should-depose bullshit belief that God can do whatever God wants.

No.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

 

As I’ve said again and again on this blog, God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change. God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.