The Most Common American Heresy

Jason Micheli —  June 2, 2016 — 12 Comments

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.

 

Jason Micheli

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12 responses to The Most Common American Heresy

  1. Though I applaud anything that calls out the “it was meant to be”/ “God has a plan for your life” heretical b.s., nevertheless, the reduction of The Euthyphro Problem to the conclusion you make is not really that simple. That debate was best articulated between Descartes and Leibniz and their debate about the “eternal verities”. D. came down on the side that God can and must be able to do anything, else God would no longer be God. God could make A not equal A. The trouble with that is that then the foundations of such things as math (the law of contradiction, et al) are ultimately an arbitrary product of a certain Will. In contrast L. came down for such verities being existent, normative and quite real quiet independent of God. God cannot make A not equal A. The trouble there is that then God is subservient to a something greater than God. That is not Christianity, it’s Platonism (and I do love me some Plato). The L conclusion fosters a naturalism about the way the world works, quite apart from Jesus Christ. The D conclusion fosters a fideism that can go sideways into irrationalism that renders Jesus Christ irrelevant.

    I’ll not solve the issue theologically here, but it seems to me things are just not that simple and that’s the real problem hinted at: people in general (and theologians in particular) prefer a solid, simple conclusion rather than the quite messy, complicated reality of situation. The messiness of this is illustrated as Jesus was facing the Cross (which was surely God’s will). He preferred not to go through with it. In the nomenclature of the piece: it didn’t seem very Good. And that is the embodied dilemma of the Christian life. Following The Good (whatever that might be) is not following God’s will. If it was that simple, then Christianity is at best redundant. No. Following the Yes of God often presents us with a circumstance that we are doing something that seems very much Not Good, yet that is what we are called to do at times. So, if there is a solution it is found in the existential reality of God With Us, our only hope in life and in death. The irony of Jason’s conclusion is that that is the very foundation of the heresy called out: we just need to follow The Good that we perceive because the Good is reductive to God’s Will. Then, whatever happens, we know it is a Good Thing. Thus the jargon of “it was meant to be.” Uh-oh….

  2. Catastrophic problem: nominalism is not a suggestion that God is capricious. Nominalism is simply a metaphysical rule by which we don’t say that a thing does what its nature is, positing an abstraction derived from the thing’s particularities as the rule that determines them.

    God does not, in the nominalist sense, have a nature that restricts God’s actions. Which is in no way to say that God is therefore capricious or inconsistent! God could, hypothetically, do anything. God can, and indeed does, do those things God wills to do. God doesn’t not do things God wants to do because God’s nature prevents them; God doesn’t will to do them, and so doesn’t do them.

    Nominalism is a different kind of language-game in which we can describe the same realities. Both language-games attempt to speak of God as self-governing, self-norming and -normed, sovereign and not contingent. But nominalist language attempts to speak these same realities without forming what appear to be exterior ideal principles superior to the actual being, by which it is governed and normed.

    From within the language-game you’re playing, it only looks as though nominalist language removes the constraints upon God’s actions. There were in fact never any such constraints! There were only attempts at describing why God, whose character is a certain way and no other, does not act in certain other ways. But the reality in both cases is that God is and acts only in a certain way, and no other. That God does so in total freedom, by unconditioned free choice, is a truth that must be upheld. You can’t solve the heresy by taking away God’s freedom. You have to solve the heresy by specifying the faithful character of the God we trust.

    • Matt, your comment got me thinking….

      Nominalism may not inherently suggest that God is capricious, but a nominalist type division between will and character most often seems to pop up when there is some kind of a capricious context as a backdrop.

      “You can’t solve the heresy by taking away God’s freedom. You have to solve the heresy by specifying the faithful character of the God we trust.”

      Makes sense, but it’s all in how terms are defined.

      I get that there can’t be some set of laws identified as “the good” that exist over, above and independent of God that determine what He must do or not do at the penalty of not being deemed a “good” God. But the way I see it, the ability to “hypothetically do anything” isn’t actually “freedom” unless (1)freedom is nothing more than will to power and (2) power is connected to theological language that is hopelessly equivocal, where we’re left with “no more than an infinite tautology – the sovereignty of glory displaying itself in the glory of sovereignty” to quote DB Hart. And in that case, what could we hope to mean by “the faithful character of God”?

      It seems to me that “freedom” shouldn’t be thought of as a legal term at all, but in terms of being what one is. So the question is always, Who is God?

      • Nominalist discourse doesn’t distinguish between will and character. I said no such thing! The question is, where do we locate a thing’s character: in the thing, or in an ideal realm superior to it?

        Nominalism says that instead of reifying a set of norms derived from observation of a thing as its “nature,” we should instead talk about the thing itself, directly. This has been decried (both by pre-Vatican-II-Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists) as a denial of “universals,” a reduction of reality to the level of individuals—but it is only that because the genre has no reality that is not derived from its species! It never did, and that language was not originally intended to suggest that God was subordinate to God’s nature. That’s a bug to be fixed, because the genre subsists in its species and nowhere else. And God is sui generis, a category of one, entirely self-defined.

        So yes, it is “all in how terms are defined.” But you’re misreading me if you think I’m defending a libertarian ideal of freedom from constraint as God’s freedom, simpliciter. God is in fact free in such a way, but that is not God’s character. That is a negative description, not a positive one—and if we try to turn it into a positive one, you’re right: we do in fact make up a deity equal to our will to power, expressed in hopelessly equivocal language. The god of such freedom is not God. So we need to combine God’s freedom with God’s character.

        So: God is in fact completely unconstrained. We must uphold that apophatic truth, incomplete as it is, when we turn to speak of God’s positive character. Because it is only God’s positive character that describes God being a certain way. God is completely unconstrained—except by God’s own self-determination. When God decides to be a certain way, God becomes that way. And that’s terrifying, if God is not also meaningfully self-consistent.

        But the attribute you’re looking for to balance freedom is therefore faithfulness. That is the proper term to be used for God’s freely-chosen self-consistency. There is no need to embed it in so-called “universals,” to make up a nature by which God is determined to only be this and not that; no such structures could protect us from God if God were not faithful and voluntarily self-consistent.

        • And even that faithfulness of God to God’s own will would not save us if God did not also voluntarily repent of actions that God should not have done. This is an aspect of God’s character, based in God’s necessary freedom, that is better than any abstracted universalism by which God cannot change God’s nature. God is not stuck with God’s actions; God, scripture tells us, readily repudiates God’s own actions when they have been proven wrong. And so it is to the character of God, not merely in faithful action but also in faithful renunciation of bad actions, that we must appeal.

          This is a thing that the anti-nominalist position cannot account for using reified absolutes of God’s unchangeability and unsubjectability to experience. God is not immutable, however much we feel like immutability might be a nice thing from within our mutable existences. God is not apathetic, however much we might like to believe that God would be better if God could not experience what we do. These are things we believe in as ways we’d like salvation to look, but they aren’t how salvation actually works. They have nothing to do with God’s actual character. And nominalist metaphysics, and its successors throughout Modernity, are actually better for us in this way, because they strip away these idols and force us to rely on and trust in the living God and no other.

          • But it does make it harder to solve Jason’s dilemma, because philosophical absolutes are easier to believe in than God is. And the solution to Jason’s dilemma I have to offer—really, to his parishioners’ dilemmas—is that they need to get to know God, and stop speculating about God in lieu of that knowledge. You can’t treat speculation with speculation. But it’s a harder course. And it’s going to be handier to have a positive description of God’s character regardless. I just don’t think appeal to absolute nature is the right way to describe that character.

  3. How does this relate to vocation? In that sense doesn’t God will us to do something specific with our lives which will best use our talents and abilities He gave us? And in that sense He desires us to follow his ‘plan’. Looking for clarification please!

  4. I actually found this article very confusing. I was with you up until it seemed like you completely contradicted your thesis. You start by saying that God doesn’t cause death/horror, because that would be bad and against his nature, and that it’s heresy to say that whatever God does is good because it’s what God does. Okay. But then you close by saying that whatever God does is good because God only does what’s good, so if he causes death/horror it’s good.

    In conclusion, you seem to say that people can feel free to say all the things you says people shouldn’t say because now they can know they’re true for an entirely different reason than they thought they were true for.

    Or something like that.

    I’m not a slow guy, but somehow this one sailed right over my head.

  5. Frank McPherson June 3, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    I’ve always taken statements like “God does what God wants” to really mean God does what I think God should do.

  6. Jason,

    Can you please clarify for me? I was lead to believe through things I’ve heard that sometimes God causes bad things to happen to people so that those people can use their tragedy to show more people about God. If that’s true, what you are saying is God just happens to work through those people – but the bad things were caused by something else? I’m just trying to understand a little more. Because if no bad things come from God in order to promote awareness, than the bad things that are happening are totally random and all the more frightening.
    Thank you. From someone who is learning daily.

  7. As suggested by many comments above, the “heresy” that you’re objecting to is not actually nominalism, but rather voluntarism.

    Nominalism is the metaphysical premise that there are no universals that are external to the intellect; there are no pure “forms” or “essences” that exist “behind” particulars.

    Voluntarism is more about what you’re describing here, that is, the theological notion that God is primarily a Will that stands prior to and independent of God’s nature.

    They are related in some ways, but it’s important to get the categories straight.

  8. One of the evil by-products of this heresy: A friend’s father was shot in a bar robbery, and someone was stupid enough to suggest the “God must’ve needed one more angel in heaven” nonsense. He all but shouted at the well-meaning person, “God needed one more angel in heaven? So He SHOT MY FATHER IN THE HEAD? Are you KIDDING me? If that’s the kind of God you have, I don’t want any part of that chump!”

    Thanks for one of the best summaries of what I’ve known, intrinsically, about the God of my misunderstanding.

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