Alfred J. Freddoso
Some contemporary theologians dismiss the classical discussions of the existence and nature of God as out of step with and unworthy of serious consideration by so-called "modern man." Others contend that even though the historical giants of philosophical theology generally had an intimate acquaintance with Sacred Scripture, their philosophical biases beguiled them unwittingly into forming conceptions of God that are wholly foreign to as well as incompatible with the biblical conception of God. These two distinct lines of criticism sometimes converge in the suggestion that today's philosophical theologians should forsake their old heroes for duly modern ones like Whitehead, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, whose writings allegedly provide philosophical outlooks more in tune with biblical categories of thought. Just as often, however, we find an attitude of distrust toward any sort of metaphysical reflection on the ostensible theological claims of the Judaeo-Christian tradition--both on the part of those who believe that the Judaeo-Christian myths have at most only ethical and perhaps political significance and on the part of those who believe that metaphysical inquiry invariably distorts theological truths by displacing Sacred Scripture as the foundation of the life of faith. Despite their disagreements, however, all sides concur in assigning little if any systematic importance to traditional philosophical theology.
In light of this it is at least mildly surprising that a growing number of Anglo-American philosophers, many of them highly distinguished, are finding the classical discussions of God's /2/ existence and nature to be fertile sources for critical reflection on issues in the philosophy of religion. Perhaps these philosophers merely constitute the residue of an outmoded and long-since transcended intellectual era. Perhaps they lack a proper sensitivity to biblical theology. Perhaps, on the other hand, they have discovered something of authentic and enduring significance for the life of faith in the works of their philosophical and theological ancestors. Whatever the correct assessment might be, the papers which follow are representative of this contemporary, if not "modern," interest in the classical arguments for God's existence and in the attributes traditionally ascribed to God. Though the topics vary, the authors without exception see themselves as working within the tradition established by St. Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Anselm, Moses Maimonides, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, John Calvin, Luis de Molina, Descartes, Leibniz, Jonathan Edwards, and other eminent historical figures cited in both text and footnotes.
The first two papers deal with the problem of evil, broadly speaking. In "Over-Power and God's Responsibility for Sin" Nelson Pike focuses on the traditional Christian belief that God has complete control over what occurs in the realm of creation. He begins by arguing against recent critics that this belief about God's power is compatible with the claim that human beings are free and hence have power of their own. Using a series of wiring diagrams as models, Pike develops the concept of "over-power." God's over-power consists in his having the power to endow creatures with their own power and to allow them to control certain events. But even though God can thus refrain from exercising his own control over some events, his over-power, Pike contends, renders him responsible for sin. This becomes clear when we reflect on mundane examples of over-power which involve dual-control automobiles of the sort used in driver-education classes. When accidents occur, the instructor clearly shares responsibility for them, since he has the power to prevent them. In the same way God shares responsibility for the sins of his creatures. For their power, though genuine, is conditional. God could prevent them from sinning if he so willed.
This fact has immediate consequences for the apologetic task of devising responses to the problem of evil. Since, as Pike sees /3/ it, the central claim of free-will theodicies like those suggested by Aquinas and, more recently, Alvin Plantinga is that God is not responsible for sin, such theodicies must fail. In short, their proponents fail to take into account the full scope of the divine power. Of course, it is a further question whether God is blameworthy as well as responsible for allowing created agents to act immorally. On this point Pike argues that a classical Augustinian theodicy, according to which immoral actions (like other evils) are morally tolerable because of their contribution to some ultimate good, offers the most promising line of defense for the Christian apologist who correctly understands the extent of God's power.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote that the most common question asked him by agnostics was "Do you believe in hell?" This is not surprising, despite the fact that the doctrine of hell has generally received rather superficial treatment in recent theology. For there is ample reason for thinking that ultimately the most troublesome form which the problem of evil can take for the orthodox Christian is just this: How is the existence of a benevolent and almighty God to be reconciled with even the possibility of someone's going to hell (whether this is thought to involve simple annihilation or the pain of everlasting separation from God)? Richard Swinburne addresses just this question in "A Theodicy of Heaven and Hell."
Swinburne commences by defending the traditional claim that both correct belief and good will ("faith formed by love") are required for entry into heaven. For, he argues, careful reflection on our ordinary conception of happiness reveals that both of these elements are needed for supreme happiness--and Christianity identifies the vision of God in heaven with the supreme happiness of human beings. Now God can properly grant, after their deaths, true belief to those persons of good will who through no fault of their own have failed to acquire the correct religious beliefs in this life. But the case of someone with bad will is altogether different. Given the reality of original sin and the nature of human choice, it appears quite possible that some human being might continually reject God's grace and in the end find himself utterly incapable of controlling or resisting his sinful desires. Such a totally corrupt person would neither desire the vision of God nor be able to enjoy it. And, Swinburne continues, it would be wrong for God to change /4/ such a person's desires against his will, and also wrong for God to prevent human beings from becoming utterly depraved and hence hellbound in the first place. Nor, he argues at some length, would it necessarily help a person gain salvation if God made it absolutely clear to him that heaven exists and is accessible only to someone with a good character. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that the everlasting separation of the virtuous from the wicked is indeed compatible with God's goodness.
The next three papers have as their central concern the nature and extent of God's power. In "Divine Conservation, Continuous Creation, and Human Action" Philip Quinn proposes to find out whether there is a plausible construal of the notions of creation and conservation that will sustain the thesis, asserted by many classical theistic philosophers, that God's conserving things in existence is no different from his continuously creating them. Intuitively God creates a thing just in case he causes it to exist at a time before which it has not existed, and God's conserving a thing is equivalent to that thing's having existence at any given time if and only if God causes it to exist at that time. Unfortunately, these definitions lead to rather implausible conclusions when we go on to make the traditional conjunctive claim that God conserves each contingent thing and that conservation is equivalent to continuous creation. For it follows directly that no creature which begins to exist exists for more than a single moment. Though Jonathan Edwards welcomed this consequence in his inventive attempt to explicate the doctrine of original sin, Quinn argues that it entails the absurd thesis that no human action (including, ironically, the sin of Adam) is so much as possible. After briefly examining some remarks of Duns Scotus on the ordinary meanings of the terms 'create' and 'conserve', Quinn departs from linguistic orthodoxy by suggesting a second theory, according to which creation and conservation are taken to be definitionally equivalent. God creates (conserves) a thing at a given time just in case he causes it to exist at that time--regardless of whether it has previously existed. Though intuitively less satisfying than its predecessor, this theory captures perfectly the idea that conservation involves just the same sort of power and activity on God's part that creation does. And it also has the desired consequence that God's continuously creating a persistent thing is both possible and also equivalent to his /5/ conserving it in existence through a continuous interval of time. Furthermore, the ordinary notions of creation and conservation explicated by Scotus can readily be defined in terms of the technical analogues of those notions which ground this second theory. The net result, Quinn claims, is a theory about conservation and continuous creation that is both defensible and deserving of further attention by philosophers of religion.
The formulation of an adequate analysis of omnipotence has been the object of a great deal of recent xvork in philosophical theology.. However, no one has succeeded in fashioning an analysis which is both philosophically adequate and consistent with the traditional theological assertion that God is omnipotent and yet also incapable of acting in a morally reprehensible way. In fact, Peter Geach has gone so far as to surmise that any philosophically acceptable account of omnipotence will imply that in order to be omnipotent a being must be able to act im-morally. This does not trouble Geach, since he denies that belief in God's omnipotence (as opposed to his almightiness) is an element of Christian orthodoxy. By contrast, Nelson Pike draws the opposite--and less obviously orthodox--conclusion that because the person who is God is omnipotent, he does not lack the power to sin. In "Maximal Power" Thomas Flint and I propose to show that this alleged theological problem of the conflict between omnipotence and impeccability evaporates precisely when a philosophically adequate account of omnipotence arrives on the scene.
We begin by putting forward and discussing in some detail five conditions of philosophical adequacy for an analysis of omnipotence, paying special attention to (a) the distinction between a weak and a strong sense in which agents actualize states of affairs, (b) the purely temporal constraints on any agent's power, and (c) the constraints on any agent's power which are imposed by truths about how other agents would freely act in various hypothetical circumstances. The analysis then presented satisfies, we claim, each of these conditions and in addition escapes the dreaded paradoxes of omnipotence. We then argue in some detail that given our analysis of omnipotence, there is no problem with the claim that God is both essentially omnipotent and essentially impeccable. There are some evil states of affairs that God can actualize (in at least the weak sense) without being morally blameworthy. There are /6/ others which he cannot actualize--but this does not undermine his omnipotence, since such states of affairs cannot be actualized by anyone if an essentially divine being exists. Finally, we show that our analysis does not require that in order to be omnipotent God must have the power to break his previously made promises.
James Ross's intriguing "Creation II" appropriately follows the paper just discussed, since Ross's main purpose is to dislodge the assumption that God's power is properly and adequately thought of as the power to cause (or bring about or actualize) states of affairs. This mistaken picture of the nature of God's power, he claims, leads easily to an assimilation of God's causation to ordinary physical causation and thus generates artificial paradoxes concerning creation, human freedom, foreknowledge, and God's responsibility for sin. Ross, on the other hand, insists with Aquinas that God's power is, properly speaking, the power to cause being and that God's causation is metaphysical causation, the causation of being. Of course, the power to cause being entails the power to cause states of affairs, but the notion of causation is not univocal over both. The latter sort of power, Ross maintains, is parasitic on the former and causal only in a derivative and rather anemic sense. As a result, one who takes states of affairs to be the primary and proper objects of divine power focuses merely on the shadow-like concomitants of God's causal activity.
Although God's power is distinctive, Ross contends here, as in earlier works, that there are more familiar instances of metaphysical causation which can serve as instructive (if imperfect) analogues of God's causal activity. Here he pays particular attention to the causality exercised by the abstract mathematical structures of physical objects on the behavior of such objects. This example is especially interesting, since these abstract structures provide the metaphysical foundation for ordinary nomological regularities and laws. So even in the realm of nature metaphysical causation is basic. In the theological case God creates and sustains substances which are "from-him" and hence always and everywhere dependent on him for their being--even though they possess their own proper existence and power.
In the last part of his paper Ross tries to demonstrate how this picture of God's causation obviates some of the problems which /7/ are needlessly generated by the "states-of-affairs" picture. For instance, on the latter picture we can say only that God causes it to be the case that Adam freely sins. And hence the inevitable questions arise: Can Adam do otherwise? Is God the author of Adam's sin? Perhaps the proponent of the "states-of-affairs" picture will respond by distinguishing weaker and stronger modes of God's causal activity. But Ross retorts that God's causal activity is essentially uniform--only the objects of that activity, viz., the things created, may vary. On the metaphysical causation picture God causes Adam, who freely sins, to be. Adam could refrain from sinning, in which case God would cause Adam to be in exactly the same say in which he in fact causes Adam to be. Adam's action alone would be different. Further, Adam's sinful action is Adam's action and not God's, even though God causes Adam to be during the performance of that action. Hence, God is not responsible for or the author of Adam's sin. In the same way, Ross holds, various puzzles about God's reasons for creating and his choice of a world to create fall to the wayside on the metaphysical causation picture.
There is undoubtedly more to be said on these issues, but Ross's position has a weighty tradition behind it and is deserving of serious consideration. Interestingly, one can detect in the contrast between "Creation II" and "Maximal Power" at least a hint of the same disagreements about divine causation that separated Thomists from Molinists in sixteenth-century Catholic theology.
The next paper, Clement Dore's "Deseartes's Meditation V Proof of God's Existence," is an attempt to reinterpret and defend an argument which has been almost universally found wanting since the time of Descartes. Dore begins by conceding the defeetiveness of the following classical construal of the argument:
(1) God is a supremely perfect being.
Though Kant's famous objection to this argument was aimed at (2), Dore assumes throughout that (2) is true. (This is not unreasonable, since many today find Kant's attempted refutation of (2) rather unconvincing.) The genuinely troublesome premise is (1), since on the most natural reading (1) is equivalent to /8/
(1*) If God exists, then he is a supremely perfect being,
which together with (2) entails only the "ontologically sterile" conditional
(3*) If God exists, then he exists.
Dore, however, urges that we adopt the following, "more charitable" interpretation of Descartes's argument:
(4) The concept of God is the concept of a supremely perfect being.
The remainder of the paper is devoted to the refutation of a series of seemingly powerful objections to this argument, two of which I will mention briefly. According to the first objection the argument is invalid because (6) expresses just what the ontologically sterile (3*) expresses. Dore's central counterargument here is that conceptual truths, unlike mere logical truths, depend essentially for their truth on the peculiar properties of their material, nonlogical terms. Hence, (6) is true only if some syntactically appropriate substitution for the term 'God' in the sentence 'God exists' yields a falsehood. On the other hand, any syntactically appropriate substitution for the term 'God' in (3*) yields a truth. It follows that (6) does not express exactly what the logical truth (3*) expresses. The second objection is a Gaunilo-inspired direct attack on (6). It charges that if (6) were true, then we could deduce the existence of indefinitely many Godlike minor and major deities by using exactly the same argument form exhibited by (4)-(7). Dore counters that if God exists, then the existence of such ersatz deities is logically impossible, and so the analogues of (6) in the resulting equiform arguments are without exception false. But, he contends, there is no analogously effective way of showing that (6) itself is false.
The remaining objections are greeted with similarly interesting retorts. In short, whether or not he has been completely successful in his venture, Dore has without a doubt breathed some life into what has generally been thought to be a dead argument. /9/
Mark Jordan's "The Names of God and the Being of Names" is an apt concluding piece, since it calls into question what some might construe as facile presuppositions in some of the previous papers about the aceessibility of the divine nature to human language and understanding. Medieval theologians typically preface their discussions of the divine attributes with warnings about the inability of the divine names to "make the signified present." Jordan's purpose is to argue, with Aquinas as his main protagonist, that the most secure theological approach to the divine lies precisely in the attempt to understand how the divine names, while truly signifying God, can at the same time mark the distance which separates us from God.
Aquinas's scattered remarks about analogy are often thought to exhaust his account of theological language. Jordan, however, insists that Aquinas turns to semantics only after he has established the metaphysical thesis that God is simple, lacking (passive) potency and hence composition of any sort. It is because of God's simplicity that even the patently nonmetaphorical ascriptions made of him will fail to signify him in the normal mode. For Aquinas believes that since all the names ascribed to God are taken from creatures, they connote composition on the part of their subjects. Hence, God's simplicity rules out from the beginning any form of literalism. On the other hand, the notion of simplicity generates a hierarchical ordering of the divine names, since some of those names are more appropriately applied to a simple being than are others. Jordan points out that this hierarchy of names also has a metaphysical foundation. For Aquinas believes that creatures, as effects, bear greater and lesser resemblances to God as their cause. When theologians deemphasize or ignore such essential resemblances, they quickly fall into obscurantist views--like that attributed by Aquinas to Maimonides--according to which every apparently affirmative ascription of a divine perfection to God is in reality just the denial of some creaturely imperfection. This position, Aquinas argues, leads to theological anarchy by rendering all the divine names equally improper.
Aquinas finds in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the framework for an acceptable via media that preserves both of the metaphysical theses noted above. In virtue of the varying degrees of resemblance between God and creatures, we may properly /10/ (and not just metaphorically) affirm certain "higher" names of God, as when we say that God is wise. Such affirmations, Jordan notes, are not simply disguised negations. Negation comes only at the next step, when--because of God's simplicity--we deny that God is wise. For, as noted above, the term 'wise' in its normal mode of signifcation connotes composition and hence imperfection on the part of its subject. Finally, we signal God's distance from us more positively by the grammatically deviant assertion that God is unparticipated wisdom itself. So it is precisely within this progression through the ways of affirmation, negation, and eminence that we gain insight into how the divine names succeed in signifying God (for creatures are imitations of his essence) and yet fail to signify him in a normal way (for he is simple).
In contemporary philosophical theology one finds widespread evidence of the two extremes, literalism and obscurantism, which Aquinas sought to avoid. Further, the doctrine of divine simplicity and the thesis that effects resemble their causes have been generally ignored or, at best, afforded superficial treatment. If Jordan is correct, these two phenomena are not unconnected.
The papers in this volume, then, reflect the lively, yet tradition-laden, character of at least one major current in contemporary philosophical theology. At a time when many theologians have in effect discarded as irrelevant large chunks of traditional philosophical theology, it may be the unlikely lot of contemporary philosophers to crack open once again the lonely dust-covered volumes.
One final note. Earlier versions of these papers were presented at the third biennial Notre Dame Conference on Philosophy of Religion in April 1981. Commentators included William Alston, Richard Ciccotelli, Ralph McInerny, Alvin Plantinga, William Rowe, Patrick Sherry, and William Wainwright. Their contributions both to the conference and to the final state of this volume have been enormous.