Over on BioLogos I’ve been courting controversy again after Ted Davis posted another of his series on John Polkinghorne, in which the latter again promotes the free creation, kenotic God theology so prevalent in theistic evolution now. I critiqued it again, in the hope (after two years) of getting someone to justify it.
So far no takers, as usual, but I did put out a general challenge to find any part of Scripture where the concept of freedom as autonomy is taught, as opposed to the biblical concept I argued for here (and in summary on the BioLogos post). To that challenge I’ve had a couple of half-hearted suggestions (quickly disproven) from brethren already suspicious of the “freedom of nature” teaching. But from those who believe in it, zilch.
Having thus returned mentally to the subject, I want to fill in detail at the root of that theology to show, once more, how a philosophical deduction so often outweighs the testimony of Scripture in modern theology. I have a feeling this argument originates with Jurgen Moltmann, so influential in this whole school of thought, but it may not, and it doesn’t much matter anyway as it’s been adopted as part of the doctrinal furniture by many others.
The idea basically is this: God being infinite, there is no room for anything to exist apart from him. So, when he desired to create, it was necessary for him to withdraw himself from part of reality, thus making space for other entities “at some epistemic and ontological distance from their Creator” (in Polkinghorne’s phrase). Since, uncontroversially, God’s motive in creation is love, this withdrawal is seen as epitomizing self-giving love, letting go and sacrificing some part of his Godhead for the sake of an autonomous universe full of autonomous creatures.
Actually Scripture teaches that God’s primary motive is Trinitarian love, the Father desiring that all things should be united under the Son, the Son desiring to submit to and glorify the Father, and the Spirit facilitating all. It is from that love, by no means limited by infinity, that creation overflows, and bathes in the love God has for the creatures he has made.
Be that as it may, it doesn’t enter into the often rather non-Trinitarian freedom theology, and this idea that God necessarily becomes emptier the more he creates seems attractively human. See where it leads, then, logically. God’s love has been demonstrated to be intrinsically self-sacrificing, so it follows that the autonomy resulting from it is the greatest good, to be celebrated and spread as wide as possible. If God clears space within himself for this “epistemic and ontological distance” even in the case of inanimate matter, the love-freedom axis obviously applies to all things, without exception. “Nature” simply must be free, or God doesn’t really love it, whether or not that freedom has any meaning for it. Sentient creatures must, even more, experience God’s love by their independence from him. And par excellence, rational humans with free will must be the most autonomous of all, the further they are from God indicating the degree of his love for them and their creaturely freedom.
Divine Kenosis – that grotesque perversion of the teaching in Philippians 2 – is therefore not only inherent in creation, but is the obvious, and only, way for God to remedy the problem of sin, which he himself set up by giving man’s self a completely separate (and therefore likely selfish) existence. If self-giving love creates sin, then more self-giving love is going to be the remedy, and God himself – not only in Jesus Christ the man but in what one might call Neo-patripassarianism, the Father and Spirit suffering with the Son – undergoes the same alienation and loss as his creatures.
Now the willing acceptance of the Incarnation and sin-bearing by our Lord, and the willingness of the Father to submit him to it, are indeed the clear signs of God’s love for us. But the wonder of them lies in their unique grace, not in their logical necessity from the very nature of God. “Self-emptying all the way down” seems a bit like a government whose only weapon is public spending cuts, and which applies them in any and every circumstance.
But you’ll see that, once the initial thesis – that the infinite God must become less infinite to make room for the finite creation – is accepted, all the rest follows. Love then makes no sense apart from God’s diminution, and the creature’s autonomy. It’s only a small step from there to any further degree of divine self-limiting as love: Polkinghorne, for example, and other open theists, happily make God forego his innate foreknowledge of events in order to render the future indeterminately free, open and most importantly, an expression of creaturely autonomy. Necessarily, God’s promises become God’s wish-list – but when God fails in his purposes, he’s demonstrated even more letting go, so it’s all good.
Incidentally, to tie that in with some of my other thinking, I suggest that the linking of love to autonomy only makes sense within the background of post-Enlightenment ideas of freedom. Indeed, the very conviction that God and creation can’t occupy the same “space” is the same that motivates the free-will arguments: If I make a choice, God can’t be involved in it or I’d be a robot. If God doesn’t get himself out of the way in creating me, I’ll just be part of God and I won’t “really” be me, which is of course the important thing.
So, does the initial idea stand up to scrutiny? Is it actually the case that an infinite God must become less if we are to exist in any real way separately from him? The brief answer is, how the hell would you presume to know, unless you’re God yourself? The polite answer is to suggest we go to Scripture.
Needless to say, there is absolutely no trace of such an idea in all 66 biblical books, with the Apocrypha thrown in for good measure, any more than there is for divine kenosis, freedom of nature, co-creation or any of the other sequelae. But is there any contrary teaching? Well, apart from the fact that everywhere in the Bible a completely unrelated story is told, there’s at least some counter-evidence. Paul in Acts 17, trying to win the Athenian Areopagites, says God is not far from each one of us (which being interpreted means, “There is minimal epistemic and ontological distance.”) He quotes Epimenides to say “in him we live and move and have our being.” That sounds almost panentheistic in its lack of clear water between Creature and Creator.
And of course, that matches the biblical idea that God personally sustains everything in being by his immanent power and presence – such that some streams of Christianity have termed it creatio continua, others special providence – but the greatest, from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, including within it all things in creation: scientific law, chance, and even human decisions.
The same idea is in Deuteronomy 30.20: “The Lord is your life” (which follows, after all, from Adam being animated by the ruach or breath of Yahweh). Job 12.10 tells us: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” And in Daniel 5.23: “You did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.”
There seems, then, little or nothing to support the idea that God can only create by withdrawing himself: it’s just crude philosophical speculation. In fact, the Biblical idea of creation carries instead strong overtones of extension and overflowing abundance – God if anything becomes more, not less, by creation if such a thing were possible. The metaphors used include, as in Genesis, the word of power that goes forth from God and makes things happen. The divine artisan is also a prominent theme – the architect who spreads out the sky, or the potter who mould the clay. And even begetting is occasionally used – and the biblical idea of procreation is to spread out and extend boundaries, not to have to sleep three to a bed because there’s nowhere to expand to.
So does creation exist inside God, or outside him? Those are actually philosophical questions – the elements both of transcendence and immanence are present in the Bible, and as in the question of sovereignty and free-will it doesn’t insist on resolving the paradox. We often do so insist – in the case of free-will, we get the “robot” and “puppetmaster” rhetoric that hinders our acceptance of divine mystery by faith. And in the case of creation, Polkinghorne and his peers have adopted rigidily the conclusion that it must be within God, because he’s already infinite, and yet must be separate from God, because it’s autonomous. Ergo, God has to get smaller. Once more we lose the divine mystery that though we are separate from God we are never apart from him, and that means never apart from his knowledge, love, wisdom, power and will.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea.
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast. Ps 139.7-10