Triple-A T v TP: an example

Following on from the previous post, let me give an example of how the rubber might hit the road according to the two different doctrines of God, ie classical theism and theistic personalism. My example lies in the significant, and contentious, area of providence with reference to human free-will.

Under classical theism, God is pure being. Nothing can exist apart from him, and he creates ex nihilo, his creation therefore being separate and ontologically quite distinct from him. Furthermore, since nothing can exist apart from him even for a moment, he is the First Cause of everything, including every event. Therefore Thomas Aquinas (for example – but remember he summarises the whole tradition from Augustine and is followed by all the early Reformers) spells out quite clearly that the whole of creation, from start to finish, is one single good act of God’s eternal will.

That will includes the creation of rational beings with their own genuinely free, and morally accountable, will, yet determines how those free wills will act in the big scheme of his final purpose. So Jesus (as God) can say that Judas’ betrayal is inevitable, yet that Judas is punishable for it. And likewise, God himself is not the author of evil, though his will oversees all evil acts. God can say that men choose freely to believe, and yet that he predestines them to be conformed to Christ. And all this is because our wills can only possibly exist within God’s will.

Now, such things are difficult to get our heads round, yet they are philosophically consistent only because God’s mode of being is different to ours. He is eternal, simple, omniscient, omnipotent and immutable, and his divine will is only analogous to our human will. It’s not that he has more free will than us (as I once heard an Arminian Baptist preacher say), but that his ways are not our ways, and are infinitely higher than ours: we can understand them only by analogy, in a limited way – and that only if we’re prepared to dig deep, and not trifle. But that’s fine, because God adapts his word to our understanding, and covers the rest in mystery. Deuteronomy 29.29 relates.

But theistic personalism will have none of that. God’s will is like our will, only bigger (unless he deliberately reigns back his will in a “kenotic” way, which is sheer impossibility under classical theism). Our wills are absolutely free, and his will is too, but it is within the same landscape of wills competing for space. So his will can only affect our freedom in the ways that another human might.

He might entice us by love (which indeed he does). He might persuade us by arguments or signs (which indeed he does). He might threaten us with punishment (which he does too). But if those “fail” to bring us into line, there is a pure clash of wills: God, the big guy, could reach in and mess with our minds, but that would be coercion and most ungentlemanly. In fact, he’d be worse than the worst Communist brainwasher. Who is God to tread on my autonomy? A loving God, being just like any other loving person, will keep his nose out of my business, and probably weep himself to sleep at night over my incomprehensible ingratitude. You’ve just got to pity him, in such an intractable fix.

And so whilst God might, with only a little tinkering with Jesus’s words, foresee that Judas will betray him, there’s no way it must happen, and certainly no way that God wills it to happen. Of course, in the more logical extensions of neotheism, like Open Theism, even God’s foresight is limited to a more refined version of what human reason could predict, and he himself is just another player in the landscape of space-time. The future is unknowable, even to an omniscient God, because it does not exist yet. So Jesus’ words must be interpreted as meaning either that that Old Testament guy had a lucky guess when prophesying, or that somebody was, given human nature, bound to betray him eventually, and Judas happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Which is grammatically possible, I suppose, if you’re committed to the TP framework.

Now I’m willing to bet that most Christians nowadays will gravitate to the second position, because the first makes God so distant and other, and the the second brings him down to a more user-friendly level. And we do like God to be at our level because, as they began to rediscover from the pagans in the Renaissance, “Man is the measure of all things.”

We all know what the Bible says, don’t we (because I read it off a 1971 Jethro Tull album cover)? “In the beginning Man created god: and in the image of Man created he him.”

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Triple-A T v TP: an example

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Dear Jon,
    I don’t think that the division here is quite as clear as you make out. Let us start, for example, where we agree that we are created in the image of God (anti Jethro Tull!). In that case, we have being because of God’s being; we have rationality because of God’s wisdom, and we have love because of God’s love.
    This should imply that our love is closer to the reality of God’s love than a ‘mere analogy’. In this case, therefore, I think Scotus has a grain of truth. Similarly for rationality. We have ‘derivative’ rationality, indeed, but it is rationality and it does enable us to see (some of!) the truths that are in God’s rationality.
    I agree with everything you say about foreknowledge, accountability and evil, etc: we are not going for ‘Open Theism’. Rather that, I insist, if the love God has for us is to be reciprocated by our love returned to God, then there must be some fundamental connection between those two loves. They cannot ‘miss’ each other. That follows from our being a likeness of God. The fact that humans are theomorphic leads (unavoidably) to a grain of truth (no more!) in God being anthropomorphic, without ever giving up a fully fledged ‘ontological’ theism.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Ian, and welcome to the Hump.

    Yes, I’d agree with you of the importance of there being a true “fit” between our nature and God’s, or else we could never be what we created to be – that is in eternal relationship to him. Clearly “image” has an important role in that, and we must take that on faith since we can’t know what it consists of with certainty.

    One would like to think there was a compromise position between Scotus and Aquinas, but “same kiind of being” and “different kind of being” are rather mutually exclusive, it seems. Maybe one should do without philosophy altogether, but it always creeps in unconsciously anyway. I’m not convinced that even if God is of a different kind to us, that he should be unable to create us with validly analogical qualities.

    In the past I confess I’ve always just considered the thing logically: if I were to be the omniscient and omnipotent Creator and dwell in eternity, I would necessarily be significantly different from what I actually am. It’s hard enough, after all, to imagine what being a bat is like (cf T Nagel) – and I suppose that God, as its loving creator, must understand that mode of being too.

    It seems to me that some people, rather than live with those kind of considerations, prefer to shrink God down to size (and to be fair to Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson did say “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.”)

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    There should be, I agree, some intermediate position. The way I see it is that our being is ‘derivative’ from God’s being; so our wisdom derives from God’s wisdom; and our love derives from God’s love. All these are part of “image”, and we should learn more about this. Especially about ‘how’ we derive from God.

    For example, I see God as love itself, and that is (hence) the nature of his being. We are also loves, and we derive from the actions of God’s love. We are not loves of the same things, but (we hope eventually) we can align our loves to agree with what God loves. In that sense, therefore, our love-beings ‘are the same kind of being’ as God’s love-being. But, as deriving from God and NOT as Love Itself, we are (in another sense) also a ‘different kind of being’ from God.

    So I would not give up philosophy, tempting that may be, for thinking SHOULD be an application of the rationality that we have from God for the purpose of our loves, and his love.

  4. Jon Garvey says:


    I like your way of expressing it. It seems to me (as a definitely philosophically challenged individual) that such a formulation is quite consistent with an “AAA” model, since “like, but also not like” is what analogy is.

    A parallel might be the NT description of God as “dwelling in unapproachable light” – presumably meaning the being of God himself. For some reason the idea of looking on uncreated light has always captured my imagination. There is clearly an ontological difference between God’s light and the electromagnetic kind – but there is a real correspondence too.

    Problems come from pushing the analogies too far – and that includes exaggerating the difference as much as the correspondence. Perhaps more, for God doesn’t tell us to simulate his love, but to love – I think he has the right to push the analogy exactly as far as he wants to!

  5. Ian Thompson says:


    My only quibble with the AAA model is that love does not play a big a role as it should. Aquinas, for example, images God as ‘Pure Act’. But, if so, how can God be omnipotent, or (in fact) have any powers at all? The problem is that, to Aquinas, actuality and potentiality are opposites. Love, as something always looking for more, seems very far from ‘pure act’.

    He gets around this, of course, by his ‘identity of transcendentals’. But that only pushes the problem back, since WHICH transcendentals are good here. People disagree, especially, on whether the ability to suffer is a transcendental good! You gave another example.

    With all these analogies in play, it is difficult to be sure that our rationality has terms that EVER refer to God. How do we know that “Pure Act” is not actually referring, but is merely an analogy? How about “being itself”? How about “loves us”, etc, etc. This means, probably, that Aquinas’ “pure act” does not mean what we think it means. To be blunt (and probably unfair), I wonder: is Aquinas doing theology, or something else?

    There has to SOME connection and overlap between Divine things and human things. Whatever analogies there are must be more than “mere analogies”, and must have and make real connections: preferably causal connections. You talk of ‘correspondences’: that is another good way to think of this. But any correspondences must come from causal connections, and not be mere ‘epiphenomena’ or a human gloss on what really happens.
    Of course the causal connections are not Humean conjunctions, but something real that we should be able learn about.

  6. GD says:


    Interesting contrasts. Just a couple of things; free will as a term is used ambiguously in many discussions. A human being is free to be himself, but every choice we make (freely) determines who and what we are, and this determines our character. It is a central tenet of the Christian faith that we may repent of our sins (mistakes etc) and this is also an act of freedom. This is to illustrate that free will can be understood intellectually, emotionally, in activities, intent, and spiritual state-of-being.

    These choices are made by humans are within a creation God has freely made, and has created it is such a way that we can exercise our will. The difference is in how we human beings may act and be, as well as become. God however, can see in the hearts and souls of humans. Thus Jesus would have known the character of Judas, and with complete knowledge, understand what Judas would do. These are a few points on a big subject.

    On this almost endless ways we often use of the English word ‘love’, I am inclined not to use it in these type of discussions, as I am tempted to think it is used on how I may show affectionate my pet dog. The clearest statement that I can think on this subject is that “God has shed His Love abroad in our hearts’, and that means the Holy Spirit has been send abroad, and is at work amongst those God has so determined. This in short is predestination.

    On God being free, it would be correct to sya that God is freedom, rather than imply that God has an ability to avoid restraint or is not subjected to some type of limitation (negative statements about God).

    I have not the time to spell check this, so hopefully I have not made too many typo errors (my pet hate!?)

  7. Jon Garvey says:


    It’s tempting to say that once one starts rationalising philosophically about God’s love, rather than experiencing it, philosophy has gone too far (and I see a quote from Aquinas: “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off”).

    One commentator on Aquinas says this:
    God wills some good to all existing things. Since loving something is the same as willing good to that thing, we see that God must love everything. But God’s love is not the same as our love because God’s will is creative. When we love someone, we are reacting to the goodness in that person and we are willing good for that person; but our love is not the direct cause of the good in that person. In contrast, God’s love “pours out and creates the goodness of things”. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite taught that love carries lovers outside themselves and transports them to their beloved. Clearly God is not transported outside Himself, but we can in some way say that He is in ecstasy (from the Greek ek-stasis; “standing outside”) in His creative love inasmuch as His love flows out to things.

    So whether love is adequately covered in that writer, or in the other two “A’s”, it doesn’t preclude Christians finding plentiful support for it there. Your mention of “Pure Act” reminds me of some recent reading in one of the greatest exponents of God’s love I have seen recently, Thomas Traherne. A quote might be in order:

    God by loving begot His Son. For God is Love, and by loving He begot His Love. He is of Himself, and by loving He is what He is, INFINITE LOVE. God is not a mixt and compounded Being, so that His Love is one thing and Himself another: but the most pure and simple of all Beings, all Act, and pure Love in the abstract. Being Love therefore itself, by loving He begot His Love. Had He not Loved, He had not been what He now is, The God of Love, the most righteous of all beings, in being infinitely righteous to Himself, and all.
    But by loving He is infinitely righteous to Himself and all. For He is of Himself, Infinitely Blessed and most Glorious; and all His creatures are of Him, in whom they are infinitely delighted and Blessed and Glorious.
    (Centuries 2/39)

  8. Jon Garvey says:


    General agreement with you. I am aware that the Orthodox tradition, like much of the Catholic (and much of the Protestant too!), places stress on God’s foreknowledge rather than his foreordination with regard to sin. That’s understandable, but in the end I think it makes less difference than people think. If God creates that particular Universe which, he foreknows, contains Judas the free betrayer, then it’s difficult to say how he hasn’t fore-ordained it. He wasn’t bound to create Judas at all.

    That doesn’t really affect my post, though, because even under foreknowledge ordinary “persons” don’t create Universes, foreknow who will sin, organise salvation history around it and turn it to the eternal good they intended all along.

    Ordinary “persons” instead have to answer charges like, “If you knew evil X would happen, you could have prevented it.” Which is what sends people scuttling around doing theodicy.

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