Autonomy and Superposition

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

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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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10 Responses to Autonomy and Superposition

  1. Cal says:

    I always like the Eastern quote that Creation occurred from the laughter of the Trinity. The amazing thing is that we’re totally unnecessary, but superabundance. That offends our modern way of thinking about efficiency, but so be it. Feasts (the scene of almost all Bibilical joy) are by nature out of abundance, which sounds much better than a calculated meal.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Laughter or not, whatever it is it’s what we’ll spend eternity sharing!

  3. seenoevo says:

    From Merriam-Webster: Autonomy is (with MY EMPHASES)

    1: the quality or state of being self-governing; especially : the right of self-government
    From Jon’s hyperlinked “Freedom and Autonomy #2” (with MY EMPHASES):

    “(a) Theologies based on the centrality of human and natural freedom and God’s “letting go love” are novel.
    (b) The explanation for them is found in the ENTHRONEMENT OF AUTONOMY as a primary “good” OVER SEVERAL RECENT CENTURIES.
    (c) This autonomy is NOT a BIBLICAL concept, and must therefore be suspect.

    “It’s my contention that the philosophical concept of autonomy … puts a bias into ones theology that leads away from Scriptural revelation.”

    I’d say that’s a pretty good description of the primary problem with the propagation of Protestantisms and its consequent plethora of Christs (30,000+ and counting).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Whilst I deplore the proliferation of Protestant denominations, to speak of a “plethora of Christs” is pure polemic, and will not convince anyone here. Most Protestant denominations are credally Nicene and Chalecedonian, and therefore are no more worshipping “different Christs” than the Jesuits, Jansenists or Opus Dei are. Or come to that, than the different Patriarchates within early catholicism were when the Bishop of Rome was of equal status with those of Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch.

      That said, if you agree with the paragraph you quote from me, we’re on the same page on the question of autonomy. However, I don’t believe the Catholic Church has been exempt from the process I describe, though it’s been shielded from the worst excesses by its conservative attitude to tradition (though that is also responsible for its worst faults).

      So I see the Council of Trent as back-tracking in a Semipelagian direction from the pattern set by the Augustine and the Council of Orange, and brought to its most carefully developed point in Aquinas; and I see that as being due to the infiltration of the early modern Curia by the zeitgeist of the Renaissance. After all, humanism started in Italy and was massively sponsored by the Popes of the time, being one of the main triggers for the Reformation.

      I won’t argue that there was a direct link between that and the Catholic Church’s initial resistance to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular (resistance to the point of burning William Tyndale for doing so), or that this is necessarily an example of “leading away from Scriptural revelation.”. But if you look at Catholic apologetics from that time, such as the Fransciscan Fiat Lux from around 1660, you’ll see the Scripture being described as too mysterious to be understood by lay-people, which puts Scriptural revelation at a remove from God’s Spirit-filled body, though it was written for them.

      Trent too describes the doctrine of predestination as “dark” and not to be meddled with lest it give false assurance – yet Paul places it centre-stage in Romans and Ephesians, for all Christians to read, precisely in order to provide comfort and assurance. Both can’t be right, and I’ll go with Scripture.

      But promoting denominational conflict is definitely not the reason I set up this blog, and I’d be grateful if you’d stop trying to change that. To argue the superiority of Catholic teaching on any of these individual matters is fine, even welcome: but to try to recycle Fiat Lux 350 years later, only with more belligerence and less style, is an abuse of hospitality. Too many of us here are acquainted with Church History to be other than annoyed.

  4. seenoevo says:


    “Most Protestant denominations are credally Nicene and Chalecedonian, and therefore are no more worshipping “different Christs” than the Jesuits, Jansenists or Opus Dei are.”

    I don’t see how this is true.

    The Jesuits and Opus Dei are just different arms in communion with the body of the Catholic Church. The Jansenists are not. Creeds alone do not define this communion. This communion includes everything promoted for belief in faith and morals (cf. Luke 10:16). That’s communion, NOT independence (note again M-W definition 2 above).

    This communion includes many things. As an example, just starting with the “A”s, Jesuits and Opus Dei would agree on the “A”uthority of the Church and with the Church’s constant teaching on the inherent evil of “A”bortion.

    So, for further example, some non-Catholic “creedal Christians” have a Christ who condemns abortion always, others a Christ who condemns it sometimes, and others a Christ who thinks it’s OK. [It seems the actual, Biblical Christ would have pretty strong feelings on this (cf. Luke 1).]

    How does YOUR Christ feel about abortion, Jon?
    “So I see the Council of Trent as …”

    Oh, I see. I see that YOU see YOUR sight as the vision YOU will follow. Autonomously.
    “But if you look at Catholic apologetics from that time, such as the Fransciscan Fiat Lux from around 1660, you’ll see the Scripture being described as too mysterious to be understood by lay-people, which puts Scriptural revelation at a remove from God’s Spirit-filled body, though it was written for them.”

    I’m not familiar with the Franciscan Fiat Lux. But I do know that each Catholic Mass has 3 or 4 different readings from Scripture, 365 days a year. (I think they cover virtually the entire Bible at these Masses over a 3-year period.) And while the homilist may (or may not) provide additional illumination on one or more of those daily readings, he usually won’t on all of them. Those poor lay Catholics are left in mysterious un-understanding for the rest of the readings. Unlike the Sola Scriptura Christians. [But then, why do the Sola Scripturans almost invariably also have a minister or someone preaching from the podium?]
    “Trent too describes the doctrine of predestination as “dark” …”

    That could fit with my repeated statement that by God’s plan our exercising of free-will is to SOME mysterious extent TRULY FREE (i.e. OUR choice, NOT God’s).

    “…and not to be meddled with lest it give false assurance – yet Paul places it centre-stage in Romans and Ephesians, for all Christians to read, precisely in order to provide comfort and assurance. Both can’t be right, and I’ll go with Scripture.”

    Would you go with Scripture where Paul writes “I pommel my body and subdue it, LEST after preaching to others I MYSELF should be DISQUALIFIED” ? Does disqualified mean not finishing well, or not finishing at all?
    Or perhaps the more comforting and assuring “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, PROVIDED you CONTINUE in his kindness; OTHERWISE you too will be cut off.” [Rom 11:22]
    “But promoting denominational conflict is definitely not the reason I set up this blog… Too many of us here are acquainted with Church History to be other than annoyed.”

    Who’s “promoting” denominational conflict? I’m just pointing out denominational conflict, but more importantly, asking for the reasons AND JUSTIFICATIONS for this conflict.

    Maybe there’s a blog somewhere where Christians are not annoyed, but rather, are greatly concerned, with the fact of denominations and the inherent denominational conflicts, and with how such is in stark conflict with Christ’s repeated emphasis “that they may be one” (cf. John 17), or with Paul’s “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, ONE FAITH, one baptism” [Ephesians 4:3-5].

    Do you know of any such blogs?

    You decry those like me, who you say show “more belligerence and less style.” You got your non-belligerent, stylish blog. You got your church of nice. That church of nice (& what’s happenin’ now) has worked so well over the last 50 years (or last 500 years). You got your cookies, you got your milk.

    Got “ONE”?

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The Council of Trent alone pronounces about 100 anathemas, which means I and all the other contributors here are so cursed that we’re past caring… if we believed that those doctrines were actually all necessary to Christian faith, or even all Christian.

    “If any one shall say, that, besides the priesthood, there are not in the Catholic Church other orders, both greater and lesser, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the priesthood; let him be anathema.” I’m very glad to belong to a Church that doesn’t make that a prerequisite to salvation, but relies on Scripture for saving truth.

    But I note that despite defining essential salvific doctrine so rigorously and so damnably, it doesn’t even produce enough fear to ensure actual unity within Catholicism, let alone heal the divisions in the Church universal (

    I can’t but be convinced that such a “Believe everything we say or burn” approach is poles apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ I have consciously embraced for nearly fifty years (not spent in “my church of nice”, but in the worldwide assembly of Christ).

    It seems bound to inculcate a self-righteous attitude, in which, for example, one makes assumptions about somebody else’s attitude to abortion (is another anathema attached to that somewhere?) whilst knowing nothing about their publications on the subject, their professional submissions to national government, their practical activity and their professional practice.

    And do you know what? I’m not going to tell you anyway.

  6. seenoevo says:

    Of course you won’t tell me.

    Why would anyone tell anyone else what he thinks about murder.
    Oh, well, back to the Bible. A verse a day keeps the devil away.

    “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.
    You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.
    He was a MURDERER from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
    But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
    Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?
    He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

  7. James says:

    I don’t know how others here feel, but I find seenoevo’s posts to be generally baiting, gauntlet-throwing, pushy, belligerent, prematurely judgmental, and generally non-constructive rather than dialogical.

    The self-destructive nature of this behavior is revealed by the consideration that on this site, more than any other site where creation and evolution are discussed, seenoevo is surrounded by people who are theologically conservative, and with whom it would make sense for him to develop good relations, as future allies against vacuous liberalism, atheism, materialism, scientism, etc. — especially since those people have far more respect for Catholicism than he would find on other “conservative” sites (where the ethos would be a fundamentalist Protestantism that sees Catholicism as, if not exactly the religion of the Antichrist, at least a very dangerous Christian heresy). Yet seenoevo exhibits as much wrath here again the conservatives as he does against the atheists and vacuous liberals elsewhere. Such behavior can only end up leaving him as a man who is against all flags.

    It may be that seenoevo belongs to the only truly faithful Christian church in existence, but if that is the case, then I suspect that the only truly faithful Christian church has a membership of exactly one.

  8. seenoevo says:

    Hi James! Welcome back.

    I hadn’t forgotten you, of course.

    In fact, I gave you a “shout out”, of sorts, on the very next blog, “A quick Thomist guide …”.
    Regarding the size of church populations, my “type” of Christian is indeed small in number. But I’m not a solo act, not an army of one. Sadly, despite God’s wishes for all (cf. 1 Tim 2:4), the reality is that the number to be saved could be quite small:
    – That not all, not even all self-designated Christians, will be saved is a given (cf. Mat 7:21-22).
    – “Few” usually means a lot less than 50% (cf. Mat 7:14; Mat 22:14).
    – Could it be only 25% (1 out of 4 “soils”)? (cf. Mat 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8)

    I take some comfort in being in the minority, even the small minority. I’m happy to be where I am, and would never be anywhere else. More importantly, I have a sure basis and reason for having confidence that I’m in the RIGHT minority. And I have reason to be confident, but not assured, of coming to a good end, the best end.

    We’ll all know, in the end.

    “… he who endures to the end will be saved.”

  9. Avatar photo penman says:

    As my head clears from several weeks of flu…

    Permit me to add a supplementary support for Jon’s thesis. When the scriptures talk about our sanctification, they attribute our holy works indiscriminately to us and to God. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.” Etc.

    So it isn’t a case of, the more of us, the less of God – or the more of God, the less of us. It’s all us, & all God, at the same time, from differing perspectives. He does not need to “withdraw” to give us “space”. Scripture virtually treats sanctification as a parallel to omnipresence, where God’s presence and ours are mutually inclusive, not mutually exclusive.

    One might apply analogous thinking to providence. E.g., “The Son of Man goes as it has been determined [divine sovereignty], but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed [human responsible action].”

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