Creation, self-limitation and joy

I’ve argued in the past that Open Theism is only the logical outworking of classical Arminianism, and that Arminianism itself is an outworking of the Renaissance insistence on autonomy as the basis of freedom. This is fundamentally different from the classical understanding of freedom as found in the Fathers like Augustine, in the mediaeval scholastics like Aquinas and in their intellectual descendants in the Reformed tradition like Calvin, Luther or Edwards. One is looking, essentially at two different metaphysical assumptions rather than merely two theological interpretations, and in fact they roughly correspond to the categories of the “concurrentism” (classical) and “mere conservationism” (Arminian) I’ve explored recently.

One can see this in leading Arminian Roger Olsen’s mode of argumentation here. Here he explicitly argues for the necessity of applying ideas of God’s self-limitation within “classical Arminianism” rather than just in Open Theism, in order for there to be the possibility of real relationship between creation (especially mankind, of course) and God.

One can sense here the whole dynamic and logic of the debate: unless God is entirely separate from the process of human choice (ie not in any sense guiding, determining, cooperating, creating continuously, foreordaining, predestining, prevening, facilitating and all similar concepts underpinning the alternatives to conservationism, ie concurrentism and occasionalism); that is unless man is fully autonomous, then true relationship is not possible. Note that this is a logical deduction which assumes, in fact, that God must be a person like us rather than “trans-personal”. You and I could not have genuine relationship if you “lived and moved and had your being” in me, or vice versa. Therefore, he says, God couldn’t either – and that is the crux of the dispute, for classical theism always taught that God is not a person like us, though in his divinity he is personal and he relates. He can have real relationship even as he is the ground of our moment-by-moment being, because he says he can in his word, and does in fact, which should be good enough for us.

Similarly, Olsen says, God must be separate from creation (thus limiting his deity) or be responsible for evil: implying he must be quite separate from natural creation too or be accountable for natural evil:

The only way to avoid that (logically, in my opinion) is to affirm God’s voluntary self-limitations in relation to creation.

Fortunately, most divine determinists (including most Calvinists and many Lutherans) DO NOT go so far as to attribute sin and evil to God. In fact, most strongly deny that God is the author of sin and evil. The point is, however, that logical consistency would seem to require that within their systems. And we all know someone who has taken it that far.

We need to point out exactly where the logical systems differ to discern the crux, and it’s in firmly in the outworking of concurrence, not in the failure of Reformed logic: Aquinas or Calvin would argue that when when Joseph’s brothers plan an event for evil, God determines the same event, but for good. While the High Priest cynically advocates Jesus’s murder rather than risk Roman retribution on the people, God speaks prophetically through him of Jesus’s substitutionary atonement.

So on that crucial difference you must make your own choice, and most of your key theological positions will follow from it if you’re consistent. And that includes the self-limitation of God in the original natural creation. The logic of Olsen’s reasoning is that creation is a kind of costly giving up of sovereignty for God, and we see that kind of thought prominently in the modern TE literature, with its strong tendency towards kenoticism, conservationism, Open Theism and Theistic Personalism – if you’re unclear on what these are, search the blog and settle down for a long read!

But you’ll maybe be familiar with the “adolescent child” analogy of John Haught, Darrel Falk etc, in which God takes the risk, in self-giving love, of allowing his creation the “key of the door” of autonomy, to create itself, and make mistakes perhaps (in the case of life that means an evolutionary process based on death, competition and selfishness). God is, in this scheme, not responsible – and so cannot be acting within it as he would in concurrentism. Indeed, the extended logic necessitates that God’s primary role is in entering into the inevitable suffering creation has caused, through the Incarnation, which becomes a cosmic event in the sense that human sin is merely one symptom of an entire creation needing redemption, in effect by virtue of God’s having created it as he did… though he is somehow not responsible.

Many prominent recent writers have taken this divine limitation idea further: since God is infinite, creation must also be God’s self-limitation by his voluntary withdrawal from part of himself – the bit where an autonomous creation can do its thing free from the tyranny of coercion, stultifying design and divine determination. For creation to become more, God must inevitably become less. Note, once more, the centrality of autonomy here – the divine immanence integral to concurrentism is simply unthinkable, for what creation does is defined as what God doesn’t do, and what it is as what he isn’t.

Now this doctrine of God, and this doctrine of creation, are almost the inevitable outcomes of that one crucial metaphysical step regarding divine action. So maybe (though I’m happy to be argued out of this) it’s a necessary conclusion from Arminianism, whose foundation is that same one step. The doctrine is internally consistent (barring the incoherence of attributing freedom to inanimate creation), and undoubtedly has a certain grandeur, though it’s predominantly a sombre, even gothic, grandeur. But Olsen’s “logical necessity” aside, does it match the biblical picture of creation, which is whence I want to draw my creation doctrine?

I suggest it isn’t. From Genesis to Revelation, the predominant picture isn’t of God’s limiting himself in creation at all, but of extending himself (if that were possible), of overflowing beyond himself, and that for his own pleasure, and with a sense of abundant joy.

For a start, the language of Genesis 1 is that of sovereignty, of God’s word of power calling into being things that were not at all, but are now, and very good to boot; not of God’s shutting off parts of himself or sending them away to be free. In fact, the seventh day shows him coming to dwell and rule within his cosmos, and enjoy his realm.

In Revelation 4, the 24 elders worship the Father because “thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” This accords with the statement of sovereignty in Isaiah 46: “I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.'”

The writer of that great creation psalm, 104, sums up his account of an immanent and provident God (as responsible for death as for birth): “The glory of the Lord shall endure forever: the Lord shall rejoice in all his works.” And that’s not surprising, because elsewhere the Lord challenges Job by asking him where he was at creation while: “the morning stars sang together, and the angels shouted for joy.”

Apart from specific passages like these, the very biblical description of creation implies exertion and addition, not limitation and subtraction. A couple of years ago, in the context of a BioLogos discussion on “co-creation”, I annoyed a few people by suggesting that “creation” is a term properly reserved for God alone. Certainly the Hebrew bara is used only of God, and though it includes ex nihilo creation, it covers more. Even so, one of the two main analogies of creation is the deeply human one of the potter or artisan. As it is a major scriptural theme we are justified in drawing out the analogy.

Imagine (or better still, remember) any “creative” act: the painting of a picture, the writing of a song, the formulation of a theory, the giving of a talk, or even just the humble act of erecting a garden fence or creating a meal. All of these have a cost in terms of effort, but they are the absolute opposite of “self limitation.” Doubtless they are the product of what we are, but in a sense they increase us – we have done something that we’ve never done before, that would not have existed without us. And the universal feeling that gives us – whether we’re the palaeolithic maker of a bone flute or mammoth carving, a carpenter finishing a chair, or a software engineer producing some software, is to step back in contentment and satisfaction and … joy. The pride of workmanship is the most basic of human feelings, and it diminishes us not one jot. Rather, it can earn us applause, fame or riches. And it’s a pride born of a profound love for the thing created, and the material we work with. So why would that not also be true of God, as indeed the Bible suggests it to be?

I’ve known a few people who were never happy with even their best work – but that’s a purely psychological problem not shared by the omnipotent God. Our joy may be dampened if our work is not appreciated, or is swept away in a fire, and in that sense we can surely share something of the Lord’s grief at mankind’s sin and the despoiling of nature. But, I suggest, that is a very different thing from the idea of God’s loss and sadness in the very business of creation, for which I don’t think there’s any more warrant in Scripture than there is in common experience.

It even seems a little unhealthy to me – weren’t we intended to enjoy creation and magnify God in it, rather than dwell in it as a damaged thing achieved only at the cost of God’s becoming less than he was?


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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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7 Responses to Creation, self-limitation and joy

  1. pngarrison says:

    I don’t understand why you think that open theism follows in some sense from the arminian idea of human freedom. I don’t know what Mr. Arminius said, but is it not possible to say that human beings get a genuinely free choice to relate to God as God (judge and savior) or not, without at the same time asserting the “freedom” of electrons/nucleotides etc? Is it not possible to think that maybe at that one point we have the limited autonomy of being able to respond or not, and at the same time not assert any wider autonomy of humans and any autonomy at all for inanimate quantum energy level dwellers? Why does it have to be all one way?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi pngarrison

    Thanks for the useful question.

    Feel free to sidestep the Arminian/Open Theism link if you like – it’s not the main point of the post, but it arose from the Olsen article in which he himself links the “requirement” for God’s self-limitation to classical Arminianism as well as Open Theism. It was the self-limitation aspect I was interested in, and for which I read the Olsen piece, but since it related back to a linkage between OT and Arminiansim I’d made when approaching Open Theism from a different direction, I thought it worth including. It does, nevertheless, have some relevance because…

    The understanding of “Freedom” that Arminius proposed, in opposition of course to established Reformed ideas, was that of “autonomy”, which as far as I can see is the novel conception of freedom brought to the fore by Renaissance Humanism, as I wrote about in depth starting here.

    My argument is that once freedom is interpreted as autonomy (long before you start applying it to molecules), then wherever freedom is granted, God has to withdraw. Concurrence has no place. So freedom is gained at the expense of divine sovereignty, rather than being complementary to it as in Reformed thought or that of Aquinas. Moral evil, seen as freedom exercised contrary to God’s will, must therefore necessarily be completely divorced from God (as it is the ultimate autonomy).

    That seems to lead logically to the idea that natural evil is actually evil, and therefore also denotes the absence of God, and therefore brings creation, and not just human freedom, into the sphere of divine limitation – or natural evil wouldn’t exist.

    Creation itself, then, becomes seen as an autonomy issue, and therefore a divine limitation issue. That can stand alone without the “freedom of nature” polemic, but it’s certainly conducive to it.

    As I said, attributing these ideas to Arminius was not my principal aim here – he in fact had some very classical truths to say about creation. But he hadn’t been exposed to deep time or evolution – ie to death and suffering existing before the fall. And I do think the logic of his concept of freedom, which was “libertarian free will”, when followed through in the light of evolution, makes Open Theism very much more logical, though most Arminians will not follow it.

    In that sense it’s analogous to the way that materialism logically entails eliminative materialism (mind, choice etc are all illusions) but relatively few are rash enough to follow where the logic leads.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I have the (probably naive) impression that those (myself included) who hold there is such a thing as human free will are more Arminian than Calvinistic in that conviction. Mind you, I don’t think human free-will necessarily must exist in some scientifically accessible sense. It seems incoherent to think that science could ever access such a philosophical proposition. But in an ethical/theological/(and certainly functional) sense we are obligated to believe that it is real lest we sink into nihilism. I agree that freedom is not something we can attribute to non-sentient nature, but do you think adherence to human free-will locks one into an indissoluble contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human freedom?

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      Actually — I retract my assertion that rejection of free-will necessarily leads to nihilism. That may not follow. But it just seems to me like its not even functionally possible for somebody to live as if they didn’t have free will.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        I’m afraid the question is not as simple as “free-will” v “no-free-will”, though it’s usually presented as that to the masses. But that’s like those who say, “You Christians either believe in one God or three, so which is it to be?” The Trinity is a deeply nuanced doctrine, and so is the will.

        I don’t want to get bogged down on the issue here – I did a series of 5 posts on my viewpoint, linked above. But in brief the question is about what free will means, in detail. Many popular presentations are actually incoherent – for example people will insist it means being able to overturn all ones inclinations and do the opposite, which is impossible when you think about it, because it just means willing to go against your will.

        As a sound bite to show that one has to go beyond the superficial, here’s a quote from the archetypal “denier of free-will” (as so often claimed), John Calvin, from his treatise on the subject:

        According to these definitions, we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of will and cannot coexist with it.

        I’m only concerned here with the insistence that choice must be entirely autonomous of God, so that he must limit himself and not be involved or, necessarily, coerce the will. Classical theology maintains that is not so – the will can be real and yet God very present in what we do. Arminian theology, by equating freedom with absolute independence from God’s influence, sees things differently. I contend that that inherently argues for God’s self-limitation, though it took 400 years and deep time for that move to be made in earnest.

  4. Ian Thompson says:

    A post by Thomas Jay Oord on randomness and open theism, at here.
    Usually I think he has something goods to say.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ian

      Oord certainly states the dichotomy between two opposed theological positions as clearly as anyone else I’ve read.

      At root, though, the question still bottoms out in at least two problems:
      (a) “Freedom” and “spontaneity” are terms to do with volition, and are only misleadingly applied to non-volitional agents (like molecules), and even to volitional agents (like us) because “chance” is something that restricts our choices, rather than enhancing them. Colloquially, “spontaneous” has connotations of choosing to do unexpected stuff with some sense of joy and liberty – in Oord’s context it actually means things happening outside of any organising principle at all, even if the overall pattern is roughly predictable.
      (b) The Bible clearly sides with Augustine, Calvin and Wesley in attributing chance events such as the casting of lots to God’s providence. So a “vote” for such a chance-orientated theology requires in addition a radical revision of the whole of ones theology, including ones doctrine of God.

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