Skip to content

The Freedom that Can do no Other

Recently Paul Molnar and I debated a bit about the nature of divine freedom. I think Alan Lewis puts the issue perfectly in his amazing book, Between Cross and Resurrection:

“God is free, not as one who could do otherwise, but as the one above all who can do no other. Self-bound to one sole way of being, God is committed, necessarily but thus freely, to the cognate course of action. God’s lordship in bowing to the contradiction of the godless cross and godforsaken grace does not reside, as Barth occasionally and illogically asserts, in a prior self-sufficiency and secure immutability, but — as he more often understood and later followers more emphatically underscored — in the uncoerced impulse to self-consistency: love’s determination not to be deflected from its purposes but to flourish and perfect itself through willing self-surrender. What judges us as burdensome imperative illuminates God as free but binding indicative: the truth — for our Creator and therefore for ourselves — that only one who gives up life discovers and fulfills it. On such a basis alone can we understand how the cross and grave truly reveal God’s inmost triune life.” (p. 211-12)

God’s freedom consists not in an abyss of infinite potentiality, in an endless array of unconstrained options that are open to God. No, God’s freedom simply is what we behold in the event of Jesus’ apocalypse: his cross, burial, and resurrection. God is not free in that God could have done other than this. God is free in that God did in fact do this thing. The resurrection is God’s freedom. Any definition other than this must, inevitably find its source of theological knowledge somewhere other than in God in Christ.


  1. Tim F. wrote:

    Hi, Halden,

    I’ve been thinking about the debate you mention, and I was wondering what you think about Aquinas’s description of the incarnation as “fitting.” This preserves God’s transcendence (he didn’t have to create or save us), but it makes sense, given who he is, that he does. This does not require a postulating of potentiality in God. Just the opposite, in fact–that God is completely and fully himself with or without us (there is no potentiality in fullness). Given that trinitarian fullness, however, God does in fact come to us in Jesus Christ by creating and redeeming us.


    Tim F.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Tim, have you ever read Herbert McCabe? His approach to these issues is done through Aquinas, and he reaches conclusions that are strikingly similar to Lewis’s and Barth’s. Personally I find Aquinas to be so complex (as the legion of ‘Thomisms’ attests) that I am unsure of how to really parse his position on things half of the time.

    With Jenson I am comfortable saying that indeed, God could have been the God that God is without us. But since God has not done that, we can say absolutely nothing further than that. To even try to do so would be the most absurd sort of speculation, indeed it would not be Christian theology in any meaningful sense.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’m sympathetic to where you are going here, but I still have problems with formulations like: “Self-bound to one sole way of being, God is committed, necessarily but thus freely, to the cognate course of action” have any actual meaning in the English language. What does it mean to be committed “necessarily but thus freely.” Stating a contradiction boldly or in italics does not make it any more lucid. I still think this sort of vocabulary, while well intended in its movement beyond the privileging of possibility and potentiality, is still somewhat lacking, in that retains a kind of anthropomorphism about God’s choice or self-determination. Hart has a really good quote about this, but I don’t have the book with me. I’ll have to try to dig it up later. For my money, the kind of actualism espoused by the Fathers (and helpfully explicated in a new addition to the blogosphere still provides the most lucid and compelling account of this. I still think Hart is as close as any modern thinker has gotten towards a compelling treatment of these issues.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    It’s interesting, a few years back, right when Hart’s book came out I ended up reading it, this book by Alan Lewis, and Oliver Davies’ A Theology of Compassion all at once. Someday I’m going to write something about all three of the books that looks at them as all trying to do something very fundamentally similar, but each with slightly different cadences.

    All of them are, on some level working towards an intensely theological and post-metaphysical ontology with the issue of divine-human communion, selfhood, identity, and the nature of salvation being at the center of their projects. There are some key differences, largely oriented around issues of divine impassibility and the relationship between God’s being and history. But, the final view of who God is and the identity of humanity in relation to God, and even the ultimate vision of the God-World relationship ends up at a strikingly similar place. And the common thread running through all of them is Balthasar – a point I find most interesting indeed.

    What I think we have in these three books are three brilliant thinkers doing very similar things, and indeed, their differences might largely be due to their ecclesial locations (Hart-Orthodox, Davies-Catholic, Lewis-Reformed). All of this to say, that I think in the context of Lewis’s book, even following the quote mentioned above, he addresses some of the concerns you raise, even though perhaps, how he will want to phrase them will not ultimately be satisfactory to you.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Tim F. wrote:


    I have read very little McCabe and not all on this particular topic.

    Yes, Thomas is complex, but surely these issues we’re addressing are the proper place for that complexity to be most germane.

    Much of this depends on the “is” you keep using (and we all must use). Is it simply an (univocal) equation of what we know with what is God’s reality? The problem is that we as finite creatures can’t grasp that “is” because it’s simple, eternal, and not composite. God’s “is” is not the same as a univocal (static) “is” because God’s eternity/self is, at least in the best way we can understand it, an overflow of Triune love and action.

    What we do know is God’s true self, (i.e. we truly encounter God) but certainly our knowledge of God is not equatable with his being, EVEN if our limited knowledge is properly true knowledge of him. To equate the two is do what Molnar warns of–to make God’s being dependent on creation. Furthermore, this does not require one to posit a “gap” between us and God (only a real distinction/difference), because God’s plentitude (which is God himself) crosses any distance, difference, or lack between us and him while not negating that difference. As Augustine says, God is more internal/intimate to me than I am to myself.


    Tim F.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Just as an aside, convenientia (fittingness) is one of the most indispensable theological concepts I can think of. It totally opened up my thinking about a lot of these issues, or rather it clarified some of my intuitions and allowed me to speak about them more clearly.

    I knew something about that quote reeked of Calvinism… (I’m kidding :-) ).

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Ahh, Tim now you sound like a theological Bill Clinton. It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is! : )

    But seriously, I think that McCabe would be very germane to how to negotiate this debate.

    I would posit a distinction, though. I am not saying that God’s being is identical with our knowledge of God. Rather God’s being is identical with God’s self-revelation in Christ. It is what Jungel would call God’s “self-interpretation” or “reiteration”. It is Christ himself, the self-revelation of the Triune God, who is inexhaustible. It is Christ himself who we cannot univocally equate with our notions and knowledge of God.

    Indeed we cannot “grasp” God’s reality, but my point is that that reality is nothing other than the resurrected, crucified Jesus whom we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands. It is that man, this one distinct person himself, not something behind him that is the mystery of God which we can never apprehend. This is not to exalt our knowledge to correspond univocally with God, only to locate the mystery of God in the right place. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The Jew from Nazareth is the Mystery of God; we cannot locate that mystery anywhere else.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    To add to Tim, I would say, following Hart, that God is in some sense that gap, that interval, the possibility of difference itself.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I like your most recent formulation, but I think to be properly trinitarian we have to preserve the unknowable and ineffable God who is nonetheless revealed to us in Christ. What I’m saying is that we must preserve a kind of uncollapsible interval there, in order to avoid making the Father dispensable in light of the Son. You definitely grasp this, I’m just trying to flesh out some of my own thoughts here. This is in keeping with the idea that true knowledge and communion with God is not the collapse of the interval of distance, but inhabiting it properly as beauty, gift and harmony.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I guess to my thinking, the interval is located within the person of Christ himself. The infinite qualitative difference between divinity and humanity is located within an even greater unity in the person of Jesus. Therein is the ineffable mystery of God whose depths are beyond us finding out.

    Obviously here we need to spell out a theology of union with Christ/particiaption in God to render all of this coherent. And of course such a theology must be trinitarian throughout. It is the Spirit who unites us to Christ in the unio mystica through his sacramental and caritative grace which actualizes our union with Christ. And in being united with Christ we participate in his relationship to the Father. The Father cannot be dispensable, the Father is the goal towards which any and all Christocentricism is directed: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18)

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    My thoughts exactly (especially re: John 1:18). It would be interesting to think on this intra-Christic interval (of human and divine) and how it relates to the trinitarian relationship between Father and Son (also in some sense an interval between human and divine). I’m sure someone thought this through more clearly than I am currently right now.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    It again speaks of this kind of “hypermediation” you’ve mentioned before. We have these various levels, or sectors, or echoes of the interplay of trancendental unity and differentiation wherein there is neither a reduction to sameness, nor the instantiation of individuated identities that could be construed in isolation.

    While some have gotten sick of the word, I still think that perichoresis is a pretty important thing to consider in this regard.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Perichoresis is precisely what came to mind as I began to reflect on this after hitting submit comment. That sort of intrinsic dynamism that can be somewhat difficult to capture rhetorically, especially in an ad hoc treatment. I would add that epektasis is an equally important concept, as it preserves this idea, not of a static, complete knowledge of God, but as our participation in his perichoresis as that of being drawn ever foward, even that this is the fullness of the beatific vision. Hart characterizes this (Nyssan idea) beautifully.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  14. Tim F. wrote:


    I am mostly in agreement here. I do think, however, that we must always attend to our human ways of predicating these things of God. I know McCabe would be supportive of this! :-)

    When you say that God’s being is identical with God’s revelation in Jesus, that is not the same use of “identical” as saying Tim is identical to himself or that Tim interprets himself or reiterates himself. So, this identity between God and his revelation is subject to analogical predication. Thus, even your locating of this revelation (in that man Jesus) is on a particular side of the infinite qualitative difference. (What does it mean to “locate” a mystery as you are [rightly] pressed to say?) I’m sure you’re not denying this, but I think that it’s worthy to note and reflect more on.

    Also, I want to make a distinction between locating the mystery somewhere else and finding this particular mystery present in other things. That is a very important distinction, in my view.



    Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  15. Chris wrote:

    Great discussion going on here in the comments. I think it started off right, too — with St. Thomas. God is free to be exactly who God is, nothing less, nothing more. A problem may arise, however, when the transcendent is collapsed into the immanent, as I understand Halden’s statement above: “…my point is that that reality is nothing other than the resurrected, crucified Jesus whom we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands.” How does this avoid Rahner’s (in my view) mistake (“‘the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity’ and vice versa”)? Indeed, any qualifications like “this is not to exalt our knowledge to correspond univocally with God” are directly contradictory to aformentioned premise.

    Why this modern tendency? What advantage does it have?

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Chris, on this issue of “collapsing” the immanent into the economic, I suggest that you check out the discussing between myself and Molnar that I have linked above.

    The key point I was trying to express above is that God’s revelation in Christ is itself the mystery of God. To search for the reality of God somewhere behind that is posit another source of knowledge about God other than Christ, something which certainly has a long pedigree in the tradition, but which I reject along with Barth. But, to infer as you do (and as Tim sort of did earlier) that this somehow equates God’s self-revelation with our knowledge of God is to make a step that I certainly did not make.

    God’s revelation is simultaneously God’s unveiling and veiling of Godself. In revealing, God hides and in hiding God reveals. This reality is not something behind Christ, but precisely what happens in Christ and nowhere else (cf. John 1:18 discussed above). To say that is not to say that we have apprehended that reality, or that our knowledge and notions conform to it univocally. In reality ,it insists that our thoughts never are fully appropriate to the reality of God’s revelation. That is why we continue to return, ever and again to the Word of God that comes to us from outside in Christ, which is always disruptive, destructive, and recreative.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    Halden, how do you feel about creation itself, and especially God direct participation in it through the election of Israel, etc., being part of what we might call “God revealed in Christ” in that “through him all things were made, an apart from him nothing was made that has been made.” I realize that it’s possible to say that the fall somehow radically altered the revelatory character of creation (obscured it) to which I would agree, but I would still want to maintain that the modes of revelation which are not explicitly Christic, as in God’s ministry in Israel, the law written on our hearts, etc. still fall under the umbrella of what you mean by God revealed in Christ. I think you probably agree… I’m just trying to illustrate to those concerned that your formulation is not a reductive one so long as one has a proper theology to support it (i.e. understands both the Son and the other two persons correctly). In other words, Christ is (among other things) THE principle by which God has made himself known to us even in the act of making us, even historically prior to Christ’s birth as a man. There is a sense in which the birds chirping outside of my window are God’s revelation of himself to us in Christ.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think I disagree, or at least I don’t want to. Though I’d have to really think about how to articulate the matter. I think Balthasar is onto something with Christ as the concrete universal.

    But, for me it is important to stress that insofar as creation reveals God, this takes place dynamically, by virtue of God’s action in Christ. Nature does not, in itself, have revelatory power. It become revelatory in the event of God comandeering it in Christ to bear witness to him.

    I also think that we need to distinguish between creation’s inherent doxological structure and its potential to be revelatory. The example of birds chirping seems, to me, more aptly described as creation (wittingly or not) praising God. This, however is not strictly the same as being revelatory of God.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    My participatory ontology makes it impossible for anything like “nature in itself” to exist. Since all things exist at God’s pleasure, necessarily so, he has no need of commandeering them. Their mere presence, even as sinful and corrupt, bears witness to his glory simply in that they they are. I also don’t see how praising God could not be revelatory of him, for the same reason. Like I said, by him all things were made. If I made something, especially something out of nothing, it would necessarily be revelatory of me.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  20. Chris wrote:

    Yes. Creation as utterly distinct yet utterly dependent and thus utterly reflective. The Christ event (if you will) is certainly necessary and pivotal, as Halden wants to say. But its shape was anything but necessary—if we look at time, God’s relationship to it, but not withought considering the potentiality and contingency of the future.

    In other words, it’s one thing to say that “God’s freedom simply is what we behold in the event of Jesus’ apocalypse: his cross, burial, and resurrection”; but it’s quite another to say: “God is not free in that God could have done other than this.” This is true, of course, looking backward, but not looking forward.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  21. Hill wrote:

    Chris, have you read Hart on the Rahner’s axiom? I think he is able to affirm pretty much everything you want to while holding it (the axiom) to be indispensable. If you haven’t, take a look, if you have, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    @ Hill’s earlier comment:

    I wonder if the repeated “necessarily” phrases you use are simply given datums. I don’t see how a view of God as creator requires one to assert that therefore creation is naturally revelatory of God. The assertion of God as creator implies nothing other than that God simply is the creator. Your corollary is appended and comes from other theological priorities about the nature of creation, sin, grace, etc. This isn’t to say that its wrong, only that it doesn’t necessarily follow. Likewise it isn’t necessarily the case that praise is naturally revelatory of God. Praise is simply praise, it may not give us more knowledge of or about God.

    I think it is possible to meaningfully talk about “nature in itself” if our concept of creation is one in which creation is given its being by God as a distinct and particular reality. Nature can be considered “in itself” because it has a sort of created integrity, its own distinctive reality that is fundamentally other than the reality of God. I’m wary of blurring the God-World distinction too much through the use of a participatory ontology. Certainly it is held in being though is relation to God, but that is not the same thing as saying that creation, by virtue of its existence participates in God’s life “naturally.” That is quite a different claim altogether. (See Jamie Smith’s article on Milbank’s ontology of participation and the idea of a covenantal ontology in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition for more on this whole issue)

    Maybe this all takes us back to nature-grace issues, but I can’t go for a notion that since God is the creator he has no need to radically intervene in the world, since, by virtue of the world’s creation it has a certain ontological status of beatitude always already built into it. I have no stake in a notion of “pure nature”, but I don’t think we can dispense with the dynamic nature of grace. Grace is not just always already there. Grace happens, and it happens in Christ. Grace intervenes, it does not merely supervene. Grace is extra nos before it is en nobis.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  23. It all comes back to Tim’s point about “is.” This is no bit of sophistry but something that Aristotle, Aquinas, and Wittgenstein all wrestled with. There is more than one relationship between subject and object denoted by “is” and the implications to be drawn out from any statement must attend to how “is” has been used. The claim that “the revelation of God in Christ is the divine mystery” is under interpretted just to the extent that “is” has not been interrogated. Depending on how one takes “is” to function such a statement is perfectlly consistent with the collapse of the immanent Trinity into the economic or not, just as Hart has pointed out that Rahner’s maxim is liable to two very different interpretations (precisely concerning “is”).

    It also appears to me that “contigency” – in the sense feared by those who think the classical distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity introduces arbitrary potentiality between God’s eternal identity and God for us in Christ – is underdetermined. Contigency may mean that it could have been otherwise, as with Ben Myer’s concern over Ockham’s claim that God could have been incarnate in this form or that, or could be as Burrell has taught us to see that what is the case may not have been at all. In Burrell’s sense both creation and Incarnation may be contingent in that God may have done neither, but that does not imply that God may have fittingly become incarnate as anything or anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth. Such an ex nihilo notion of contigency does not introduce the feared “arbitrary potentiality” between the eternal God and His manifestation in time as some fear. Indeed, for some such as Bonaventure and various Eastern thinkers once the contigency of creation is introduced than its perfection in the Incarnation is, in some sense, inevitable. Thus we should recognize more than differentiation even between Aquinas and Ockham, but even of those who bind the economies of creation and salvation more tightly together than Aquinas. For neither Aquinas nor Bonaventur is the contigency of creation or incarnation such that he may have as fittingly done any other way, but that God as perfectly replete in Himself need not create at all.


    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    I think following Hart, that everything I’ve considered necessary, is a result of creation ex nihilo. Additionally, in him we live and move and have our being. I don’t disagree with the essence your concerns (God-world distinction, etc), but I think they can all be addressed most satisfactorily (and without making compromises) within the traditional participatory framework and the analogia entis. My point about nature in itself is that nature in itself simply can’t exist. It might be a useful heuristic construct, but it is ultimately an ontological fiction. It is for this reason that I just can’t get in to this notion of radical intervention or comandeering. That’s just not my understanding of the way God relates to the world. It may be in some sense the perception of the radical sinner, but in the light of grace, I think we are able to see it as something closer to what it truely is. I just think it comes to close of this analogy of the parents who went out of town for the weekend, came back to find their house on fire as a result of a wild party thrown by the kids, and had to go to extreme measures to put the fire out and rebuild the house. In A Suffering Fools new blog, he had a brilliant formulation that sums up exactly how I feel about creation: “Indeed their [creature's] existence is utterly exhuasted on the theophanic function.” This is, of course, deeply related to sin as privatio boni.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  25. Please excuse my haste. Where I wrote about “subject and object” I meant “subject and predicate.”

    Also, Aquinas’ treatment of the Hypostatic Union in the Summa is a profound example of the importance of rendering explicit our specific uses of the term “is.”


    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  26. Hill wrote:

    I always had a visceral attachment to Bill Clinton. Now I understand why.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  27. Chris wrote:


    I’m somewhat familiar with Hart’s critique and affirmation, and, given his qualifications, I too can say with him: “what Rahner’s maxim describes is the necessary shape of all theological rationality” (The Beauty of the Infinite p. 156 ff). But Hart also warns against any attempts to translate Rahner’s maxim into fuller theological discourse. Now what? Doesn’t that effectively silence Rahner? So, his maxim is good, but once we start to unpack it, we err.

    Incidentally, Bavinck can help in this regard: “The ontological trinity is reflected in the economic trinity.” And this brings us to perichoresis, which, with Halden, I think is still a pretty important concept to consider. God is what he does (and vice versa), and his revelation of himself in history is as true for him in that moment as it is for him “in eternity.” But it’s not exhaustive.

    And thus my critique of “God is not free in that God could have done other than this”; it does seem to smack of defining the immanent in terms of the economic, which, of course, in the end makes the Creator dependent upon the creature.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  28. Hill wrote:

    I totally agree with you Chris.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  29. Halden wrote:

    This conversation has ballooned into something bigger than I can respond to if I hope to keep my job, but in response to you final comment, Chris, I think your reticence to define “the immanent in terms of the economic” is quite misguided. How else could we even begin to describe God except on the basis of what God has revealed in the economy of salvation? We have absolutely nothing by which to define the immanent except the economic. There is no other source of knowledge about God other than what God has revealed in being God-with-us. There is certainly the question about how “wide” this revelation in Christ goes, as Hill and I have been talking about. But this is not an issue of immanent versus economic, it is merely about how broad that economy is.

    I agree with you that what God has revealed in the economy of salvation is not exhaustive of God’s being, but we can only affirm that on the basis of the fact that what is shown to is as inexhaustible is is what God has revealed: Jesus Christ. We can never apprehend to fullness of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, the incarnate Word. The fullness of God, God’s supreme plentitude is not to be found beyond what God has revealed in the economy of salvation (we can’t know more about God than what God gives us to know), it is instead found precisely in what is revealed in Christ. It is Jesus himself who is the inexhaustible reality of God that we are given to know: “In him the fullness of Godhead dwells bodily.” The infinite depth, the unpiercable moreness of God’s reality is not to be sought behind God’s revelation in Christ — we can’t get behind it — rather it is to be sought precisely in the historical reality of Christ. It is the man Jesus himself who is inexhaustible to us.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  30. Zach wrote:

    I dropped a stone out of my window. It fell to the ground. It could do no other. This is freedom?

    A word so stripped of meaning is without any usefulness.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  31. Chris wrote:

    Halden, I’m all for being Christocentric. That’s why my reasoning here has left me somewhat uncomfortable; I don’t mean to diminish Christ in any way. You’ve rightly pinpointed the place at which we most assuredly agree: “It is Jesus himself who is the inexhaustible reality of God that we are given to know: ‘In him the fullness of Godhead dwells bodily.’”

    My reticence purely revolves around the sneaking suspicion I have that defining the immanent in terms of the economic, such that the former is subsumed in the latter, leads to the Creator’s dependence upon that which he has created.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    Then how else would we define the immanent? Do we just posit some sort of apophatic reality because we feel we must? I’m not satisfied by that.

    And this is an honest question, I’m not seeking to bait here. I just don’t know how we could say anything about the immanent Trinity except by way of the economic.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  33. Hill wrote:

    I think, as you hinted at earlier Halden, the issue may actually be how we define the economic. I think your point is an important one, and my feeling is that most of the people concerned with your position are because they take you to mean that God is revealed exhaustively, insofar as he is revealed at all, in the historical life of the man Jesus Christ, in a very limited sense. You may or may not actually intend this. What I’ve been trying to suggest is that there is a way in which the life of Christ and his coming is actually the motivating principle by which all of creation begins to speak to us about God’s glory, in a way not “of itself” but rather as we are revealed to be made in his image and creation made for us. I think this allows for some of the more “speculative” ideas about the Trinity to be reconciled with your concern (which I take to be a reformulation of Rahner’s maxim). You may not agree completely with that completely. I think there is just some concern with being overly reductive here, as in “only the words Christ spoke on earth and the actions he took constitute the fullness of revelation.” I’m not attributing that to you, but there is some ambiguity in what we mean by “the life of Christ” being the exhaustive content of revelation. It’s possible that Jesus of Nazareth literally instructed John about everything he wrote in the prologue to his Gospel, but I think that to be highly unlikely. That’s just one example of a “thicker” description of the way in which God is revealed to us in Christ being somewhat more complex.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  34. Chris wrote:

    Hill, you’ve spoken of my concern quite well. I also think it’s important to see how some of what was originally posted here, maybe given its ambiguity, does seem to work against God’s aseity.

    If the immanent is defined (and not reflected, per Bavinck, and the majority of historical theology proper) by the economic, then God must create the world and become incarnate in order to become who he really and truly is. God the immanent (or ontological) Trinity realizes himself through history. Note Hart on this:

    “If the identity of the immanent Trinity with the economic is taken to mean that history is the theater within which God — as absolute mind, or process, or divine event — finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion (however vigorously the theologian might deny the implication) that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God), so that God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity (The Beauty…, 157).


    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  35. Chris wrote:

    So, then, to Halden’s good question: “How else would we define the immanent? Do we just posit some sort of apophatic reality because we feel we must?”

    I suggest that we must cling to the ineffable. Yet, surely, we can speak positively with respect to the immanent Trinity, as the statement “the ontological Trinity is reflected in the economic Trinity” allows. Nonetheless, God’s ineffability is a perfectly acceptable (if not obligatory) presupposition, with the positive discussion of how the economic Trinity reflects the immanent Trinity supplementing that. The unity of God’s nature, in other words, is an article of faith, coupled always with the insistence on the absolute unknowability of the divine essence.

    Thus, I’m instructed by the Cappadocians, who pushed the relation between the ontological and economic as far as they could go without (I think) getting into trouble: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” writes Gregory of Nazianzus. So, I’m with you, Halden, when you insist that our knowledge of God has its basis in the economy of salvation: we cannot know what God is, only that he is, because he has revealed himself—in redemptive history—as Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 6:23 am | Permalink
  36. Halden,

    It seems to me that you consistently take “is” to be that of Leibniz’s strict identity. There is nothing at all inconsistent with claiming that the economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and that we only know the Immanent Trinity by way of the esconomic and yet positing that one is the manifestation in time of the other which is eternally actual.

    This is, of course, no argument against your position, but it, and I think comments above about differnt types of contigency, does challenge your arguments against the traditional view.

    I think linguistic Thomists like McCabe and Burrell would agree with me here.


    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  37. Hill wrote:

    I think ASFs point “is” actually pretty crucial here, especially to what Chris has said vis-a-vis Hart. I take Hart to be meaning, by Rahner’s maxim, something like “there is only one Trinity,” not that there is a strict and exhaustive interconvertability between what we call the economic and immanent trinities (which is necessarily a construct). This basically makes the maxim something like the idea of “reflection” like you have mentioned, Chris.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  38. Halden wrote:

    @ SF:

    It was never my intention to say that a view such as the one you describe is inconsistent, clearly it is consistent, but that does not in itself make it correct.

    I do not however, subscribe to Leibniz’s notion of of strict identity, or what Ricouer would call idem identitiy – an identity of whatness, of sameness. In contrast to idem identity, we should understand the identity of God by way of ipse identity, or an identity of selfhood, what Ricouer calls narrative identity. In the former notion (which I think you fear I hold) the crucial aspect of the identity between economic and immanent Trinity would be a unity of whatness; in other words we would be saying that the totality of what God is is identical with what God has given us of Godself in the economy. That is not my view. On a notion of narrative, or ipse identity, the identity between the immanent and economic Trinity has to do with the who-ness, not the whatness of God. It posits not that what is given to us in Christ is simply all there is to God’s being, but rather that there is simply no other, no other identities, no other ‘who’s’ in God than who is revealed in Christ (which of course should not be taken as a Christomonism, the identity that is revealed in Christ is always, and everywhere the Triune identity).

    In one sense we have to say that the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity is a somewhat problematic way of talking about God at all. There are not two trinities. Ultimately there is just the reality of the triune God and our experience of that God taking us into the divine life through Christ and the Spirit. The impulse between the notion of differentiating the economic and immanent Trinity is correct, insofar as it is simply trying to say that the triune God is infinite, the Trinitarian being cannot be circumscribed. But the identity of God, the who-ness of God is never to be partitioned. God always is who God is and never anything else. The economic-immanent distinction, it seems to me must always and only be quantitative rather than qualititaive. There is always “more” to God than what we have come to know, but that “more” is always more of the same.

    @ Chris:

    I think our positions are close, but the apophaticism you want to cling to, I think I want to redefine in a more Christological way. It is not that the divine essence is unknowable (I actually don’t think Scripture will allow us to say that), it is rather that the Trinitiarian reality revealed in Christ is inexhaustible, beyond finding out. To simply posit, as you do an “insistence on the absolute unknowability of the divine essence” I feel that we are inevitably getting our theological norms from somewhere other than what God has revealed, and as such I’m not comfortable with that formulation.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  39. Chris wrote:

    I think I know where you’re coming, Halden, and I can agree. Scripture speaks of divine identity (so Bauckham), but not so much about Greek philosophical notions of ousias and whatnot. In other words, it concerns itself with who God is, not what he is.

    Yet this doesn’t mean the what is irrelevant, and thus I think the Cappadocians were on to something when they insisted on essential unknowability. It’s intriguing to think of what that might look like redefined christologically, though.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  40. Hill wrote:

    We are getting dangerously close to the “but that’s Greek philosophy, not Christianity” red herring, which is liable to get me all riled up. It’s worth pointing out that “logos” is a “Greek philosophical notion” not unlike “ousias and what not.” I was recently rereading Acts 17, and the power of this passage absolutely overwhelmed me:

    23For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

    24God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

    25Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

    26And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

    27That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

    28For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

    Among other things, it is worth noting here that Paul is outright confirming in the most direct and explicit way possible one of the central insights of Greek philosophy (or poetry if you will), even if they may have worshipped the unknown God ignorantly, as Paul says, they nonetheless arrived at some measure of truth about him. My point isn’t to say that there is indeed some principle by which we might understand God that was not revealed by him (this would be impossible), just that some of the attempts to delineate what these principles are and are not are often completely arbitrary, even at odds with the witness of scripture.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  41. Chris wrote:

    Hill, note that I don’t ever intend to invoke “Greek philosophical notions” as a negative, per se. I know many other folks do, but I simply see this all for what it is: the battles fought in the third and fourth centures, for example, were not those of the first century.

    Your point above is well taken.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
  42. Hill wrote:

    I realized after posting that I may have come across as impugning you, Chris, when I didn’t intend it. My post was more of something that has been on my mind pretty intensely for the past few months, and it sort of coalesced. I… ehem… “commandeered” your formulation to make my point, but from your posts above, I think we agree substantially on many of these points.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  43. Good discussion.

    I noticed that the impetus was to be Christological, but there were only hints of how the divine and human relate *in* Christ. That seems to be the place to look to properly explicate the relationship, particularly in the Passion and then the historical material on dyo-thelitism/energism and mono-thelitism/energism.

    Part of the problem with the initial material on freedom is that it only moves us to one end of a spectrum of a very old saw. The saw is freedom and goodness and one has to be parred down to accomodate the other. Freedom is doesn’t entail doing otherwise so one’s actions can be determined, necessary, etc. and yet free. But that doesn’t fit very well with creation ex nihilo, not to mention the gratuity of redemption as others here have worried. And it leaves us open to some very nasty atheistic objections-why not make everyone perfect from the get go? It seems we are still dealing with Origen-people will be free but not good, or good but not free.

    I would suggest a way out is to reject the assumption that the good is simple. If the good is simple then choosing otherwise would imply choosing something bad. But if it is not simple, then choosing otherwise for God in creation, Christ in the Passion, and the Saints in heaven wouldn’t endanger impeccability and it wouldn’t be opposed to any fixity in natural goodness and so would stave off the worries about voluntarism.

    As for the economia and theologia with respect to the Trinity, I’d suggest that some worries might be put to rest without Rahner’s rule and without positing a hidden deity. If I am present in my actions, then my actions are my own. They reveal me but they do not exhaust me, which explains why Behaviorism had such a short intellectual life span. Likewise, the activities of God genuinely reveal the divine persons whose acts they are but since no activity is “cut off” from its source, there is no danger of a hidden 2nd deity and no need to think that the economic exhausts the theological. There is no need to externalize or functionalize deity. Consequently there is plenty of room for a Cappadocian apopahticism and cataphaticism.

    These are just my two cents. I’d appreciate your gentlemen’s comments.

    Saturday, August 9, 2008 at 11:31 pm | Permalink
  44. ‘It’s worth pointing out that “logos” is a “Greek philosophical notion” not unlike “ousias and what not.” ‘


    In Greek philosophy, is “logos” associated with a person or a principle or power? In Patristic theology, is Logos first associated with a Person or with a power?

    The answer to that should highlight the difference between Greek philosophy and Patristic Christianity. Just because Christians use a similar or identical terminology doesn’t amount to the importation of the philosophical content that the term symbolizes in pagan philosophy.

    To the author of the post,
    “God is not free in that God could have done other than this.”

    It sounds like the type of freedom that is being described here in the post is that God’s freedom consists in being free *from* choice.


    Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  45. Hill wrote:

    Photios, I totally agree with you. My point is simply that Christian theology, even some of its most essential formulations, cannot be isolated from the intellectual context in which it emerged. I still affirm that the fullness of the Christian vision is utterly unique, but God found it fitting to reveal himself in Christ in a specifically Hellenic context, and so using similiarity with Greek philosophy as a kind of litmus test for good and bad theology fails from the outset. I think Acts shows conclusively that the witness of the New Testament in many ways completes what was known “ignorantly” but in some veiled measure by the Gentiles. There is a tendency to do reactive theology against “natural theology” or “Greek philosophy” that leads to a lot of errors regarding the authentic teaching and thinking of both Scripture and the church.

    Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. The Circularity of Dialectic « Energetic Procession on Saturday, August 9, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    [...] take a look at the discussions here and here. Round and round they [...]

Switch to our mobile site