Is there potentiality in God?

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Here's another oldie, this one only from about a year ago, 13 March 2003.

Some people say yes, but can there be if theological determinism is true? The idea is that if God stands behind every action in some way, good or evil, then there cannot be potentiality in God. It�s somehow inappropriate to say that something different could have happened, I could have done something different, etc. I am the one who did it, and I am responsible for doing it, but could it have been different if God stands behind it in some fundamental sense? Many Reformed thinkers will say no. There is no potentiality in God.

I disagree with the conclusion, though I think the general picture behind it is correct. To get a sense of why I think the fundamental picture behind it is correct, read through chapter 10 of Isaiah�s prophecy and Peter�s speeched in Acts 2 and Acts 4. Evil actions are described � first the king of Assyria and his attack on God�s people, then Judas� betrayal of Jesus and the Jewish leaders� follow-through that led to his being put to death. These are evil actions. There�s no question about that in the minds of Isaiah (who gave the prophecy from God but presumably through his own mind and ways of expressing things, including through his own divinely inspired theological reflection), Peter (who gave the speech in the Acts narrative), and Luke (who gave us the Acts narrative). These people are blamed by the biblical writers for their evil actions. However, it�s also true that God stands behind these events. The actions of Judas and the Jewish leaders, while evil, were necessary for God�s plan of salvation. They are, in effect, part of that plan. Similarly, the actions of the Assyrian king are evil but are part of God�s process of judging Israel. Isaiah goes so far as to call him a tool in God�s hands, and yet somehow he�s responsible for what he did! There is a mystery here. I�m not trying to sort it out, but its background is important for this issue.

Now about the conclusion many Reformed thinkers draw � does this mean that only one thing is possible? After all, God has his one plan, which includes evil things in it, so we can�t insist that the evil things are not part of God�s plan and say that they allow for the various possibilities. If it�s possible that God can in some way stand behind evil actions without himself being morally responsible for the evil people do, then we don�t need to insist on human free action as something outside God�s control. Then there really only needs to be one possible outcome, and it seems as if there aren�t real possibilities. I once thought this was a good argument, but I�m now convinced that it�s not. The biblical data from above points us one way. What you�ll find is another set of passages in tension with the ones above, pushing us in a different direction. First let�s consider those, and then we�ll move on to discuss the philosophical implications.

First, the biblical data � II Kings 13:14-19 and the parallel accounts in Matthew 11:20-24 and Luke 10:13-15. In the II Kings account, Elisha makes a startling claim to King Joash of Israel. He struck the ground three times with arrows when Elisha told him to strike the ground without telling him a set number (or, if C.F. Keil is correct in what he argues is the better translation, perhaps Joash fired three arrows at the ground when Elisha simply told him to fire them without saying to stop � the difference matters little for this purpose). Lots of theological issues come up here, but they don�t significantly affect my simple point. If Joash had done something differently, something different would have happened. Was it inappropriate for Elisha to point this out? He�s the prophet of God. Presumably everything he says in the prophetic mode is correct, and this is certainly in the prophetic mode. According to Deuteronomy 18:20-22, a prophet spoke words that were false was to be considered a false prophet. No words were to be spoken as prophecy unless they were from God. [side note: Deuteronomy is often mentioned by scholars as having shaped the theology of the writer/compiler of Kings (even the most liberal scholars think the theology of the one is involved in the theology of the other, though they just reverse the order of which influenced which). So there�s little to argue here in putting one text against the other as if they are different views that conflict.] So the assumption is that God is telling Joash that if he had done something different, God would have done something different.

Now on to Jesus� example. Matthew sets this up by informing us that Jesus �began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.� The form of this denouncing is very similar to Elisha�s rebuke to Joash. He tells the cites of Chorazin and Bethsaida that if the mighty works that had been done in them had been done in Tyre and Sidon, Tyre and Sidon �would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you that it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.� Similarly, the same is said of Capernaum and the works in it if they had been done in wicked Sodom of Genesis 18-19. If Sodom had seen such works, it would still be around. This isn�t exactly parallel to the Kings example. That was an action of a man that led to a different response from God. This is an action of God that would have led to a different response among people (with the result affecting the issue of judgment in some way, whether by allowing more people in God�s kingdom or by changing the severity of judgment in some way). So God could have done something different. If he had, some major difference would have occurred, affecting lots of people in incredibly significant ways.

Now the philosophical conundrum � if the biblical record tells us there are alternate possibilities, does that mean something went wrong in my understanding of the passages above? I don�t think so. I want to affirm that God could have done different things, leading to very different consequences. It�s ok to say that God could have done them, even though God must have had reasons not to. Those reasons can be thought of either in moral ways, in which case it would have been bad for God to do other than what he did do, or in terms of general possibility, in which case it would have impossible for God to do both that and something else that God intended to do one way or the other. This suggests that in some important way, it really wasn�t possible for God to do the other thing. This is what my philosophical reasoning leads me to. Unless it went wrong, I seem to have a hard time working into that the plain evidence that God could have done something different, unless I pay attention to what compatibilists have argued in the area of free will since the days of the ancient Stoics (largely convincing most philosophers today, by the way).

Suppose there�s only one possible situation, say that Judas betrays Jesus. God won�t allow any other situation, since it�s necessary for his plan. Was it possible for Judas to stick with Jesus? In one sense, no. That�s obvious from what I�ve just said. However, in another sense, it seems perfectly fine to say Judas could have changed his mind at the last minute. Maybe something would have had to go differently for that to happen, and that would have required a different action from God. But it wasn�t as if something physically interfered with Judas. All of his reasoning was within him. Satan entered him later, but all his plans had been laid beforehand. It seems right to say that a different course of action could have developed, and Judas could have been the one to begin that if God had allowed it. The same is true for God. God had every ability and every right to do something different. How that would have affected other things or led to certain moral consequences prevented it. God couldn�t have done it and remained consistent with that other stuff. Judas couldn�t have done it and remained consistent with certain other things. But in another sense, it�s ok to say he could have done it, if your context properly ignores those other things. When the context is something like �if God had wanted to� or �if God had allowed it�, then it�s ok to say God could have done something else or Judas could have done something else.

Most of our usage of expressions like �could have� or �it was possible that� or �was able to� have exactly this feature. Whenever we say something like this, we have a built-in unspoken phrase about what we�re properly ignoring. We aren�t often thinking that, but it�s there. How else do you explain the truth of the following sentence? If circles were square, we�d have a very strange universe. Such a thing is totally impossible, yet we can talk about its possibility in a weak way like that. The claims about possibility that I have in mind are much more sophisticated and for that reason involve far more things to ignore, but they are things that we ordinarily do ignore and are right to ignore in our context. I know that much in Star Trek is impossible, but it makes perfect sense to talk about what would be true if the Star Trek universe were a reality. There would be a race that looked just like us but with pointy ears, green blood, and the potential to produce minor telepaths. There would be a way to travel faster than light by forming a sub-space bubble around you and traveling at sub-light speeds within it while it warps space somehow to get you there much faster outside the bubble. There would be a way to have your particles move almost instantaneously over long distances, killing you but producing an exact duplicate in another locations. This is all perfectly normal in terms of how we use possibility terms. So why is it inappropriate to use the same language to say the same kinds of things about if God had done something differently or allowed us to do something differently?

I hope I�ve explained why I think it�s consistent to say the kinds of things you find in the potentiality talk of Elisha or Jesus while also affirming that God stands behind evil actions as Isaiah and Peter (through Luke�s telling) have to say. In fact, the compatibilism from the latter passages is what allows us to say both that God determines the one way things will go and that if things had gone differently, things would end up differently. This allows us to talk of possibility in the context of human responsibility and choices (or even of God�s choices) but to talk of the one assured outcome when discussing God�s sovereignty. So is there genuine possibility of different outcomes, or is there only one possible outcome? The biblical answer is a resounding �Yes!� Philosophically, the seeming problems go away very quickly when we realize that the answer is not �yes in the same way� but rather �yes to the first in the sense of absolute possibility and yes to the second in terms of our ordinary sense of possibility�. Both are true. Neither is more true (as if such a term were meaningful, despite its extremely common use among college students), though one may be more fundamental than the other.

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