Thursday, 4 July 2013

Accepted limits on what God can do - Man's free will needs to be one of them

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I think all Christians agree that:

1. God cannot do evil - His nature is to be Good - this is a Good God

2. God cannot do anything illogical, self-contradicting

So all Christians have a concept of God that is somewhat bounded, somewhat limited - and this applies even to the God of Classical Theology who is conceived as almighty, omnipotent, all-knowing and present in all places.

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What is relatively neglected - and in a way which may be harmful - is that God is also limited by free will; He cannot violate human free will - humans are autonomous agents of will - centres of choice.

God awaits the result of Man's free will - God can plan up to that point, and from that point; and mobilizes incomprehensible and effectively-infinite power up to and beyond that point - but Man's free will stands apart from this.

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The whole plan of salvation, the sacred history of Scripture, is predicated on this - on the fact that Men must choose, that their choice is real; and only because Men can choose, and because their choices are real is it just for the consequences of these choices to be treated as Good or evil (virtuous or sinful).

Thus we should add a third limit on what God can do - God cannot violate Man's free will.

These constraints can be expressed as what God must do, as well as what He cannot do.

1. God must be Good

2. God must be rational

3. God must work with Man's free will, must take account of the consequences of Man's agency.  

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This fact of Man's agency and free will is treated as theologically controversial, and indeed it may be theologically difficult to explain - but it needs to be accepted upfront and explicitly that what we are doing in life is the real thing - that our reflections and decisions are truly and ultimately our own - that we are responsible (awesomely responsible) for our lives.

Now decide.  

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6 comments:

  1. Well, then there is the logically sound option that God could force man to act as he wishes but chooses to not do so.

    Being able to do something and doing it are two different things.

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  2. @T-J "Being able to do something and doing it are two different things"

    Maybe but not necessarily. I think Classical Theologists use this argument, as a kind get-out-of-jail-free card - as when saying that God could do *anything*, but He chooses never, never, never to do this particular thing.

    The problem with this argument is the problem of evil/ pain - that God chooses deliberately to inflict (because he chooses not to prevent - although he could) all the very worst things that ever have happened in the history of everything.

    It is difficult/ impossible (when being honest) to prevent this from sliding into a fatalistic view denying free will and treating Good-as-God (and everything that ever happened as by-definition-Good), when what Christians must say is that God-is-Good.

    Btu where in scripture is any indication that God could coerce Man's free will? Coerce his behaviour - yes - but Scripture treats free will as autonomous. God persuades, inspires, impresses, terrorizes, punishes and rewards - but all this in order to influence choice; not to compel it.

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  3. Well, I am perfectly capable of doing some horrible things but choose not to do so. It's rather easy.

    God's choice to let free will have its way is, I believe, a greater good than preventing folks do evil, since where is no free will there can be no love but slavery. Only automatons doing what the big guy wishes. That just leads to a very schitzophrenic theology when combining the Bible with it, since it is filled with passages of God even begging the jews to do the right thing and the latter choosing not to do so.

    If one wants to see it so that God is somehow responsible for all the evil in the world because he does not act as a puppet master but lets his creations have a meaningful freedom of choice and the responsibility they bear for that freedom, then one is certainly free to do so. I just don't see it that way - for me, most of the evil in the world is a direct result of us being able to do meaningful moral choices and many of them are evil.

    If one wants to make a case for God's coercion, then the first two places I'd seek support for it would be the interplay of Moses and the pharaoh and Romans 9.

    I happen to believe both in free will and a good God myself.

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  4. @T-J - "If one wants to see it so that God is somehow responsible for all the evil in the world because he does not act as a puppet master but lets his creations have a meaningful freedom of choice and the responsibility they bear for that freedom, then one is certainly free to do so."

    This does not dispose of the problem - on the view of Classical Theology, God 'designed' Men, and set up the world in all respects - such that good choices may be very difficult, and the pain and evil resulting from bad choices are extreme, and humans are capable of extreme and prolonged levels of suffering from the bad choices of others.

    A loving father would not (given the choice) launch his children into the world AS IT IS unless there was essentially nothing he could do about it (without making matters worse).

    "I happen to believe both in free will and a good God myself. "

    Me too - and for this to work requires (I think, if my reasoning is correct!) that God be constrained absolutely by human free will - such that God cannot influence free will in the ultimate sense.

    The way I think of it is that in the long run God's powers of healing are infinite, but he cannot undo the past and cannot influence free will/ agency - these are constraints within/ around which God works.

    (Consequently evil cannot be destroyed in the totality of reality - only limited in action and sequestered. Hell is therefore neccessary to sequester unrepentant evil from Good. It is like Morgoth in the Silmarillion. When he is defeated he cannot be killed nor his evil undone - but he can be put out of th world )

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  5. Bruce: This is well stated. I also believe that you are correct that it is rather clearly impossible to coerce a free act. Such a recognition is at the center of the Christian life because love is a free act that cannot be coerced. Because God seeks our willing hearts and freely given love, He must leave us room to choose for ourselves. It is simply in the nature of a free act that it cannot be coerced by another. That is also why no person could possibly be predestined to loving relationship with God -- the very notion is internally incoherent.

    Thanks for all your work on these issues and your kind words.

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  6. @Blake - Thanks. And I am delighted to have a comment from you!

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