Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is God's Wrath an Essential Property?

I wanted to bring in a discussion I’ve been having on Facebook recently with a proponent of Reformed theology. One of the issues we’re discussing involves God’s wrath. I maintain that God’s wrath is a dispositional, as opposed to intrinsic or essential, property. That is, I maintain that God only is wrathful toward those who are unregenerate, and would not have been wrathful had he chosen not to create at all, or if he created no moral agents. The objection was that this violated the doctrine of immutability, which he defined as God’s experiencing no change within himself (he said “does not differ within himself”). I pick up on my response to this issue, and I think it might be of interest.

“I'll be happy to address the issues you raise. First, it's not clear what you mean by immutability as never differing ‘within himself.’ What does this mean? Do you mean intrinsic, or essential, properties? Well, fine then: my view has always been (see above) that wrath is not an essential property of God. If you mean that literally none of God's properties change in any circumstances, then you must believe that all of God's properties are essential. But that engenders many, many problems. I'll label some of them with letters: a) There is the problem of God's contingent creation. Most people, who are not Edwardsian, take it that God didn't have to create this world--indeed, most people take it that God was not forced to create at all. But if God holds all properties essentially, then that's not true--he was forced to create, and forced to create this specific world. I'd rather give up the radical belief that God holds all properties essentially than give up that God was sovereign over his choice to create. b) The Second Person of the Trinity was not always incarnate, meaning he took on human nature. But if God has all his properties essentially, then the Second Person never lacked human flesh, and thus never took it on. I'd rather give up the radical belief that God holds all properties essentially than give up that the Second Person took on flesh roughly 2,000 years ago. There are a ton of other problems, but they're all variants of the same property problem.

So that leads to the second part of my critique: if God was not forced to create (and forced to create this specific world), then there is a possible maximal set of circumstances wherein God does not create any beings in his image, and no moral agents. In these circumstances, there just is nothing on which to be merciful or wrathful. Literally the only way out is to deny God had a choice in creating, but that's too radical for me.

Lastly, but I think incidentally, Scripture very plausibly doesn't intend to teach us about the metaphysics of God and time when it uses these locutions. Why do I think that? Well, first of all, the context of these various passages tends not to support it. But second, it would engender biblical contradictions, which I'm not a big fan of. Consider the texts that say, for example, that God exists from everlasting to everlasting: if that is so, then God existed everlastingly in the past, and time had no beginning, and God is temporal (just everlastingly so). But then consider the statement that God has done some things ‘before there was time’--that implies time had a beginning. Worse than that, that verse is logically incoherent if taken completely literally as a metaphysical statement about time, since ‘before’ is a temporal concept! Finally, there is the famous verse about ‘a day with the Lord is as a thousand years’ in Psalms and Peter. But that is used to claim God is not temporal. So we have God's being temporal and time having no beginning, time's having a beginning and yet things coming temporally before it, and God's being atemporal altogether. Do I believe these are contradictory? No, but only because I don't take them to be trying to teach us about the metaphysics of God and time. The biblical data on this issue, as on many in philosophical or systematic theology, is underdetermined: that is, appeals to the texts alone do not solve the issue: we must integrate the text with our understanding of theology and see what emerges. Reformed and non-Reformed alike do this on many things.”

Now some of you may be confused as to my brief discussion on God, time, and the Bible, but in context, he brought up the idea that God is wrathful from “eternity past” on those who would reject him, and he appealed to the Bible. I also wanted to emphasize that using philosophy—something the Reformed are outwardly usually loathe to do—is not only unavoidable, it’s actually commendable when doing theology and biblical interpretation. The only way one can interpret the Bible while “not doing philosophy” is to front-load their philosophy into the text in the first place! Anyway, my only point is to say that any theology that says God created people in order to condemn them needs to check itself against good thinking and the biblical picture of God.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!