Must God Be Really Related to Creatures?
by Schubert M. Ogden
Dr. Ogden is professor of theology and director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. His most recent book is Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Abingdon, 1979.) The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 54-56, Vol. 20, Number 1, Spring, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
In a well-known lecture on "The Prior Actuality of God," Austin Farrer argued already in 1966 for something like a mediating position between "the scholastic absolutism," on the one hand, and "process theology," on the other (RF 178-91). "Our evidence," he allowed, "is that God can concern himself with the actions of his creatures in such a way as to make his action relative to theirs." This means that "the Christian disciples of Aristotle were wrong in stating that God does not, and cannot, make his action so relative to his creatures as to render that relation constitutive of anything in his divine life." But if "the retreat from theological absolutism" is to this extent justified, how far should it go? "Must [God] so relate himself? To put it otherwise: Has God no other action than what is relative to a creation he makes, governs, or saves?" (RF 179, 190-91). Farrerís answer to his question was emphatically negative. Applying the principle nulla impotentia ponenda est in Deo, he argued that to answer it affirmatively, as "process theology" does, is ponere impotentiam in Deo -- no less so, indeed, than to hold with "the absolutist position" that God is not capable of really relating himself to his creatures. In this sense, he insisted on "the prior actuality of God," contending that "Godís so relating his action to his creatures has no tendency to show all his activity to be thus creature-related and none of it God-related, as (for example) the traditional doctrine of the Blessed Trinity declares it to be" (RF 181-83, 191).
Arguments for much the same kind of mediating position continue to be put forward by traditionalist critics of process theology. One recent example is the argument of Thomas V. Morris in his essay, "God and the World: A Look at Process Theology" (AE 124-50). Although Morris readily grants that "process theology has issued some important correctives concerning the medieval conception of God," he nonetheless holds that "process theologians, in a spirit of innovation, often have departed unnecessarily, and dangerously, from the traditional claims of the faith they most often purport to be preserving" (AE 150). This is evident, he argues, because they not only claim correctly that "God can interact with us, his creatures," but also conclude, contrary to "a central belief of orthodox Christian thought" that "God freely created the world ex nihilo," that "God needs the world in order to be who he is" (AE 127). Thus process theologians start from "genuine insights about relatedness and divine love," to the effect that
everything that exists is essentially related to other existent individuals, and [that] it is an essential property of deity to be other-loving. But the process theologiansí conclusions do not follow from these premises as they seem to think. A traditional Christian, upholding the orthodox belief in Godís absolute freedom with respect to creation can capture both these insights by a properly articulated doctrine of the Trinity. (AE 139)
It is not to my purpose to evaluate the case that Morris then proceeds to make for the understanding of the trinity that his mediating position requires. The relevant point is simply that, in much the same way as Farrer, he seeks to affirm that God can be really related to creatures even while denying that God must be so related.
My contention, however, is that attempts such as Farrerís and Morrisís to take up a third position between classical theism, on the one hand, and neoclassical theism, on the other, quite fail to carry conviction. I hold, on the contrary, that unless God must be really related to creatures, God cannot be really related to them. Consider the following argument:
1. If God can be really related to creatures, creatures can make a real difference to God. (That this is so follows analytically or by definition from the meaning of "being really related." For any values of x and y, if x can be really related to y, y can make a real difference to x.)
2. If creatures can make a real difference to God, God cannot be unsurpassable in reality without being really related to creatures. (This, too, follows analytically or by definition -- in this case, from what is meant by "making a real difference," on the one hand, and by "being surpassable or unsurpassable in reality," on the other. If y can make a real difference to x, xís reality without real relation to y could only be surpassed by xís reality if x were really related to y.)
3. But if God need not be really related to creatures, either God can be unsurpassable in reality without being really related to creatures or God can be surpassable in reality. (Here, again, the premise follows analytically or by definition -- in this case from the meaning of "not needing to be really related," on the one hand, and of "being surpassable or unsurpassable in reality," on the other.)
4. God cannot be surpassable in reality. (This also follows analytically, from the definition of God as "the Unsurpassable," or, in Anselmís phrase, as "the One than whom none greater can be conceived," or, as Farrer might say, as "the One in whom no weakness is to be posited.")
5. Therefore, if God need not be really related to creatures, God can be unsurpassable in reality without being really related to creatures. (This follows as a conclusion from 3 and 4.)
6. But if God can be unsurpassable in reality without being really related to creatures, creatures cannot make a real difference to God. (This is an immediate inference from 2, being its contrapositive.)
7. If creatures cannot make a real difference to God, however, God cannot be really related to creatures. (This, too, is an immediate inference, being the contrapositive of 1.)
8. Therefore, if God need not be really related to creatures, God cannot be really related to creatures. (This follows as a conclusion from 5, 6, and 7.)
9. Either, then, God can be really related to creatures, in which case God also must be so related, or God need not be really related to creatures, in which case God also cannot be so related. (This follows as a conclusion from the contrapositive of 8 and 8.)1
To avoid any misunderstanding, I should add that, while I hold that God can be really related to creatures, and, therefore, must be so related, I also insist that there is a profound asymmetry between the implied need of God for creatures and the evident need of creatures for God. Whereas creatures need not merely some God or other, but the one and only God there could possibly be, what God needs is not these, those, or any other creatures, but only some creatures, each of which, being precisely a creature, once was not and, therefore, could only have been created ex nihilo a Deo.2
AE -- Thomas V. Morris. Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.
RF -- Austin Fatter. Reflective Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Ed. Charles C. Conti. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.
1Iam indebted to George L. Goodwin for the following formalization of this argument:
A = God can be really related to creatures.
B = Creatures can make a real difference to God.
C = God cannot be unsurpassable in reality without being really related to creatures.
D = God need not be really related to creatures.
E = God can be surpassable in reality.
1. AB (definition)
While accepting full responsibility for the argument, I also want to acknowledge my debt to Philip E. Devenish and Franklin I. Gamwell who, together with Goodwin, were kind enough to check my reasoning.
2For this reason, I should not wish to defend what Morris speaks of as "a standard tenet of process thought that God needs the [sic] world in order to be who he is." Later in his essay, he is more careful, allowing that, on the process view, "God needs a [sic] world to which to relate himself" (AE 127, 139).