Thursday, February 25, 2010

Luther, God, and Rigid Designation

Famously, Luther differed from Thomas in holding that God's power extended over the laws of logic. Thus, while Thomas could so that not even God could make a square circle, Luther denied this, holding that if God truly is an infinite being with infinite power, the laws of logic cannot dictate what God can do, or how God might be. Here Luther shows his indebtedness to late Medieval nominalism. That tradition had distinguished between the potentia dei absoluta and the potentia dei ordinata, between God considered with regard to his absolute power, and God considered in so far as he has covenanted to relate to human beings in certain ways. While Anselm had confidently defined (or described) God as "aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit" ("that which none greater can be thought") the nominalists of the via moderna understood that this view necessarily limits the being and action of God to that which human must think when thinking God. Why indeed must God be the way humans think God? Do we not limit God's being when we think the Being of God must be the way that humans think God?

Luther follows the nominalists here in understanding that God is not merely an abstract entity. While it is characteristic of abstract entities to have the being that they have for human thinking, it is not so for living, concrete entities. Take, for example, the number '3'. If Russell is correct, and '3' really is 'the set of all triples', then the essence of '3' has been clearly, statically, and eternally been discerned and asserted. (Please excuse the use of 'essence' talk here!) In the same key, to say that 'God' just means 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit' is to clearly, statically and eternally uncover the essentiality of God in God's very Being. The problem, of course, is that God is unlike the number '3' in being alive: God is a dynamic, living, causally-efficacious being. To have causal powers, to enter into causal relations, and to actually live in time suggests a disanalogy with an a priori essentialist account of God. (Luther seems to follow the tradition in holding that all of time is eternally present in God.)

To say that there is a potentia dei absoluta is to say that there are things about God that might not neatly fall under the description aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit. If God is God, after all, God's being is logically prior to our thinking of God. This means, among other things, that God possesses a fundamental freedom that might not be able to be rationally described by human beings. A fundamental commitment to this voluntaristic insight underlies Luther's thinking on God. If God is God, then God is free to be whoever God wants to be. God's freedom is not found, pace Spinoza, in His necessary conformity to His divine essence, but in His will. It is the nature of divine will to be radically free, for if God is omnipotent, God can do whatever God wants to do whenever God wants to do it. Accordingly, to reidentify God across possible worlds cannot be grounded upon what God happens to do in any actual world. God's power and freedom strips away the logic of perfection advocated by Anselm and presupposed by Thomas. All such attempts at a "divine grammar" must be viewed only in regard to how actually God has chosen to act with respect to His creation. A logic of perfection must be a conditional logic, one granting the antecedent, "Since God has shown himself to be X, then we can conclude . . . " It is, of course, a ramification of the hiddeness of God that no conceptualist transworld identity is possible.

So how does one refer to the Deus Absconditus, the God hidden whom courses through all things, and without which things would not be as they are? What semantic and metaphysical theory of the divine is actually consistent with what Luther says in The Bondage of the Will and other places; what metaphysics of God conforms to the demands of the deus absconditus, the hidden God?

Many Lutherans have simply rejected thinking about the hiddenness of God because Luther has advised that one must keep one's eyes upon the deus revelatus, the God revealed in Christ, and that reflection on the hiddenness of God will necessarily take one's eyes off of the Sache, off of the wonderful gift that God has given His people in Christ. While properly theologically motivated, the problem with this approach is that for many today it is precisely the hiddenness of God that must be thought in order for it to be understood to be a good thing to avert one's eyes from this God. The locution 'hiddenness of God' is not merely metaphorical, but it is a description of a reality, the reality of a God who can do other than what he does, and who apparently often acts in ways dissonant from what a human logic of perfection would predict. In other words, God does not behave in ways seemingly in accord with what a confident unpacking of His divine nature would assume. (It is characteristic of living beings to be this way, I think.) So how to think about this hiddenness of God?

I think it plausible here to use the notion of rigid designation in referring to a God who in His absolute power has taken very different attitudes towards us in other possible worlds. The idea would be this. The ancient Jews encountered a God through an initial baptism in experiences like the burning bush. This God of the "I am who I am" was the God that brought them out of the House of Egypt, who gave them Torah, who spoke through their prophets. This God whom they encountered is not a God for whom a criterion of transworld individuation could easily have been given. The ancient Israelites were waiting to see how this God who was would be toward them; they were waiting for his revelation of himself to them.

It is this God whom Jesus called "my Father," and it is this God then who is named by the Triune formula. However, just as water was water before its essence was known to be H2O, and just as it is now impossible to identify water apart from its identification with H2O, so was God, truly God prior to it being known that God is the Father of Christ - - even though it is now not possible to identify God apart from his identification as the Father of Jesus Christ. God being the Father of Christ is an a posteriori necessity in the same sense as 'water is H2O'. Just as 'water' and 'H2O' rigidly identify in all possible worlds such that 'water is H2O' is a necessary identity statement, so do 'God' and 'the Father of Christ' rigidly designate in all possible worlds such that there is no world where the identity 'God is the Father of Christ' does not hold. In the same way it might seem counterintuitive the water must be H2O, so does it seem counterintuitive to hold that God must be the Father of Christ. But the counterintuitivity abates when one realizes that in one cannot meaningfully claim that 'water is not H2O' because then water would, of course, not be water. The same is true of God.

The upshot of all of this is that if one is to think about the essence of God at all, this essence is not going to be found in filling in 'that which none greater can be thought'. (This God would be pretty average anyway in ontologically impoverished worlds.) Rather, God's essence is to be the Father of Jesus the Christ. Now making this identification does not compromise the potentia dei absoluta because the Triune God could not have not been identified as the Father of Christ. If God is triune, then not being the Father of Christ is not an option in any possible world.

This God that is essentially Triune is not reidentifiable by a description or a cluster of concepts applied from world to world. This God is ontologically prior to description, because all description presupposes the conceptual machinery of this world and cannot describe or apply to the Being of God in God's self, that Being that is within God's power alone, a power that extends beyond the language and categories humans have to think it.

Experience of the hidden God presupposes that humans can refer to such a God. Understanding 'God' as a rigid designator makes such reference possible.

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