God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities

A theology of the possible, part 2

One major source in my re-examination of the question of divine power and possibility, especially in relation to Tolkien’s work on the nature of sub-creation, has been the fascinating but difficult work of the late philosopher of religion James Ross (†2010). In his provocative 1986 article, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities: Requiescant universalia ante res,”[1] Ross calls into question the standard, Augustinian-Thomistic doctrine that the archetypes or exemplars of creation are themselves uncreated “divine ideas” existing eternally in the mind of God and determined, not by his will, but by his nature or essence. As Ross characterizes such Christianized Neoplatonism, “God’s prismatic self-knowledge ‘refracts’ a universal domain, the divine ideas of all the kinds of things there might be and of all the things of those kinds there might be” (315). In other words, in knowing himself God knows all the ways in which his essence may be imitated and so participated by his possible creatures.

According to Ross, this traditional, “exemplarist” view of divine knowledge and power is beset by a number of logical, metaphysical, and theological difficulties, and in its stead he proposes to posit a “voluntarist” alternative that takes its inspiration not, ironically, from William of Ockham and his nominalist school (who are themselves “exemplarists,” as Ross defines the term), but from a revisionist reading of the metaphysical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Similar to Ockham, for example, Ross is concerned with the way in which the exemplarist view seems to limit divine omnipotence (“God’s power is more awesome,” as Ross exclaims at one point), but unlike Ockham Ross does not resort to a bare logical possibility conceived outside of or extrinsic to the mind and essence of God. Instead, Ross suggests that the possibilities open or available to God in the act of creation are something that God himself creates, albeit not arbitrarily. Hence he says that the domain of God’s power “is realized with its exercise. What is possible ad extra is a result of what God does.”


[1] Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, eds. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Cornell University Press, 1986), 315.

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5 thoughts on “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities

  1. “God’s prismatic self-knowledge ‘refracts’ a universal domain, the divine ideas of all the kinds of things there might be and of all the things of those kinds there might be”

    This is an idea I am very attracted to although I would not reduce God to a single monad as the Neo-Platonists do. I believe the multiplicity in the world is somehow made up of fractals of the triune God. I would need to do a lot more reading to be able to argue convincingly.

    • Thanks for the comment, William. I think Ross (and I with him) would agree with your remark that “the multiplicity in the world is somehow made up of fractals of the triune God.” God’s creation, in short, is always an act of self-revelation, a finite reflection of his own being. (In Tolkien, the image is that of “splintered light.”) Insofar as we are talking about the things God actually does create, then, there is no disagreement. What Ross is critiquing, rather, is the doctrine of divine ideas according to which there are, apart from or “prior” to God’s act of creation, a universal, exhaustive, infinite domain or array of “possibles” in the mind of God of things that God *doesn’t* in fact create, but which are the result of God’s “refractive” self-knowledge. For Ross, instead, apart from God’s purpose and act of creation there is only one “fractal” (as you put it) or “sufficing likeness” (as Aquinas, for example, puts it) of the divine essence, and that is the divine Word. As for the divine ideas or exemplars of the things that God actually chooses to create, while these are imitations of the divine essence, they are not static “givens” for God, but are forms/exemplars that God himself designs or creates. That obviously calls for a great deal more expansion, but hopefully it makes sense as a provisional distinction.

      • Thanks for making Ross’s position clearer for me. I definitely lean towards the idea that the divine ideas are not apart from or prior to God’s ‘act’ of creation. I would hold that the universal forms exist within the creation like Aristotle. The universal forms are created alongside their material instantiations.

        In my mind I understood the original fractal to be all three persons and all that three persons entail. I do believe all three person indwell each person in the trinity so I don’t know how much I am along the same line as you on this point but I could be.

        Should creation be thought of as finite? If time stretches infinitely into the future would that make the created realm also infinite? Does one keep learning an indefinite amount of things about God from what God creates for an infinite amount of time in heaven? So is there not an infinite amount of things to learn from creation about God for us in the temporal realm? I always wonder about whether it is really finite…

      • One of Ross’s guiding principles in his re-interpretation, for example, of Aquinas is precisely Aristotle’s moderate realism and the principle that there are no kinds and natures without instantiations. And I think I agree with your point about all three persons being involved. As for your question about the finitude of creation, of course creation has a beginning, so it’s at least finite (i.e., “ended”) going backwards, and as for going forwards, I would say that, while creation “will have”* *no end, at any given time it “has” an end* *(namely, the present), so it’s always finite (limited) in the other direction, even if only momentarily. Put differently, creation’s temporal infinitude is always potential, we might say, and never actual. By the way, if you were interested in reading some Ross (he’s not easy, I find), I have some pdfs I could send your way.

  2. I do not hold to an A-theory of time rather I hold to the B-theory. The whole future series exists as part of one infinite block. If we except B-theory then it seems creation is infinite. Our subjective experience of a series of moments is just how the eternal translates to temporal existence.

    Yes I would love it if you can send me some of those PDFs. Thanks.

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