A Problem with Divine “Self-Limitation”

It is somewhat commonplace for philosophical theologians to speak of God’s action in terms of a divine “self-limitation.” Irven Michael Resnick does so, for example, when characterizing Peter Damian’s views on divine power:

Again, paradoxically, it seems that self-limitation is a mark of omnipotence just as earlier [in the history of Christian teaching] the incarnation—the self-emptying or self-limitation of the second person of the Trinity (cf. Phil. 2:5-7)—represented a mark of supreme power. For the early Church, for Peter Damian, and for some Scholastic philosophers, the divine nature possesses unlimited power. But it is a nature which wills, and by willing knows, its own limitations. Unconstrained and unchecked, its creative power would surpass our understanding in a brilliant radiance which, uncloaked, would consume our world, or overflow to create an infinite number of others. God’s actualized power, as it is perceived from the standpoint of this creation, appears as a sort of accomodation [sic] to human weakness. It is a power which takes on human form and appearance, yet transcends these in its essential nature. (Resnick, Divine Power, 30-1)

Simo Knuuttila speaks in a similar vein:

It is clear that the temporal results of the actual choice exclude a choice with incompatible temporal results and that God’s possibilities (opportunies) to use his power to realize another choice are restricted by the actual choice. (Knuuttila, Modalities, 66-7).

I’ve suspected for a while that the rhetoric of divine self-limitation and restriction is metaphysically tragic, Neoplatonic, and possibilistic (Resnick, for example, makes it sound like God might blow himself up, or at least blow us up, if he isn’t careful). Reading John Milbank’s The Word Made Strange today has helped confirm this suspicion. Summarizing Giambattista Vico’s correlation between the theory of language and the theory of world origins in pagan and ancient Hebraic cultures, respectively, Milbank writes how for the pagans

‘meaning’, or the sign-relation, is always construed as ‘inhibition of chaos’. Logos is a counter-violence that ‘stays’ an always more primordial violence…. every act of signification, every sign given, is a kind of ‘victory’, a binding or ‘containment’ of the signified, then meaning is fundamentally an obscuring, a suppression…. By contrast, Vico suggests that the Hebrew grammar was always dominated by the ‘more sublime’ and more analogical trope of metaphor. For this grammar, meaning is not a capturing and a containment in the present, but rather a dialectic of presence and absence…. signification is not restriction… (Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 108-9)

To think of God’s activity in the negative terms of a “limitation,” “restriction,” or “contraction,” is not only possibilistic (a divinely voluntaristic “narrowing-in” on one’s options), but it is virtually agonistic and therefore quasi-pagan in its effective depiction of God as struggling against the dark, limitless forces of unreason (now construed as his own, infinite power and its “possibilities”). Creation, and divine action in general, becomes a victory God must achieve over himself. A less possibilist, more actualist understanding of creation, by contrast, should prove more peaceful, as it requires no competition of this world and its possibilities over all the other alleged worlds contending for the attention of divine creative election, or, on the flip-side, no divine suppression or “reprobation” of all the other worlds that “might have been.” Instead, God’s invention of this world, with all its possibilities (the only possibilities there are, because the only ones created by God), is free to occur in the repose that is God’s eternal self-understanding. Creation, consequently, is not the residue left over after God withdraws his presence (as per Milton, for example), like the debris left on shore after a receding tide, but is a truly de novo and ad hoc act of divine self-interpretation. God no more “limits” himself in his act of creation than an artist “limits” himself when he chooses to paint one painting rather than another, for there is no “other” painting that is going “unpainted.” Put differently, creation is not a sacrifice, not a loss–God must become man for that to happen–but is a gratuitous excess and bestowal of a world in which sacrifice can take place.

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From Augustine’s theological to Scotus’s logical possibility

The previous post ended with Simo Knuuttila’s observation that, for Augustine, divine possibility, rooted in the divine ideas, was therefore rooted in the divine being or nature in which the ideas resided, and that this was the theological modal paradigm that prevailed until Duns Scotus departed from it in the early thirteenth century, replacing the theological source of possibility with his notion of a bare “logical” possibility.[2] Be that as it may, one may well ask what role the possibilism latent in Augustine’s philosophical theology might have played in the eventual dissolution of his own theological synthesis. As Knuuttila himself observes, for Augustine,

God’s free choice of the universe is conceptually preceded by knowledge about alternative possibilities… [H]is conception of divine possibilities contained an intuitive idea of alternative worlds of which only one is actualized. He thought that God could have made various worlds, and hence he saw God’s eternal decision as free and voluntary… [T]he conception of God as acting by choice between alternative universes… played an important role in the emergence of the intuitive idea of modality as referential multiplicity with respect to synchronic alternatives. This modal paradigm hardly occurred at all among ancient thinkers. It was introduced in early medieval discussions which were strongly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical theology.[3]

Thus, while Augustine viewed the divine ideas as located in, and hence as inherently revelatory of, the divine essence, if Knuuttila is right, Augustine’s possibilism nevertheless involved him at some level in viewing God’s creative activity in the proto-voluntarist terms of a divine will ranging over and electing possibilities that are simply there for God as given, brute facts of his existence. Insofar as we can only conceive of these hypothetical, unrealized possibilities by mentally abstracting from those concrete actualities and potentialities observed in the real world, however, it doesn’t seem that large of a step, however significant, from these already de-existentialized possibilities to the eventual de-theologized, logical possibilities postulated by Scotus. Not surprisingly, we see the beginnings of just such as disjoining of divine possibility from the divine being when Augustine, for example, says that God could do a thing “through his power, but not through his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam).[4]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

[2] Conor Cunningham similarly sees the decisive shift in modal thinking as taking place with Scotus when “that which exists was taken outside the divine essence. Consequently, that which was expelled became nothing, a nothing that allowed the invention of a priori realms, and tales of things called logical possibilities (a Scotist fantasy).” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 171.

[3] Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 109.

[4] Augustine, Contra Gaudentium 1.30.35, cited in Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29. In other, more circumspect moments Augustine conflates God’s power with his wisdom and hence, one may suppose, with his justice, as when he says that “God’s Word and Wisdom and Might are all one and the same reality.” Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 6.12.22.

Nihil ex Creatione: On the Invention of Darkness out of Light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, there is a scene in which the angelic Ainur are treated to a glorious, light-filled Vision of the future history of the world. After the Vision is taken away, it is said of the Ainur “that in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought.” Rather than Darkness being the prior condition and possibility of Light, in other words, it is Light that it is the prior condition and possibility of Darkness as its negation. One might wonder, what implications might this have for thinking about the doctrine of creation ex nihilo?

Heidegger claimed that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was the metaphysical question. Given the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, Christians would seem to have good prima facie grounds for agreeing. First there was nothing, then there was something: surely it is the something that bears the metaphysical “burden of proof,” that it is something rather than nothing that needs to explain itself.

While there is a sense in which this is obviously true, there may be another sense in which it is the something which (paradoxically) brings into being with itself the possibility of nothing; that until you have a something, there is not anything, not even nothing. Conor Cunningham hints at something like this when he says that “Before the opposition of being and nothing there is the difference of the Trinity” (Genealogy of Nihilism 199). I’m accustomed to thinking of the difference within the Trinity as the archetype for the distinction that exists between God and what God makes: no intra-Trinitarian difference, no Creator-creature difference. If Cunningham is right, however, the difference amongst the persons of the Godhead is so profound that it is what provides us even with the basis for the difference between the being that God creates and the non-being “from” which he makes it. The difference between something and nothing, in other words, is a Trinitarian difference. What this further suggests is that this difference between something and nothing is not something that is a given for God, but is itself a gift of God (to use yet another of Cunningham’s distinctions). God creates, in other words, not only something, but in creating something, he brings along with it into being the very opposition (i.e., antithetical difference) between something and nothing. There would seem to be a valid sense, then, in which creation is not just from nothing, but that nothing is also from the something that is creation–not just creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. In terms of our above point about darkness and light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, nothing is not the antecedent condition and possibility of something, but it is a created something that is the antecedent condition and possibility of their being nothing. 

The Counter-Nihilism of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle tells the story of a perfectionistic and curmudgeonly painter named Niggle (a bit of a self-parody on Tolkien’s part) who attempts a life-like (and nearly life-size) portrait of a living tree, but who only really succeeds in completing a single, solitary leaf before his project is prematurely interrupted when he is whisked away on his “long journey” (an allegory of death). Although Niggle’s agonizing and obsessive efforts on behalf of his tree, in retrospect, seem to have been for naught (especially as he has to unlearn, in his new purgatorial state, his former neglect of his neighbor Parish for the sake of his art), Niggle is eventually promoted to a more paradisiacal state (not yet Paradise itself, which is still future for Niggle) where he discovers his “tree,” no longer in mere imagination, but in real, actual existence. The Tree afterwards becomes the center of a bucolic scene, tended by both Niggle and Parish (and titled “Niggle’s Parish”) where future weary travelers can come and convalesce. Thus, while this is by no means the central drama of the work, one movement recorded in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle is the movement from a man meticulously trying to “describe” a leaf via his art, only to leave behind and eventually have to learn to renounce his obsession, to at last being given back not just his leaf, or his unfinished tree, but to have them elevated to level of primary existence itself. As Niggle humbly articulates his astonishment at such grace, “It’s a gift!”

Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism has an interesting discussion of the nihilistic tendencies of modern philosophical and scientific discourse that (unintentionally, it would seem) provides an acutely apropos commentary on the very different metaphysical (because ultimately theological) perspective of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. Cunningham writes:

We ‘moderns’ continually betray the operation of a given within our discourse. It is this given which re-enacts the logic of the fall… Any description that modern discourse proffers will enact such a disappearance [of the thing describes. Let us see why.

An example may help. If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every ‘word’. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and sub-structures. The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. (Here we witness a line running from Scotus to Descartes and from Descartes to Kant, no doubt with significant differences remaining.) The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored.

Any difference we find in a being, or in the leaf, will fail to register, except at the virtual level of data…. [T]he nihilistic form of modern discourse will be unable to provide criteria for this selection [of the leaf from its branch, from its tree, and from its existent materiality] and will be unable to provide criteria for this selection and will be unable to provide real difference, individuation, specificity and so on… The leaf, which is there, is not a real leaf, but simply a formal distinction, arbitrarily but successfully constructed, or, more accurately, generated by systems of explanatory description. (These can be formal, conceptual, idealistic, empirical…)  (172-3)

What would the opposite approach look like, Cunningham asks?

It would look like the immanent–a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseum)…. [O]nly through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be. (173)

Modern science and philosophy, in other words, are like Niggle’s art: on their own (in their “immanence”), they reduce to nothing, and so lose the very things and world they try to describe. Sacrificed to, so as to be “mediated” by, the divine transcendence, they regain a more radical immanence yet, an immanence that is the “gift” of existence itself.

Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

For Derrida, John Milbank writes (The Word Made Strange), human writing is actually prior to human speech: “Speech, according to Derrida, tends to make us imagine that all meaning is fully ‘present’, in the manner that the speaking self and her or his interlocutor appears to to be. It is this phenomenon which encourages the further delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.” (For an example of this “delusion” of the priority of idea over linguistic expression, see my recent post on Robert Kilwardby’s critique of St. Anselm.) For Derrida, this realization “ends the Platonic domination of Western culture in which the illusion of the fully present idea encourages the belief that we can grasp reality in its totality.” But while Derrida is therefore “anti-Platonic in the sense that he takes the signifying trace to be an absolutely original moment,” Milbank acutely observes that, in another sense, Derrida “secretly remains Platonic…” For Plato, after all, “any realization of the idea in the concrete sign is taken as a lapse from an original completeness.” For Derrida, however, the fact that there simply is no original idea, only an original sign whose meaning is itself mediated and so deferred by yet another sign, and so on, means that the same tragic “‘lapse’, involving deception and concealment” lamented by Plato in the concrete sign is held to no less infect the origin of meaning.

It was against this Platonic, but now also Derridaean tragic metaphysics that I pitted Tolkien’s own approach to myth and meaning in a post from some time back, which I repeat here. One significant point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). What thinks accounts overlook, however, is that for Plato, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine, and without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

To return, then, to the above discussion of Derrida and Plato, one might say that Tolkienian myth (not unlike the Anselmian locutio), through an understanding of the original donum that is God’s gift of creation ex nihilo, achieves a true “supplement at the origin,” and a différance that makes a difference.

Divine Thinking is a Divine Speaking

G.R. Evans comments at some length on how, for Anselm, divine thinking is a kind of divine speaking:

Anselm introduces [in Monologion 10] the idea of ‘talking’ (locutio). In succeeding chapters we often find thinking and and speaking apparently being used interchangeably… One passage in particular, in Monologion 63, suggests a close association in Anselm’s mind between talking and thinking… ‘For when the Supreme Spirit “speaks” in this way, it is the same same as when he perceives by thought, just as the “speaking” of our own minds is nothing but the act of reviewing our thinking.’… Here, it seems, thinking is envisaged as something more than a still activity, in which we simly contemplate the object of thought; and locutio, too, involves some sort of movement, a reviewing of thought, a process perhaps of bringing it into focus. The exact sense is by no means clear, but there can be no doubt about the clsoeness of association between the two in Anselm’s mind. When God expresses himself by speaking his thought, he creates: ‘So that I may consider, if I can, his speaking, through which all things were made’ (ut de eius locutione, per quam facta sunt omnia); ‘There is one Word, throug hwhich all things were made’ (est unum verbum, per quod facta sunt omnia). It is plain enough, then, that thinking and  talking are closely allied activities for Anselm and almost always when he mentions either activity in the Monologion, he considers both their human and their divine application. What he has to say about ‘thinking’ about God will tell us a good deal about his view of the problem of ‘talking’ about God… (Evans, Anselm on Talking About God, 23-4)

The Ideas are the Possibles

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

In overview, then, the divine ideas are those principles which account for the rationality and hence wisdom and non-arbitrariness of God’s creative and providential activity: when God acts, being good and wise he necessarily acts according to a preconceived plan, and these plans are the divine ideas. Implicit in this view, accordingly, is the notion that what is possible for God to do or make is determined by his ideas: God can do or make anything for which he has a divine idea, making the ideas the origin or source of divine possibility. Inasmuch as the ideas are located nowhere else than in the divine mind and essence itself, it follows that God’s own being is ultimately the origin and source of divine power and possibility. As Simo Knuuttila has put it, for Augustine the ideas provide an index or register of

all finite beings which could serve as partial imitations of the highest being. The ideas are divine thoughts and refer to possible actualization in the domain of mutability. They define the finite modes of imitating the infinite divine being. In this sense the possibilities have an ontological foundation in God’s essence… This was the dominating conception of modal metaphysics until Duns Scotus departed from it.[1]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.