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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