Dabney’s Possibilism

Steven Wedgeworth over at The Calvinist International has posted a fascinating passage from Robert Dabney criticizing certain quantificational approaches to the atonement. This is all to the good, but the fly in the ointment comes with this regrettable statement by Dabney: “And God, the Creditor, has an optional discretion to decline the proffer [of Christ’s satisfaction], if He chooses (before He is bound by His own covenant), or to accept it. Hence, the extent to which, and the terms on which Christ’s vicarious actions shall actually satisfy the law, depend simply on the stipulations made between Father and Son, in the covenant of redemption…” This is just bizarre, and the effects are, I submit, exactly opposite to what Dabney intends: in his effort to affirm God’s sovereignty and freedom in salvation, he ends up denying both. This is because Dabney, in typical voluntarist fashion, misconstrues God’s freedom in terms of a supreme power and liberty to conjoin otherwise unrelated possibilities, without asking the prior question of how these realities were made to be possibilities in the first place. Thus, on Dabney’s possibilism, Christ becoming incarnate, suffering, and dying on the cross is one distinct possibility, mankind’s salvation is another distinct possibility, and there is no intrinsic connection between the two (this is why one could happen without the other), only a divine contract from before time that the one event should be followed by the other.  The theological and soteriological meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, accordingly, is something outside or extrinsic to the sacrifice itself, being reduced to a mere overlay of divine will. As for Christ’s sacrifice itself, thus gutted of any inherent theological depth and revelation, its possibility is absolutized, immanentized, and hence secularized: it has no meaning except that which God chooses to give it, and by Dabney’s own admission, God could have chosen to give it none (making God not only a secularist, but even something of a nihilist).

Dabney’s lapse into theological possibilism is even more curious in light of his own rejection of precisely this kind of reasoning in his excellent discussion of the absurdities of the lapsarian debate. As he writes in his criticism of the “illogicality” of the supralapsarian position in particular,

The view from which it starts, that the ultimate end must be first in design, and then the intermediate means, is of force only with reference to a finite mind. God’s decree has no succession; and to Him no successive order of parts; because it is a contemporaneous unit, comprehended altogether, by one infinite intuition. In this thing, the statements of both parties are untrue to God’s thought. The true statement of the matter is, that in this co-etaneous, unit plan, one part of the plan is devised by God with reference to a state of facts which He intended to result from another part of the plan; but all parts equally present, and all equally primary to His mind. As to the decree to create man, to permit his fall, to elect some to life; neither part preceded any other part with God.

To apply this same, impeccable reasoning to his earlier quote, there is no such thing as, or even the possibility of, Christ sacrificing himself apart from such a sacrifice also being efficacious for man’s salvation. This is not because God, although the Creditor, is somehow “forced” to accept the terms under which debts to him must be repaid, but because in the truly sovereign, creative determination of God, the possibility that is Christ’s sacrifice and the possibility that is man’s salvation have no meaning (at least so far as our “finite minds” are able to ascertain) except in relation to each other. Their possibility is a compossibility. In Dabney’s words, the two are “parts” of a single “plan,” a plan that is not posterior to, constructed out of, and hence made possible by its parts, but is concurrent with them, giving them their very identity as parts and as possibilities.

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Something as the possibility of nothing.

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 3 

Consistent, then, with the Student’s overall possibilism, while God causes the non-being of things in the same way as he causes them to exist, the possibility of a thing’s non-being, of its being nothing, is itself a given for God. God’s creative power may be responsible for a thing being nothing, but he is not on that account God over its nothingness, its primitive, a-theological ability to be nothing. The possibility of a thing’s non-being is as much a brute fact of God’s existence and experience as is its possibility to exist. In contrast with this is the very different theology of nothing represented in the Teacher’s denial that God makes or causes things to not exist. He corrects his pupil’s starting premise by explaining that, although we do sometimes speak of someone “causing” a thing not to be when he has only not exercised his power to cause it to be, in such cases causality is improperly rather than properly attributed to the agent in question. Here we can see Anselm sowing the seeds of the much more developed semantics and logic of modal agency he would begin to formulate in his later, unfinished Philosophical Fragments, a work we will consider in a subsequent chapter but which has been identified by scholars as the earliest explict examination in the history of philosophy of a theory of modal agency.[1] For the present, it is enough for us to observe the specifically theological occasion and context in which the question of modal agency first occurs in Anselm’s writings. As the Teacher summarizes his position, “In this [improper] mode God is said to cause many things which He does not cause.”[3] He goes on to explain that even when God destroys a thing, its annihilation is not a case of God causing it to no longer be, but rather of his ceasing to cause it to be: “when He ceases to conserve what He has created, then that thing which existed returns to not-being, not because He causes it not to be but because He ceases to cause it to be.”[4] For the Teacher, bringing it about that a thing does not exist is a different kind of activity than bringing about its existence, and therefore, we may be led to infer, a different kind of possibility. The existence and non-existence of a thing are not two opposite but otherwise comparable outcomes that stand in an equivalent relationship to God in the lottery of the divine will. The (non-)event of a thing ceasing to be is obviously privative, and the reality it is privative of is the original initiative God undertook to bring the thing into existence in the first place. A thing’s non-existence, accordingly, is not an absolute possibility that stands in the same potential causal relationship to God as the possibility of its existence does, but is a possibility that is relative to and conditioned upon the thing actually existing in the first place. It is the possibility of a thing actually existing, in other words, that is the prior possibility of it then being able not to exist. It is only in and through causing a thing to exist that God also makes it possible for his ceasing to cause that thing to exist. Such a cessation, then, does not involve an additional action, but the interruption of his otherwise ongoing action of preserving the thing in its existence. In the place of the Student’s possibilism, accordingly—which nihilistically collapsed this analogical distinction between divine action and inaction into a univocal equivalence between causing being and causing non-being—the Teacher substitutes a theistic actualism according to which it is only what God does that in turns makes possible and intelligible what God is then “able” not to do. The non-being of what now exists, therefore, is not an absolute possibility with which God must eternally reckon, a fourth member of a divine Quadrinity, as it were. Before creation, in other words, there was not God and nothing, the one who is Being on the one hand and his supposed opposite of non-being on the other. There was only God, and that was all. The possibility of a thing not existing, consequently, does not pre-exist that thing at all, for the very possibility of non-existence is itself post-existence. A thing’s non-being is not its alien “other,” for the possibility of non-being is only con-created in and through the creation of those things that God has made real. Here we get our first instance of a theme that will be explored much more fully in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, namely the respect in which what God has already done or accomplished with respect to creation determines the parameters and meaning and hence possibility for any “subsequent” (from both a temporal and a logical point of view) divine action.


[1] Belnap, Perloff, and Xu, for example, attribute to Anselm (whom they anachronistically identify as a Dominican) the “earliest modal logic of agency of which we have learned.” Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in Our Indeterminist World, 18. See also Knuuttila, “Anselm on Modality,” 125, and articles by D. Walton, Eileen Serene, and Sarah Uckelman.

[3]De casu 1. “Hoc modo Deus dicitur multa facere quae non facit…”

[4] “Cum ipse desinit servare quod fecit; non ideo id, quod erat, redit in non esse, quia ipse facit non esse; sed quia cessat facere esse.”

Adam’s Other Spare Rib

What would have happened had Eve sinned but Adam hadn’t? Would the whole human race still have perished? According to Anselm, the answer is “No.”

For God could have made another woman from Adam, in whom he had created the seed of all human beings; and by that other woman made from Adam, God’s purpose would have been fulfilled. (On the Virginal Conception, and On Original Sin ch. 9)

While Anselm does not go so far as to say that Adam’s second wife would have been taken from one of Adam’s other ribs (though this is surely more likely than not), he does assume that she would have been taken from Adam just as Eve had been. This is because, as I argued Anselm implies in Cur Deus Homo, to be human one must be taken from Adam. As the first human being, Adam was not merely an instance of a type in the divine mind, but was the very type itself. This means that to be human, one must be descended from Adam. To have the essence of humanity is not merely formal, but is genealogical.

Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

Political vs. Theological Origins of Anselm’s Modal Agency

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 4

In the previous post I made the claim that Anselm’s theory of agent modality, viewed by some scholars as the first in the field, has a specifically theological origin. Nuel Belnap, Michael Perloff, and Ming Xu, in their Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in our Indeterminate World, give a different account, implying that the origins of Anselm’s theory of agency may have had a political (and hence secular) source of inspiration. As they recount:

the archbishop was deeply involved in controversy with the tyrant William Rufus and later his brother Henry in regard to the matters of lay investiture and clerical homage; he vigorously opposed the former. These controversies were heavily freighted with the concepts of promising and commitment and agentive powers. In order to make clear that his authority in matters spiritual was not at the pleasure of the king, Anselm refused to accept the papal pallium from the hands of William Rufus. Partly in consequence, the archbishop was in effect exiled by the king. Anselm’s brief notes on the modal logic of agency were, we think, composed during this bitter exile. (Facing the Future 18-19)

This political reading of the influences on Anselm’s modal logic of agency is intriguing and may have something to it, yet there can be no doubt that the actual textual antecedents to his general modal logic agency are his discussions of divine agency in particular. For Anselm, just as it is faith that makes possible understanding, so it his theological reflections on the nature of divine possibility that opens up the “possibility” of a theory of human possibility.

The Nihilism of Theistic Possibilism

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 2

Although Anselm did not have any knowledge of Avicenna, the similarities between the Student’s statement that God causes the non-being of non-existing things on the one hand and the implications of the Avicennian doctrine of creaturely essences on the other, reveal the extent of Anselm’s intuitive grasp of the extremes to which such theistic possibilism can tend. Consistent with his opening thesis in On Freedom of Choice that the latter power involves the ability to sin and not to sin, the above passage has the Student characterizing God’s own freedom in terms of an ability both to cause things to be and to cause things not to be. Such a scheme encourages us to picture God as being perpetually presented with an exhaustive array of infinite possibilities, each one of which incessantly demands the attention of a divine “yea” or “nay,” of metaphysical election or reprobation. Flattening and democritizing the difference between divine action and inaction relative to a given possibility, accordingly, is the operation of an even more primitive and universal phenomenon of God’s will casting a univocal vote up or down on every bill of possibility brought to the floor of divine contemplation. Ironically, far from this theological voluntarism displacing the necessitarianism of the Neoplatonic emanationist scheme, it actually recapitulates it: instead of the One who is “beyond being” processing through all the lower orders of reality, we have a divine Chooser who, beyond being and non-being, ineluctably emanates all possibilities from himself, albeit with the (now largely insignificant) difference that he decides which handful of possibilities he will make real and which ones he will make unreal. Yet a further consequence of this modal and metaphysical “double-predestination” is that the very basis for privileging one divine response to a given possibility as “action” and demoting its opposite response to the state of “inaction,” is essentially eliminated or rendered arbitrary. If every possibility, after all, requires not only a positive act of divine choice, but of divine causality, to make it either to exist or not to exist, then there is a very real sense in which every possibility in fact receives actualization one way or another. Possibility, in other words, is no longer exclusively possibility towards existence, but is equally (in Cunningham’s phrase) “towards nothing,” as the possibility for being is now superseded by a prior, meta-possibility things have for either existing or not existing, a meta-modality that is entirely ambivalent towards existence. The result is a kind of modal nihilism according to which the world that actually exists really has no special ontological status whatsoever, being the mere photo-negative of the much more abundant realm of everything else that God causes not to exist. As has been suggested, however, privileging one modality by calling it “existence” and its opposite as “non-existence” is hereby exposed as entirely arbitrary and prejudicial: from the vantage point of those things divinely elected to the land of non-being, it is presumably this world that lacks existence. At the beginning of On Freedom of Choice, the Student had characterized free will as operating between two alternatives construed in the negative terms of sinning and not sinning. In much the same way, the Student’s possibilism-cum-nihilism here permits us to similarly revalue God’s choices as taking place between a positive, active causing things to not exist, and a comparatively negative, passive causing them to fail to not exist (in Christ, everything is “Nay and Amen.”). While God consigns some possibilities to the perturbations and anguish of being, we might as well say, others he blesses with the beatific repose and sabbath of non-being.

Causing Nothing

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 1

If the modal problem at the center of On Freedom of Choice is the question of what it is that makes free will possible, Anselm’s companion dialogue, On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli), undertakes an examination of how, using their freedom of choice, the primal sin of the rebelling angels was possible. In the course of doing so, moreover, Anselm sketches what might be described as two competing “theologies of nothing,” corresponding to the antithesis we have been tracing between theistic possibilism on the one hand and theistic actualism on the other. In this series of posts I will be investigating these two alternative accounts of the possibility of nothing before turning to see how they each make an appearance within Anselm’s account of how the fall of Satan was made possible.

On the Fall of the Devil opens with the Student inquiring whether the angels’ perseverance in original justice or rectitude of will was itself a gift of God. Answering in the affirmative, the Teacher makes the general metaphysical observation that whatever being a creature has, including the state of the will’s continuing uprightness, must come from God as the source of all existence. From this the Student mistakenly infers that God therefore must not only be the cause of the being of those things which do exist, but also of the non-being of those things which don’t. He asks:

Or who causes-not-to-be whatever is not except Him who causes-to-be all that is. Likewise, if there is something only because God causes it, then it follows that what-is-not is not because He does not cause it. Therefore, just as those things which exist have from Him their being something, so those things which do not exist, or which pass from being to not-being, seem to have from Him their being nothing.[1]

Although an erroneous interpretation of the Teacher’s statement that God is the source of all existence, the Student’s statement is no unrealistic caricature on Anselm’s part, as it actually captures some important elements of the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).  According to Avicenna, who was under the direct influence of the Neoplatonist Plotinus (204-270), God eternally and necessarily emanates down through a hierarchical series of ten intelligences that culminate in the Agent Intellect in which all possible creaturely essences are contained.[2] As early a critic as St. Thomas Aquinas recognized, this means that creaturely essences contain within themselves their own possibility both for being and for non-being.[3] In his discussion of the resulting “nihilism” of Avicenna, Conor Cunningham writes:

The potential for non-being was prevalent to such an extent that every essence was said to have a positive orientation to non-being… For Avicenna, everything with a quiddity is caused. It is for this reason that everything with the exception of the necessary Being has quiddity, and these quiddities are possible through themselves: ‘To such quiddities being does not accrue except extrinsically’. As a result, we can agree with Gilson that essences are measured by their lack of existence. Indeed, they are this lack of existence.[4]

As possibles in themselves, these creaturely essences are, in Gerard Smith’s apt phrase, “God’s data, given to, not by Him,”[5] meaning that, as Cunningham continues, God gives to each of these essences only “its to-be but not its to-be-able-to-be,” its existence, that is, but not its possibility for existence.[6] A further consequence of this teaching is Avicenna’s famous doctrine that existence is a mere accident which extrinsically accrues to a given essence at the behest of the divine will: “existence has shifted from existentiality to an essential realm,” which means that the real difference between being and non-being has been reduced to a “difference of essence; this essence rather than that essence.”[7] Additional corrolaries to the Avicennian doctrine is the latter’s de-theologizing of metaphysics by making being rather than God the proper subject of the science of first philosophy, a teaching that some scholars have identified as a precursor to Duns Scotus’s doctrine of univocity.[8]


[1] De casu 1. “Aut quis facit non esse, quidquid non est; nisi ille qui facit esse, omne quod est? Item si non est aliquid, nisi ideo quia Deus facit; necesse est ut quod non est ideirco non sit, quia ipse non facit. Sicut ergo illa quae sunt, ab illo habent esse aliquid; ita quae non sunt, vel quae de esse transeunt ad non esse, videntur ab eodem ipso habere esse nihil.”

[2] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 9.

[3] Aquinas, De Potentia 5.3, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Gerard Smith, “Avicenna and the Possibles,” New Scholasticism, no. 17 (1943), 347, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid.