Sunday, November 20, 2016

Emil Brunner on Providence, Determinism and Permission



Here is an excerpt from Reformed Theologian Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, Volume 2, from Chapter 6, “Of Providence, Preservation and God’s Government of the World”, where Dr Brunner addresses the determinist view held by Zwingli and Calvin, and suggests instead the more Arminian approach (without calling it that) of divine permission. The whole book (along with the other volumes) is available online from Archives.org here. This excerpt comes from pages 170 & 171-173 (bold mine, italics in original):

If all that happens is determined by the will of God, how can human freedom be possible? If all that happens is determined by the will of God, then, confronted by the actual course of this world, how can we possibly call God a God of Justice and of Love? These are the two questions which inevitably arise, whenever we try to teach the truth of Divine Providence. Now let us turn to the first of these two questions.

As there is a "determinism from below" so also there is a "determinism from above". The former view denies human freedom from the point of view of the assertion of a causal natural order of all that happens. [...] this determinism amounts to a mechanistic view of the universe. [...] It is, of course, obvious that this determinism is opposed to the truth of revelation, given to faith.  
But there is also a "determinism from above", which declares that human freedom is an illusion, because all that happens, even human action, is due to divine Providence. Only a few Christian thinkers, like Zwingli, for instance, have dared to draw this conclusion from their view of Providence. Where this takes place, God also becomes the cause of Sin, as Zwingli openly admits. "One and the same crime, for instance, murder or adultery, in so far as God has caused, moved, and urged to it, is no crime at all; in so far, however, as it is due to man it is a crime; for the former is not bound by the Law but the latter is judged by the law". But if God incites the robber to commit robbery, "is he not then forced to do it? I admit he is forced, but in order that he may be executed" (De Providentia, Ch. 2).  
Calvin is less logical; although like Zwingli he conceives Providence as the absolute determination of all that happens, he tries to escape from the final conclusions, that even sin is inevitable and God becomes the Origin of Sin and Evil. Such an assertion seems to him — very naturally — to be blasphemy. Only we cannot see how he can avoid drawing this conclusion, save by a forcible act of will which refuses to admit a logical conclusion. Of course, Calvin cannot be aided by the notion that here we are speaking of a necessary or inevitable paradox. A genuine paradox only exists where there is a real contradiction between two necessary ideas. But in Calvin's thought this is not the case. For him the only thought that is necessary is that of the truth that all that happens is determined by God; he is not concerned with the thought of human freedom and responsibility. At least, where Calvin develops the idea of Providence he does not treat this second conception as one which has final and equal necessity. Calvin denies human freedom, but he also maintains full human responsibility, while at the same time he asserts that God alone determines all that happens, without, however, ascribing to Him the origin of evil. This is the element in Calvin's thought which is so unsatisfactory, not to say painful and dishonest. He does not admit for a moment that there is an insoluble dilemma here, a paradoxical statement which cannot be regarded as free from contradictions, a statement which includes within itself two opposed assertions, but he proceeds as though everything were in order, while actually he is flying in the face of logic.  
This raises the question: ought we perhaps to conceive the idea of Providence in another way? or must we come to terms, somehow or other, with this paradox, to be clearly formulated as such? The first answer is given by those — and in the long history of the controversy on this question in theology these are by far the most numerous— who make a distinction between divine determination and divine foreknowledge. God does not do everything that happens, but He knows it all beforehand. But does not such foreknowledge of an action in which God has no share seriously menace the idea of the Omnipotence of God? in order to avoid this a third idea has to be brought into play: that of divine permission. God does not will, nor does He cause the "Fall of Adam"; the rebellion of man, and all that flows from this; but, on the other hand, not merely does He foresee without being able to alter the course of events, but the very fact that He foresees it means that He leaves room for it to happen.  
Our first question cannot be: which of these intellectual solutions is logically or metaphysically the most satisfactory? Rather, in accordance with our dogmatic canon we can only ask: What does revelation teach us more exactly about Providence? Here, first of all, we must remind ourselves of what was said earlier about the Omnipotence and the Omniscience of God. The God of revelation is indeed not the potestas absoluta of speculation, but the God who limits Himself, in order to create room for the creature. God wills to have a real "counterpart". God creates a creature, since He limits His absoluteness. The two ideas, Creation and self-limitation, are correlative. Anyone who has taken the first idea seriously has already conceived the second. It is not that the second is a result of the first, but the second is the same as the first, only it is seen from the opposite end. The idea of the divine self-limitation is included in that of the creation of a world which is not God, and in so doing the idea of potestas absoluta or of omni-causality has been given up.  
This whole question of the independence of the creature, has, however, real religious significance only in view of human freedom. God wills and creates free creatures because He desires communion, not unity. He wills to be worshipped in freedom. This is the only sense in which Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Providence are conceived within the sphere of the Christian Faith.

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