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Creation and the Sovereignty of God

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Creation and the Sovereignty of God brings fresh insight to a defense of God. Traditional theistic belief declared a perfect being who creates and sustains everything and who exercises sovereignty over all. Lately, this idea has been contested, but Hugh J. McCann maintains that God creates the best possible universe and is completely free to do so; that God is responsible for human actions, yet humans also have free will; and ultimately, that divine command must be reconciled with natural law. With this distinctive approach to understanding God and the universe, McCann brings new perspective to the evidential argument from evil.

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11 Chapters

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1. The Case for a Creator

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This book is about the concept of a creator as it has been usually construed in the Western theological tradition, broadly speaking. I wish to explore the idea that the world and all that pertains to it—indeed, anything that exists in any way—owes its being and sustenance to the act of an all-powerful being whose own existence requires no explanation, and whose nature is as perfect as we can conceive it to be. I shall argue that the existence and act of such a creator dovetails perfectly with a properly scientific conception of the world, that it supports a robust conception of human free agency, that it permits a satisfying theodicy, and that it ultimately leads to the classical conception of God as a perfectly simple yet personal being. This project is best begun by arguing that the world is indeed a product of creation. Efforts to demonstrate that this is so tend to fall under two major headings. Cosmological arguments cite as evidence the sheer existence of things, and contend that it may be accounted for by the activity of an all-powerful creator. Teleological arguments dwell on the structure or design of the world, holding that this is to be accounted for by postulating an intelligent designer. I will have an occasional remark on teleology in this chapter, but my main purpose here is to develop an argument of the first kind: I maintain that the best—indeed, to our knowledge, the only—adequate explanation for the existence of the world is the creative action of an all-powerful, personal being of the sort we call God.

 

2. Creation and the Natural Order

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If we think the existence of a creator is at all likely, it is worthwhile to try to understand as well as we can the nature of creation, and the relationship between God's activity as creator and the doings of the things he creates. That can be a challenging task. The common view of creation is pretty ingenuous: we tend to think of God as a temporal being who, by fiat, put the world in place “in the beginning,” along with whatever principles of operation it might have required, and then “rested.” The scriptural credentials of this view are, of course, impeccable, and it makes for a nice division of labor between God and the world. He is responsible for the world's beginning, and—at least to the extent that it works deterministically—for its subsequent history as well. But he is responsible for the latter only indirectly, for on this picture the things that make up the world have robust and independent natures. They survive and function on their own; and they have the capacity to react to influences that surround them, as well as to effect change in other entities. Indeed, but for occasional acts of intervention—to bring the course of nature into line with human needs, perhaps, or to demonstrate his presence and power to the hard of heart—there is really rather little for God to do in such a world. Such non-engagement has, of course, a certain suspicious quality: one would expect the loving God of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic heritages to be a little more doting, a little more involved with the world. But it also guarantees that the products of creation will be entities of real substance and power, fully capable of independent existence and action.

 

3. Eternity

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If the argument of the last chapter is correct then the phenomena of the created world owe their entire existence to God as creator, and can therefore be expected to be guided in every detail by divine providence. Some would wish to claim that exercises of free agency on the part of rational creatures should be counted as exceptions to this rule—a possibility we shall begin to consider in chapter 4. The present chapter is devoted to another possible exception: it is sometimes held that even if all that takes place within the temporal realm is subject to God's will as creator, time itself is not. Rather, God is a being who exists in time just as his creatures do, and he like us is subject to the limitations this entails. Traditional theologians would for the most part have emphatically rejected such a view. They took the claim that God is eternal to mean that God is completely outside of time, of which he is in fact the creator.1 Time is not a necessary existent. It is an aspect of the world of change and as much in need of an explanation for its being as the world itself. So only if God created time could he justly be called the creator of heaven and earth. Moreover, they reasoned, only if the divine nature transcended the limitations of time could God have full comprehension of what for us is the future, and enjoy the sovereignty and immutability they thought appropriate to the divine essence.

 

4. Evil, Freedom, and Foreknowledge

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The argument of the foregoing chapters is in line with what theists have traditionally claimed: that God is the creator of heaven and earth and all that they contain, and that whatever occurs in the universe does so under divine providence—that is, under God's sovereign guidance and control. But believers usually assert more than this. They hold that God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good. Moreover, it is said, God is an absolutely perfect being. He is, first of all, omniscient or all-knowing: he knows of all truths that they are true and of all falsehoods that they are false, whether they pertain to the past, present or future. And God's knowledge does not change. Nothing is learned or forgotten with him; what he knows, he knows from eternity and infallibly. Second, God is omnipotent or all-powerful: that is, on the usual understanding, anything that is logically possible, he can do. Finally and perhaps most important, God is perfectly good in both will and achievement: in all circumstances he acts for the best, intending the best possible outcome, and his will is not thwarted. Given these suppositions, we can only expect that creation will be ordained to perfect good: that as creator God pitches his efforts, which none can resist, toward accomplishing the greatest good imaginable, and hence that the world in which we find ourselves is, as Leibniz put it, the best of all possible worlds.

 

5. Free Will and Divine Sovereignty

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A satisfactory resolution of the problems canvassed in the last chapter can be had in only one way: by according God an active role as creator in the production of human action. To revert to the Openness view would be to give away too much—to accede, in effect, to the anti-theist's objection that belief in the God of tradition cannot be sustained in the face of the world's sin and suffering. And nothing short of a full involvement in the operations of creaturely wills seems consistent with the omniscience and sovereignty appropriate to a God who is as perfect as we can imagine him to be. But what shall we then say about libertarian freedom, which in the standard free-will defense places the primary responsibility for moral evil on us, and insulates God from our sinfulness? One option is simply to drop the idea of libertarianism, and opt for a completely different notion of human freedom. That was the reaction of Jonathan Edwards, who would never have accorded less than complete sovereignty to God, and whose version of free will is straightforward Lockean compatibilism.1 Compatibilist freedom is a conditional matter: I am free in acting just in case I would have done otherwise if some causal condition had been different—if, for example, I had chosen to behave differently, or if behaving differently had been my strongest desire. This kind of account permits both my action and the choice that led to it to have been determined, in which case they simply form part of the natural causal order. If that is all there is to free will, God can easily be complete master of the universe, as well as fully cognizant of all that occurs in it, for he can make the world a completely deterministic affair, in which all that will ever occur is fixed from the beginning in accordance with natural law.

 

6. Sin

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Traditional belief has it that God's providential care of the world is complete and meticulous: that each event in the history of creation is governed down to the finest detail by a completely loving and fully engaged Father, who wants only what is best for his creatures. If the previous chapter is correct, theists can uphold that belief and argue at the same time that rational creatures enjoy libertarian free will. We possess legitimate freedom as agents, but our actions remain entirely subject to God's will as creator. How, then, can he avoid implication in our wrongdoing? Indeed, why is he not what the Westminster Confession of Faith is at pains to deny: namely, the very “author or approver of sin,” and preeminently at fault for it? And even if it is possible to exonerate God from outright guilt in the matter, what could constitute a justification for the occurrence of sin? How can we possibly claim that it serves our good for God to will that we commit acts that are wrong? If, as it now appears, he could in fact have populated the universe according to J. L. Mackie's suggestion, with creatures none of whom would ever choose evil, why did he choose to do the exact opposite? Where is the love in a divine Father who involves all of his creatures in moral failure—some, as it appears, even to their eternal detriment? These are daunting questions, to which we should not assume our position as creatures will permit a completely satisfying answer. I think, however, that it is possible to make real progress with them.

 

7. Suffering

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An important aspect of the previous chapter is its emphasis on the fact that sinfulness, in the sense that involves moral blameworthiness, is first and foremost a characteristic of acts of will. This is not to say that culpability can properly be said to pertain only to decision and volition. Often, when we speak of sin we have in mind actions that are objectively forbidden: things like unjustified violence, drunkenness, dishonesty, abuse of authority, selfishness, and so forth. Such actions are certainly blameworthy in normal circumstances, and of course they extend beyond the will: they consist in bringing about actual harm in the world. But where such acts are sinful in the strong sense, the sense of being culpable, their sinfulness is derived from the acts of will upon which they are founded. Thus, the attitude of rebellion that attends sinful acts of will is at the bottom of all morally evil action, in the sense of “moral evil” that puts us at enmity with God. And we have seen that this attitude, the attitude of a sinful will, is defeated in the eventual destiny the sinner himself chooses—in his repentance or in his reprobation, as the case may be. But what of the harm done in the world? Sin in the objective sense, the sense that signifies an act forbidden by the moral law, typically involves such harm—most often to other persons—and that kind of evil is not defeated by the sinner's turning over a new leaf. Furthermore, we have yet to address the issue of natural evil, of evil that does not owe its origin to moral agency but rather arises through the normal operations of the physical and biological world. What kind of theodicy is possible on these fronts?

 

8. Divine Freedom

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There are at least two reasons for preferring a theology that seeks to maximize God's freedom in his activity as creator. From the point of view of the present project, perhaps the most pressing is that if God is not free, then neither are we. It was claimed in chapter 5 that even though their actions fall under God's sovereignty, rational agents still enjoy what deserves to be called libertarian freedom. This is so, it was argued, because God's act of willing that I choose as I do is related to my action not as nomic cause to effect, but as will to content. This relationship is too close to undo free will, because in it God's action is not an independent, determining condition of what I do. Rather, his creative fiat provides for the existence of my acts of will in a way that preserves all meaningful conditions of robust free choice. Suppose, however, that God's own will in this process is determined by extraneous circumstances. Perhaps there is some good he is compelled to choose, so that his own volition as to how creation will go is rendered unfree. If that were so, then the game would finally be lost as far as my own freedom is concerned. For on the model of chapter 5, my own decisions are locked up with God's as the content of his will as creator, so that anything which determines him determines me as well.

 

9. Creation and the Moral Order

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The account of the creator we have been developing is one of a God whose activity in making the universe is completely free and spontaneous, constrained by nothing and distinguished by total mastery over all that he creates. If such an account is correct, we should also expect that God will turn out to be the source of morality—of the rightness of what is right and the wrongness of what is wrong. If he is not—that is, if right and wrong have standing independent of God's will—his sovereignty will be diminished and our earlier argument for divine impeccability will be ruined. For if moral principles have standing independent of God's will, then presumably he, as a rational being, is bound by them just as we are, so that his conduct is subject to strictures not of his own making. Only if God's creative fiat is the source of the moral order can this result be avoided. That God should be the source of morality is also in keeping with the account of sin developed in chapter 6, according to which the crucial defining feature of wrongdoing is rebellion against God, from whose dictates the moral law takes its origin. This account would lose much of its force if it turned out that in issuing moral injunctions to us, God is only passing along information from some other source. Our rebellion in sinning would then be far less of a personal affront to God. It would finally be directed not against our creator, but only against an ideal—which, whatever its provenance and however important it may be, can never be more than an abstraction. Finally, if the principles that define right and wrong can be shown to issue from God, there may be an additional bonus: perhaps we will get help in dealing with the thorny problems that have plagued moral epistemology throughout the modern era.

 

10. Creation and the Conceptual Order

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In Chapters 8 and 9 we have seen two significant reasons for claiming that God is the creator not only of concrete entities and events that make up our world—things like trees, tornados, sunsets, and persons—but also of the natures of those things. First, such a claim is demanded if we are to hold that God truly creates the world, rather than simply manufacturing it from a plan that is not of his own making or is produced via some rote exercise on his part. Second, although there are good reasons for treating the injunctions of morality as commands that emanate from God, fending off charges of arbitrariness requires that those commands supervene on the nature of rational agents, and the relationships and circumstances in which they find themselves. If this is so then God can be the author of morality only if he is also the author of our nature, and the nature of all that surrounds us. But there is a third and much more important reason for holding such a view: if it is true, then not just the realm of the concrete but also that of the abstract owes whatever being it has to the creative activity of God. This furnishes a provenance for abstracta, whose origin is otherwise liable to have no accounting, and at the same time places God in a transcendent position even with respect to logical and mathematical reality—exactly what we should expect of an absolutely perfect being who is the foundation of all that is. In these final chapters, then, I wish to defend as fully as possible the claim that God is indeed the author of the natures of things—that is, what are usually called universals—along with the rest of what Alvin Plantinga has called the Platonic horde, the entire panoply of entities that compose conceptual reality. It is best to address this issue in two stages. The present chapter will focus on God's relationship to abstracta exemplified in the products of creation, and the implications of claiming they owe their being to him. Chapter 11 will take up the relationship between God and those properties exemplified in his own nature, about which special problems arise.

 

11. Divine Will and Divine Simplicity

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The primary purpose of this final chapter is to examine God's relationship as creator to those universals that characterize his own nature. In part, the motivation for so doing is simply to complete the task, begun in chapter 10, of determining the extent to which God can legitimately be held to be the creator of the of the conceptual order—that is, of universals, sets, propositions, and other abstracta. As regards those denizens of the Platonic realm that pertain to the divine nature this promises to be a tricky business. On the one hand, it would strain credibility to hold that although, as was argued in the last chapter, God does create those natures that pertain to creaturely reality, he depends for his own being on universals whose provenance is independent of his will. Such a dichotomy has an artificial ring. Moreover, to accept it would be to capitulate at last on the issue of God's complete sovereignty over all things, which we have thus far been able to defend. On the other hand, to portray God as in any way creatively disposed with respect to his own essence is to court the danger of making God self-creating, which is surely impossible. We need to discern whether a course between these extremes can be charted.

 

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